Last week, three high-profile men in broadcast news were fired. On the same day and with little fanfare.
Don Lemon, the news anchor who was fired from CNN, took to Twitter to announce it, stating they didn’t even have the decency to do it themselves; they did it through his manager.
Whether or not that’s true—and whether or not you agree with how it was done—the fact of the matter is that the way the brand reputation game is played has changed.
It used to be that someone like that was fired, and it was a story on the 5:00 news, and that was that. If someone were upset with something a company did, they’d send a letter to the CEO and most likely never get a response. If you hated a certain brand, you might tell your neighbors and friends, but it didn’t go further.
Today, though? People can make up downright lies, post them on social media, and watch them catch on. If they don’t like your organization for whatever reason, they will tell the entire world from their social media pulpit. And, whether or not it’s true, people will listen.
The 2023 USC Global Communications Report has just been released, and it’s all about reputation, which has always been the purview of our industry. We’ve had a few wrenches thrown at us in recent years—social purpose, activism, polarization, a pandemic, and more.
It finds that, in 2023, PR professionals are devoting an increasing amount of time and energy to building and protecting the reputations of their companies and their clients. That job has never been more important or more challenging because the rules of the game have changed—forcing us to think about brand reputation in a new way.
Managing Brand Reputation Today
In simpler times, corporate reputation was determined by a small number of stakeholders who were familiar with the organization’s strategy, management, and performance. Consumers didn’t have easy access to information about the businesses that produced the products they purchased. Employees only protested the policies that affected them, and when that happened, it rarely became public knowledge. Investors were satisfied as long as the company maintained profitable growth.
Today, consumers are making more demands, employees are more vocal, and investors are scrutinizing every aspect of a company’s behavior. Corporate reputation has become the determining factor for the products they buy, the jobs they choose, and the stocks they invest in.
The USC report says, “Managing this new reputation is like solving a Rubik’s Cube. Every move is connected to another. Changing the squares on one side of the cube affects the squares on another side. Each turn either moves you closer to a solution or farther away.”
How Do We Measure It?
In all of our work—building brand awareness, creating thought leadership, generating leads, storytelling, and more—reputation is probably the most important but the least valued by executives. After all, you can’t directly measure it.
And now we are being asked to also communicate a brand’s corporate values in an inclusive and not reactive way. This is part of our brand reputation strategy—one some executives aren’t comfortable with yet but understand the importance of—and the majority of consumers, employees, and investors agree that companies have a significant responsibility to address the social issues affecting their stakeholders.
Even still, some are placing increasing focus on the role and importance social purpose plays in shaping and sustaining a company’s reputation. For some, taking a stand or action on social issues has become woven into their corporate DNA. Others are wary of potential negative reactions from stakeholders. And most still want to know how to measure it.
There Are Proven Tangible Benefits
Brand reputation reminds me of one of my favorite Warren Buffett quotes where he says, “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless.”
He understands the value of reputation even though it can’t directly be measured to cold, hard cash. And he understands that it takes a lifetime to build and a second to lose. But how do we convince our bosses or clients that this should be their focus when their investors put immense pressure on them to sell more and make more profit?
A litany of studies affirms that tangible benefits accrue to companies building and maintaining robust positive reputations. Proven benefits include improving financial performance, attracting and retaining top talent, driving purchase and investment decisions, and sustaining a company’s permission to operate.
But what about the dollar? How do we measure it to making more money? It’s this weird dichotomy we’re in—we know how important it is and that it’s not a set it and forget it activity, yet almost no one wants to invest in it.
So what are we to do?
Business Performance Is Important
The USC report asked consumers, investors, and employees some of the most important factors in building confidence and loyalty among the groups. In some cases, communicators did not accurately predict what each deem important—including measurement of brand reputation.
All three groups are similar in more ways than most people would expect. All of them view business performance as the primary driver of reputation-based decision-making: what products to buy, where to work, and where to invest. And within that category, they all agree that a strategic vision for the future is more important than quarterly earnings and stock price.
Corporate culture is also very important to current employees, but not as much as business performance.
Not as much as business performance.
While it makes sense that investors and the C-suite would place business performance as the highest indicator of brand reputation, communicators thought culture is more important to employees.
We could not be more wrong. Employees also chose business performance as the most important indicator of brand reputation. After all, if the business isn’t performing well, the chance of layoffs increases. It’s smart for employees to consider this as they think about their careers, especially when inflation remains high, a recession is still looming, and seemingly every day, there is another massive tech layoff.
And yet, we still have the thorn in our side that brand reputation is not measured directly to business performance.
Ensure Your Brand’s Reputation
There are six things we can do to ensure brand reputation is still handled appropriately while providing the evidence executives need to continue to invest in it.
- Showcase research and data like the USC study that proves reputation’s importance in decision-making—from investors and employees to consumers and other stakeholders. And, when building reputation for your brand, make sure you’re discussing business performance, however it is pertinent to the organization. For instance, Wall Street businesses can speak specific numbers and stock prices, while Main Street businesses may want to speak in percentages. But show that the business is doing well.
- Continue to beat the social purpose drum. This is incredibly important for reputation and will continue to grow. It is driven primarily by the sustainability of products and services and commitment to important causes.
- Corporate culture continues to be important, so build the brand’s reputation around ethics, transparency, and accountability. More so, even, than diversity and workplace flexibility. (More on that in a second.)
- Reviews should be a top priority in your comms plans because employees, investors, and consumers say they are the primary driver of reputation. This suggests a paradigm shift for PR professionals, who traditionally focus more heavily on media and influencers, which all audiences ranked much lower in importance to them. Independent rankings are also very influential in building a reputation through communications.
- ESG is important but doesn’t need to be a top priority yet because consumers and employees are not very familiar with the term. Both groups do see its potential as a means of influencing what products they buy and where they work. It will require education and probably regulation for ESG to inform their decision-making. This means you can spend your communications time on education with the purpose of it affecting decisions in the future.
- Gen Z is going to upend everything you know today. Eighty percent of those under the age of 30 agree that business has a responsibility to address societal problems. When it comes to corporate reputation, they rank social purpose at the top. In that category, they place greater value on a company’s commitment to causes and their positions on social issues than on the sustainability of their products, which was the choice of the older generations. This is something to keep in mind as you build your comms plans.
There is a lot to think about, and certainly, the roadmap is constantly evolving, but the moral of the story is that if you rely on data instead of stereotypes and value insights over instincts, your brand reputation work will have the effect it’s intended and executives will continue to invest in it.