On Communications: Reputation on the line

Achieving a good reputation is a process of accumulation, stability and endurance, and the CEO is responsible.

by Tom Kowaleski, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

A great debate in reputation management circles has always been about what constitute its most critical elements. Is it built solely on the numbers, products and services, or the right elements in the image-building mix, such as strategic vision, quality, responsibility and culture, or managerial experience and talent? What about management? Does the reputation responsibility extend to the entire management team, the most charismatic member or only the leader?

If it is the last, is this one responsibility too many for a CEO to carry, in addition to setting the course and strategy, maintaining critical constituent relationships, inspiring team performance and watching for the inevitable surprises along the road to success? Or, is one of the most important CEO roles that of 'chief reputation officer'?

This is an interesting debate because there is no single right answer.

Today's corporate world is filled with enterprises of reputation excellence with seemingly few common CEO traits. There are those where the leader is all but invisible and those where they are seemingly everywhere at the same time. We continually read about whether the big personality CEO is in or out. We see companies succeed and fail with both types.

"It isn't about charisma or magazine covers, but about good, hard work being done at the company every day and the need for recognition," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick Communications.

So are there any reputation common denominators to the leader's role?

Yes, there probably are. First, leaders understand that reputations are built over time, rather than over a year or two of high visibility or success. Although this is essential to creating an image, it can fluctuate quickly with market conditions, trends or major changes to a company's fortunes. Achieving an enviable reputation is a process of accumulation, stability and endurance.

Google is a prime example. Is it 'hot'? You bet. Does it have a great image? Yes. Is its leadership seen as visionary? Yes again. But does it have a great reputation? Well, not so fast. All the signs point in this direction. Its track record for innovation, seeing around the next critical corner and having an unbeatable combination of scale and speed is impressive.

But it still needs time. At GM, I attended a session with Google founder Larry Page and some of his management team on their vision of a new world of web-based advertising. There was no boasting that they had found the holy grail and no claim of revolutionising the industry. Instead, they wanted to know what GM thought of their direction and whether we saw it as a value in our business.

Second, leaders of companies with excellent reputations understand their personal importance in the mix and treat it as an ongoing campaign, not an action to be turned on and off with the fortunes of business performance.

They do not shirk from it and they are not afraid to show their power of persuasion to some critical constituencies.

If one looks deeply, the odds are that the successful leader has a vocal body of supporters who appreciate the vision, values, expectations and strategic direction. The most critical of these supporters are the major shareholders, but these can also be employees, business partners and key influencers in the financial or industry community. These groups carry a significant voice that keeps the leader solidly at the forefront of reputation-building.

Third, these leaders know and engage in hitting the critical balance of rational and emotional words and actions. In today's hard-driven business world of data and numbers, it's surprising how many times this mixture is out of sync. Often, there's the feeling that they can't be bothered by the soft side. Gaines-Ross says: "It's critical to have a sense of optimism and look on the bright side, and the leader is the one person everyone looks to to do this." These elements set the vision that the numbers and data support. These are the motivators and when in balance create a beautiful harmony.

Finally, CEOs know that reputation underpinnings are built and sustained locally in every corner of the world where the company operates. In this age of global communications, no CEO can allow or tolerate a slip in values or operating principles. One can spend millions on disaster relief for a major catastrophe, but turning a blind eye to a seemingly small and isolated environmental lapse in one facility in a remote part of the world can undo all the good of the big project.

We all know reputations matter in this world. They enable the leap of faith that has to be taken by new customers or investors. They help existing ones feel comfortable that they made the right decision. They are important to the quality and value of the stock. They are an invaluable aid to capturing the best and brightest of employees. The formation and stewardship of them is a major responsibility of the CEO.

Tom Kowaleski is head of communications consultancy actk2. He was vice-president of global communications at General Motors before retiring in March 2006

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