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The reputation economy: Is your business walking the walk?

22nd Sep 2013
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In an age where information travels at warp speed – with social media recording it, magnifying it and spreading it worldwide – one careless decision or action can damage a company’s reputation in a matter of hours. Companies with the strongest reputations fare better in this hyper-connected world. So how can you embrace social media to your advantage, and harness their power to enhance your brand, rather than shy away from them and live in fear of that single negative tweet that sparks a ‘digital wildfire’?

Although the strength for your company's reputation today lies in the hands of your customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders, you have the ability to influence their thinking. Your actions, and those of everyone within your company, are the most powerful tool a business has (in addition to a great product or service, of course) in building a positive reputation.

Reputation-building goes far beyond 'likes', tweets and posts. And I believe strongly that before a company even thinks about communicating, it needs to look at its core values, its desired reputation and the behaviour of employees at every level of the business. Can you confidently say that your company’s actions are in line with your stated core values? When a discrepancy between these two things arises, it leaves your business vulnerable.

Here’s a recent example. Last week, a well-known technology journalist had an issue when travelling with Delta Airlines. She has nearly one million Twitter followers. She reached out to Delta’s Twitter support to address the issue and the subsequent conversation unfolded in a very public way.

Interestingly, as it became clear that she was having trouble getting where she needed to be, four competitor airlines all reached out to see if there was anything they could do to help. But the action appeared to stop there. For any of those brands – all of which cite a commitment to customer service as a core value (in their own words) – there was a ready-made opportunity to take action.

For the cost of a flight, the airline that could get the journalist from A to B would have been seen by at least a million people as the business that had a human face and saved the day. But taking a decision to spend potentially thousands of dollars, in an instant, takes authority. I suspect that these well-established businesses simply don’t have the processes in place to support that sort of decision-making. And as a result, it makes them look like they’re all talk – the intention is there, but not the action to back it up.

As a starting point, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is everyone in the business – from the person answering the phones to the person leading the company – clear about what the company’s desired reputation is?
  • Can you list five actions taken by you or other team members, in the last week, that wholly reinforce that reputation?
  • If so, how have you ‘merchandised’ those actions? Are they acknowledged and praised internally? Have they been visible to the outside world (on social media, for example?)
  • Do you know what people are saying about your business or your industry online?
  • Have you got a plan in place in the event of an unexpected crisis that begins to spread over digital media?
  • Who’s responsible for your company’s reputation (the single, named person)?

Old-fashioned thinking

Old-fashioned thinking might be the greatest threat to corporate reputation in the next few years, but it also has the capacity to build your business in a positive way. Let me explain. Taking the time to look at your business from the inside out, and ensure that you have the systems and processes in place to be the business you want to be is a good thing. Don’t be pressurised by the incessant need to respond instantaneously, to be seen to be ‘all-present’ on social media or to build the most creative digital campaigns.

Take the time to understand your audience, really acknowledge whether your business can give them what they need, and make adjustments accordingly. Then figure out how to communicate consistently, with a voice that’s authentic to your business and with the specific intention to ‘walk the walk’ not just ‘talk the talk’.

There is one non-negotiable, though: the ability to listen. For any business I believe it is critical that you are listening to what is being said on social media platforms about your brand, your competitors and your industry. How can you expect to influence reputation if you don’t know what it is? If there’s one action to take today, this is one. There are plenty of social media monitoring services out there and you can tailor the depth of information you receive as well as the frequency with which you receive it. In my opinion, especially for time-pressed executives, less is more. Choose the three things you most want to know about. These might be:

  1. What is being said about you – at the highest level, is it generally positive, negative or neutral?
  2. Who are the top five most influential people on social media when it comes to your industry?
  3. Red flags – are there any issues ‘bubbling under’ that could pose a threat to your reputation?

Reputational risk

Reputational risk has always been important, but the advent of social media has catapulted the topic to the top of the agenda in boardrooms around the world. This is simply a result of the speed and breadth at which information can spread these days.

Risks may arise from external events, from process or operational failures or from security breaches, to name just three examples. The point is, it is important to understand where the reputational risk lies for your own company, and that you take steps to mitigate it where possible, or have a plan in place to handle issues should they arise.

If reputation is traditionally built upon the pillars of behaviour, trust and employee engagement, this seems a natural place to start:

  • Are your employees fully aware of the role they have to play in building a positive reputation?
  • Are they happy and willing ambassadors for your brand?
  • Do your employees, customers and suppliers trust you? How do you know?

When you are confident that you have a strong reputational focus, and the company behaviour to back it up, consistent communication (online and off) will be the lever that really helps drive your business.

The good news is that if you’ve put the right foundations in place, the communications plan should evolve quite naturally. Whatever it is that you want to be known for is what you communicate about: not necessarily ‘telling’ people, but demonstrating through your actions what matters most to you as a company.

Not every company will need a social media plan. However, I’ve yet to meet a company that says talking to customers isn’t important. If customers are using social media – whether it's Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or any other platform – you should be too.

A good business will be listening and responding to its customers, wherever they are.

Jennifer Janson is managing director at Six Degrees.

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