Graham McMillan, Open Road - Build a reputation that will last

Organisations must be seen to be living up to their core values, especially during tough times.

Are we big enough to admit that too often in our industry we deal with the symptoms of corporate reputation rather than focusing on the real drivers behind it?

Let's be honest. Press conferences, releases, media briefings, contact programmes, product launches, monitoring and evaluation are all important, but they do not on their own make or break corporate reputations.

Market and opinion research studies over time consistently show that the main factors driving corporate reputation are not how great your PR is, or how charismatic your CEO, how sexy your advertising or how much money you give to charity. (Charitable donations usually come last on the list of what influences views on corporate reputation and it is worth remembering that Enron and Northern Rock gave lots of money to charity.)

Instead, studies show the most fundamental drivers are quality of products and service, and how you treat your employees and other stakeholders.

This, of course, makes absolute sense. Corporate reputation is the aggregate of people's views derived from all of their interactions with you, whether that is through buying your product or service or hearing about you from others who work with or have direct dealings with you. What you pick up from the media (online or offline) is not as powerful as your first-hand experience or those of people you know and trust.

To this we should add corporate and financial integrity, honesty and trustworthiness. It is fairly self-evident that companies lacking in these areas can fall from grace in spectacular fashion.

Do we as communicators spend enough time and resource on working with our colleagues on quality of product, strong relationships with employees, engaging with stakeholders, treating them fairly and ensuring corporate honesty and integrity? Are we even equipped to do this, or to help others do this, properly?

Delivering these things effectively and having a major impact over the long term on corporate reputation depends on defining, distilling and delivering on your organisation's core values and living up to them even when the going gets tough.

Critics might say it is all very well talking about values, trustworthiness and behaviours, but does that really feed through into long-term corporate reputation and will it benefit the bottom line? Well, yes it will.

The evidence from a range of studies shows that, over the long term, companies with a strong association with values and strong relationships of trust with all their stakeholders maintain their success for far longer and are more successful financially by a range of measures. And values and ethos are not irrelevant in a recession.

In a recession, people want comfort. They like traditional brands and these have done well in the recession. In terms of corporate reputation, though, they want traditional values to come to the fore. They actively want to be reassured that the corporate brands with which they engage are following traditional values, being honest and trustworthy, understand their needs in a difficult time, and are doing their bit to make a positive difference.

Much to the surprise of the Marks & Spencer Plan A team, for example, the M&S marketing team, rather than wanting to cut advertising about Plan A in the recession, wanted to continue it, because M&S customers at a time of stress wanted reassurance that the company was living up to its values.

Consumers will not pay more for values in a recession. But they want to know they are still there. We need to focus more on making sure that corporate reputation really is built to last.

Views in brief

- How would you advise that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) tries to repair its reputation?

It should do an annual report to shareholders - that is, us taxpayers - showing how it is going to make sure it can pay the money back. All of RBS' communications and its approach to corporate responsibility must bear in mind the fact that we taxpayers own it. Over time, a combination of lending to UK businesses, restoring its balance sheet and eventual privatisation at a profit to the public purse should be all it focuses on.

Graham McMillan is chief executive of Open Road

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