Reputation management needs to go on the offensive

Companies need to shake off their timidity and take a position on issues, and it's our job to give clients the confidence to do so, writes Lansons CEO Tony Langham.

If businesses don’t stand up to be counted, they risk much more than their reputation, warns Tony Langham
If businesses don’t stand up to be counted, they risk much more than their reputation, warns Tony Langham

I have spent most of my weekends this year thinking and writing about reputation.

I blame the PRCA and ICCO for commissioning me to write their handbook on reputation management, due to be published later this year.

Since you ask, I believe that reputation management is the future of corporate comms and public relations.

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When I’ve told people, the overwhelming majority have assumed that the book is about crisis management.

Boards of major companies see far more downsides in a corporate crisis handled badly than they see upsides in a creative opportunity handled well. CCOs are more likely to be fired for screwing up a crisis than missing a creative open goal.

And those of us in the agency world know the big accounts mostly come from a Deepwater Horizon situation.

The danger is that this becomes the future of our industry; that we come to see reputation management as lawyers do, as reputation protection, or as insurers do, as risk mitigation.

This is already the case for many City PRs handling a company’s financial results. This can mean two months of intense planning followed by a 'results day' hiding by the phone hoping no one rings to ask about the CEO’s long-term incentive plans.

This wouldn’t matter if business was popular, but it isn’t.

The business sector is behind society’s expectations on so many agendas, including gender pay, BAME, LGBTI, sustainability, ethics, taxation and inequality. Business is seen to take too much and not give enough back. And brand CEO has hit rock bottom. Everyone has seen them singing "we're in the money" or heard about them going to a brothel on company expenses or trying to bribe a politician to help their client win an election.

All of this has reinforced the defensive feeling in the boardroom. As a result, in Britain, Europe and the US, corporations are gripped by a new timidity. And who can blame them – put your head above the parapet and it might get blown off.

But I suspect that this timidity won’t work and that it’s our job as reputation managers to explain why.

Millennials and their older siblings want to understand why a business exists. They want to know its purpose and what it stands for. They want to see corporate citizens that play their part in the community.

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If businesses don’t stand up and be counted, they risk much more than their reputation. They risk the failure of the liberal democratic capitalism most of us have decided is the best system.

The timidity of business is leaving the debating floor open to capitalism detractors. And this won’t be reversed until more CEOs speak up and take a position on the big issues.

The reputation manager of the future has to explain to the CEO why taking a position is in his or her long-term best interest.

We need to be able to explain that a thought-through social purpose (or just wonderfully funny) campaign can be the best risk/reward option. And as professionals, we need to avoid becoming a cross between a lawyer and an insurance underwriter.

Tony Langham is chief executive and co-founder of Lansons

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