Interrogative on Reputation

Resolving the differences between brands and corporate reputations might seem about as important as deciding how many angels fit on the head of a pin, but confusion over definitions is a chronic drag on corporate communicators.

For sake of argument:

Brands are made up of the experiential or emotional benefits that businesses attach to their products or services via marketing communications. It’s a future value, or “intangible” that reveals itself when you ask stakeholders what they think about it. It represents your hope that your stakeholders will, one day, choose you over your competitors based on what you’ve said to them.

Reputations are made up of the judgements and actions businesses earn by their performance via operational behaviors. It’s a present value, or “tangible” that reveals itself in purchase price premiums, happier and more loyal employees, better borrowing rates, longevity of stock ownership, and other objectively real attributes. It represents your stakeholders’ expectation that, today, they’ll choose you over your competitors based on what you’ve done for them.

If branding is the outcome of what a company says, reputation is the result of what it does. Marketers promote branded content and corporate communicators share components of reputations (when stakeholders can’t or don’t experience them directly).

As such, I would argue that we PR types should get a lot closer to reputations and not get distracted or sidetracked by branding. Here are three questions that might help bring such an approach into focus:

First, do you know that you can’t control reputation? Unlike branding, which can be creatively decided on a PowerPoint slide and literally bought with marketing funds (isn’t it interesting that the entries on every list of the “greatest” brands usually correlates with the largest marketing budgets?), reputation emerges from every point (and every moment) in the life of your business. It’s an endless list of experiential outcomes that add up to stakeholder conclusions.

Your delivery truck cut off another driver when making a turn. Your investor relations folks have a habit of talking down earnings expectations every quarter. One employee is an irascible idiot to his vendors, and another one is a saint to hers. New products tend to come from your research folks more regularly than others, and they sell better, too. Your CEO talks in bland tautologies that he thinks are visionary.

Reputation is synonymous with truth, however imperfectly or subjectively understood. At least it’s what your stakeholders have decided is true, and that means they’ve purposefully or unconsciously compared what they expected and what you delivered. Their conclusions underlie their next decision(s) related to your business.

This has interesting implications for what PR people can and should do. For instance, any promise that you could somehow “manage” it is either naive or disingenuous. It’s far more important to be the voice of reason for your leadership and internal stakeholders on the reality of reputation and what they can do to impact it.

Second, are you focused on the right risks? Reputational risk is the delta between what your stakeholders know about your business and what the truth might be, so unawareness or misunderstanding are your enemies.

Your corporate video declares your commitment to saving the planet from climate change but your activities don’t match up (and it was unreasonable to presume to make a major contribution anyway). Your actual employment practices don’t embody your official policy (and more glossy propaganda) on worker and workplace conditions. You bury your privacy policy in dense mouseprint so your customers aren’t aware of how aggressively you monetize their data. Your branding claims leadership and uniqueness but your performance is pedestrian and your offering is generic.

At some point, people will discover the truth and punish you for it, so your goal should be to minimize these risks.

How? By making every effort to reflect and respect reality in your communications content. Is your announcement really the best thing since sliced bread? What about acknowledging the context in which you operate, not to mention the obvious questions that will be obviously asked the moment you reveal whatever it is you’re doing?

Transparency and disclosure aren’t just buzzwords when it comes to reputation, but rather the methods by which truth is revealed. Reputation is recognizing that you’re having actual conversations with your stakeholders, not simply promoting content for them to consume.

If there’s something that they’d find surprising if they discovered it, chances are you should figure out how to share it with them sooner versus later. If a critic will denigrate your use of the calendar, perhaps you should note it proactively. Issues that are too complicated to be reduced to simple positions should be described with the nuance they deserve; conversely, when it’s painful to be clear on things that are painfully clear, provide clarity.

Third, do you know how to measure reputation? In a sentence, look to operations for reputation metrics and not media or survey results.

If only opinions were enough; the various measures of sentiment or “share of voice” make for great graphics but they have little to no causal connection to what people actually do, and it’s where the branding people make their case. Instead, consider looking at operational efficacy for the outcomes of reputation (so don’t try to measure “it” as much as its effects).

Companies with good reputations should spend less money trying to sell stuff and have supply chains that are more impervious to disruptions than others. They might retain employees longer, and at less outright cost, as well as attract better talent than the competition. A good reputation could mean that vendors and suppliers provide more liberal terms, and are higher quality than not. There’s no good off-the-shelf model for these metrics, perhaps because no agency wants to live and die by actual results, so you can come up with a model of the performance indicators you want to influence and then work backwards to your content development for ways to do it.

Ultimately, making clearer distinctions between brands and reputations will benefit both communicators and the companies for which they work.

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm a writer, musician, and science junkie.