Your reputation is the collection of precedents – real or imagined – that other people associate with you.
Recent and memorable precedents count more, although even very old stories can continue to colour an organisation’s reputation generations later – especially if they feature in a Google search.
It could be the time your Chief Executive met with their most junior employees to discuss childcare arrangements, or the way your call centre staff reacted to a customer complaint. It could be something as trivial as sending an email with a typo in it.
Precedents set expectations
By setting precedents, you set expectations: that your organisation is trustworthy, ethical, and reliable – or untrustworthy, uncaring and incompetent. These expectations affect the way others interact with your organisation.
Take Ryanair for example. As a budget, “no frills” airline, they proudly set low expectations of customer care in exchange for an affordable price (if you were prepared for all the catches). Unlike Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific, most bad experiences with Ryanair were written off as par for the course.
Although Ryanair's insouciance seemed at the time like smart business, the reputation they created made them a popular target for politicians, regulators, and campaigners. It alienated consumers. Eventually, in 2013, they announced two profit warnings in the space of two months and share prices plummeted.
Ryanair has since switched successfully to a more customer-focused strategy, but its previous philosophy is likely to affect expectations for some time to come.
Reputation and influence are an organisation’s defence against political risk. They open doors, give you first sight of emerging problems, and widen the range of options when risk becomes reality. Political risk comes in all shapes and sizes: from local petitions to new laws and regulations to straight-up corruption.
(By the way, it is tempting to think that political risk mainly applies to crisis zones and non-democratic regimes. As a recent FT article said, however, “uncertainty is intrinsic to any democracy – UK plc must get used to it.”)
Reacting to crisis
When a crisis hits, the one thing you can be sure a successful organisation does notdo is stick its collective finger in the air and guess which way the wind is blowing. It already has some idea of where it stands – grounded in solid evidence.
The successful organisation accepts that precedents can be misattributed: that anyone can be a victim of prejudice, defamation, or misunderstanding. It has already spotted any half-truths which might have harmed its reputation, and decided how best to react.
An organisation cannot do that without an understanding of where those views originated, how they have spread, and why.
A wide audience
First, they have mapped out who their stakeholders are (their “stakeholder universe”). This could be a much wider audience than you might think. You would be amazed by how many people have an opinion about a brand with which they have had no direct interaction – and how willing they are to share it. Perceptions can be built on the flimsiest evidence.
As well as public and professional stakeholders, you also need to understand the views of policymakers (from local to national to supranational level), opinion formers, and – crucially – that stratum of engaged members of the public who mediate between the elite and the wider population.
In a modern democracy, influence may not be equal – but it has certainly been diffused. Grassroots campaigns can do as much damage to a company as a price-cutting competitor.
Second, successful organisations know which channels to monitor. Everyone needs to be aware of both traditional media stories and relevant social media trends. (The new ComRes Social Listening platform is designed especially for this purpose, and uses sophisticated predictive analytics to combine human insight with big data processing.)
But people do not always say publicly what they privately think. For a fly-on-the-wall perspective, you need to replicate the behind-closed-doors discussions that people have about you when you’re not there.
That means confidential and anonymous interviews, “Chatham House Rule” discussion groups, and independently conducted surveys. Specialist independent consultancies like ComRes can reach high-level audiences via telephone, face-to-face, and online, and discuss complex issues intelligently. Respondents are more likely to talk honestly about your organisation when you are not in the room watching.
Making sense of it all
Coffees, lunches, phone calls, media monitoring, customer feedback – these are all important parts of the engagement process.
But to really protect and improve your reputation, only a strategic programme of research independently conducted by a specialist provider will work. It guarantees you a much larger and more diverse dataset, designed to attract the full range of views, and properly analysed by sector experts.
Pulling the disparate threads together is a complex task. ComRes employs inquisitive, creative thinkers who dig beneath the data to really get under the skin of your reputation. Our analytics suite is tailored specifically to the niche audiences and small-sample datasets that can characterise reputation research, and we partner with academic experts in social psychology to uncover subconscious associations and prejudices.
In the end, it might not tell you what you want to hear – but successful organisations are more interested in what they need to hear.
Do you know your reputation? What precedents have you set?