MT Round-table: Can reputation be rebuilt after recession?

After the crash, trust in capitalism plummeted. Can it be rebuilt? MT asked a panel of experts....

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Matthew Gwyther - During the course of the Noughties, the reputation of business seemed to be fairly high - certainly among the broader public who might not have shown an interest or felt that positive before. TV programmes such as Dragons' Den and the Alan Sugar soap opera were right up there in the ratings, and people were genuinely taking an interest in it - they were curious about entrepreneurialism. And, of course, we lived in an age of irrational exuberance.

Then came the crash, and all the indicators suggest that the reputation of business is in quite a bad way at the moment. The Edelman Trust Barometer survey results at Davos this year were pretty dismal - not much more than half the people polled expressed much confidence and trust in business.

Clearly, when you experience a recession, people will feel unsettled and insecure. They are worried about their jobs, and perhaps they blame the downturn on business generally. But how much of that blame are people laying at the door of the world of financial services, and how much is the fault of the broader capitalist system itself, which has been booming and busting since the start of time?

Chris Salt, partner, HeadLand Consulting - Well, I am not sure if trust was ever that great in the first place. I think what has maybe changed is that there has been a death of deference. So now people are much more willing, open and more effective in voicing their antipathy towards many institutions: we can see this certainly in politics and also business.

The greatest challenge we have, as when dealing with clients, is getting them to actually engage. They must confront the question of whether they are going to let other people manage their reputation, or are they going to manage it themselves?

Frankly, lots of corporates, large or small, often lay low and hope to get through difficulty and maybe get away with it. There are exceptions. Whatever, for example, you think about what is happening with Barclays, John Varley and Bob Diamond have pushed and managed their own agenda. You might not like what they say, but they have not shied away from explaining that this is what they're doing. They've put their case. But the challenge is actually getting people to do that.

Luke Johnson, chairman, Risk Capital Partners The financial services industry does have a huge reputational crisis, which is, to a degree, deserved. I think the idea that it is 'a service' is often completely absent. It is oligopolistic and there are many profound flaws in the way it exacts its toll. The fact that so many of its members have an implicit taxpayer guarantee has been revealed.

Business has suffered, partly because, in the modern age, everyone wants someone and something to blame. Business is to blame that 'I've lost my job' or 'the company's gone bust'. Some of that is perhaps justified; a lot of it is not. It's very difficult to restore a damaged reputation, except through succeeding on various levels. That means, for stakeholders and shareholders, delivering that which over the past couple of hundred of years, since industrial capitalism was invented, they have been better at providing than anything else: the living standards and technology we enjoy.

I think there is more of an argument to be made now - which I do in my FT column - for capitalism and the market. Thinktanks, individuals, institutions, organisations and trade bodies have to go out there and make the point that this idea that government will save us with deficit spending and taxpayer bailouts is complete nonsense.

Matthew Gwyther - OK, Luke, what if the worst thing happens and you got the job of corporate affairs at Goldman Sachs tomorrow? How would you go about trying to repair what has happened to that organisation? Rightly or wrongly, they are now becoming almost a dirty word.

Luke Johnson - Ah, the vampire squid. I think, actually, if you work at Goldman Sachs, you do not give a flying whatsit. Now, I take a slightly different view to life: you do not necessarily want people to read: 'Well, he died rich but he was a shit.' That is what I found out about partners of Goldman Sachs - they take that brutal view of life. At the end of the day, they are hugely clever, very successful.

Personally, I would never do business with them in my life. Good luck to them. They play by the rules, they play within the law, but their involvement with Greece or with AIG somehow creates problems.

I am very cynical about them, I'm afraid. I would love to think that the damage to their reputation will cause them much more harm than it does, but I think they are so powerful, clever, efficient and good at what they do that they are almost as powerful as government.

Ken Lambden, head of equities, Schroders - To date, the financial services sector has not handled things very well. One of the problems is its great diversity. Investment banking gets lumped together with some of the more - dare I say? - boring aspects of wealth management and the like. This makes the message a little bit more difficult to tackle, because you do not want to be seen as defending yourself against something you never saw yourself as being a part of.

But if you do put your head above the parapet, the risk is that if you do not handle the message very well, you are seen as joining that part of the industry that has supposedly let society down.

Charlotte Crosswell, president, Nasdaq OMX Europe - Ken has a point there. In financial services, you never, ever try to pick on your colleagues, because you never quite know what is going to come back to bite you.

A lot of this comes down to politics. In the UK, there is an election due, so it is very easy to start feeding blame. But at the moment, it is the rest of the UK that is suffering; and, of course, it is London and its financial services that are causing all the suffering. There are a few more taxis available, but when you walk round the City of London or Canary Wharf you do not see a huge impact, really.

Outside of London, stores are closing down and everybody knows someone who has lost their job. In financial services, you know someone who has lost their job and they have managed to move to another one.

Professor Stephen Lee, formerly of Henley Management College - I have tried to study reputation, trust and confidence for the past 12 years. When I talk to business- people, there is a strong sense that something must be done, but not such a strong sense about what exactly it is that must be done. People are not sure of their starting point, and that is often a big problem with issues of reputation. It's a multi-faceted thing. Does it matter that we are not liked, as long as we continue to deliver?

And also the interplay between trust, competence and reputation is about character. It is about values and how the values get translated into behaviours. Trust is important to that.

People use 'trust' and 'confidence' as interchangeable terms, but, actually, in term of behaviour for consumers, they are often opposites. If you confuse them, consumers get confused and then reputation itself starts to drop, and it is very, very hard for a sector or an industry to build trust.

It can build confidence - it is about controls and behaviours and business practices and mechanics of things and regulation. But trust is always immediate; it is between an organisation and a group of managers and whoever the target audience is.

It is much, much harder for a City body to say: 'We are going to increase the trust in the City.' Do people trust the City? Does it matter? I am not convinced that they do or that it does. People must have confidence in the City.

Matthew Gwyther - Is this a Generation Y problem? David, you have kids in their teens.

A lot of young people coming out of university and into the job market are finding it extraordinarily tough. Is there a risk that the generation coming up will have a jaundiced view of business generally and the world of work? They feel that it has turned its back on them.

David Mann, MD management consulting, Accenture UK - Yes, although they have the benefit of youth, so they feel optimistic about life in general. Of course, they do take knocks, because if you study hard for a degree and end up not being able to get any work in the area you have chosen to study and that goes on for eight, nine, 10 and up to 12 months, that can be very depressing for them; and getting a bar job just to try to make ends meet - that is not fair. I have been there too, but I am not sure that is entirely different from any other time.

If you look back to any other downturn in the economy, you end up with a lot of the same thing. Yes, the trust has taken a battering in some sectors, and of course they have been very vocal. Companies do need to address trust, but they need to do so at individual levels, be talking to their people. You do not need to be out there talking to the media and getting across a big story about what your industry is contributing, although I think there is some misunderstanding among some of the community about what business does contribute.

We have to be talking to employees, to a small micro-set, people like the students coming through; the next generation have very different expectations than we have on what they need from a career.

Stephen Lee At Henley, where I've been researching, we, like every other business school, looked around the Far East, and we are deluged now in India and China by 22-year-olds who want their MBA - they want to be on the ball and they want to be great managers. You have to say to these people: 'You cannot teach great management, it is about judgment.'

The people I have met who have a great reputation have been people who at key entrepreneurial points - key points of risk - exhibit great judgment. Underlying that good judgment is: what is the purpose? Why are you doing that in the first place? Is it just about mechanics or is there a broader purpose? And can we embed that into how we promote ourselves in public relations, and put how we develop our stakeholder relationships all on one basis?

If we can, hopefully a more positive reputation starts to ensue. But to just fight it on a public relations basis is a very, very difficult thing from a reputation point of view, because people have become more cynical.

Matthew Gwyther - David, a lot of flak has been pumped at the whole MBA machine in the last few years. Business schools get blamed for churning out people lacking in any ethical sense. Do you think that is in any way justified?

David Mann - I have no evidence to suggest that is correct. And I do have an MBA. Among the students we employ from a broad range of educational backgrounds, there is no evidence that they have been taught not to be ethical in their behaviour. In fact, most of those schools have made a very confident and substantial contribution to business ethics and making sure their students all understand it; because, at the end of the day, you will not succeed in business unless you have a good, strong moral compass and understand how to use it to guide your behaviour on a daily basis.

Luke Johnson - I think that is a nice myth. I do not buy it. I am for ever reading that people think the most important thing is behaving honestly. The number of senior people one meets who actually you think are monsters is disturbingly high - no names mentioned.

But, seriously, some recent events worry me. You look at one of the world's largest com- panies in market cap, Toyota, and now it is having a huge PR crisis...

What is amazing about this is that I have not heard of any deaths at all, expect perhaps one in America. But this company has been eviscerated.

I do wonder if we citizens of the Western world are expecting too much from organisations. If we want our pensions to grow, and if we want full employment and if we want the good-value products and so forth that capitalism can bring, if we are just going to shake our fist at capitalism and be totally unforgiving, there are consequences for us as consumers and as employees.

I spent an hour last night depressing myself by reading an article in the New York Times about how the corps of long-term unemployed is becoming a real crisis now in America, unlike other recessions. In America, what one forgets is that, beyond employment, there is no safety net. This article was saying that the current structural changes are creating millions and millions more permanently unemployed people - far more than previous downturns. There were 600 or so online responses, of which at least half would have been from people who have been affected.

You realise that business is not just about employers making profit, it is about employees who depend on those companies; and when companies downsize and shut down, there are true stories of middle-class people who have lost their home; who have nothing, who are right on the edge.

I can well imagine that in business, the fabric of the system in America has frayed a bit more than here because: a, the various goings-on in the financial services, I would argue, are much worse there than here; and b, they have always had this higher standing, business has always been embraced, and the attitude to it positive. Maybe they have gone back to our level now.

Matthew Gwyther - Toyota's problem is devastating because it built the company on the twin pillars of quality and reliability. It topped the tables such as JD Power for years. Management drank their Kaizen Kool Aid: the whole process was constantly refined and they did things better and better. Or so they believed.

I suppose the ultimate goal was that they would have the perfect car at the end of it - one with no carbon footprint and one that would go on for ever. That was why, for them, it must be unbelievably painful.

They may have fouled up the PR, but they are not like Fiat in the 1970s, when you bought one and it did fall apart within weeks or rusted into a pile of iron oxide.

Toyotas are not Fix It Again Tonys, but the reputation of the company has suffered a terrible blow, as it got hit by a whirlwind of massive over-reaction.

Chris Salt - Don't you think that trust only comes back when organisations - whether small or large businesses - actually start doing the right things? People trust behaviour rather than what they are told. Reputation is probably much too important to be left to people in communication, including myself. We can help in some way, but reputation is going to be at the heart of management, the centre of what companies do.

Organisations have to behave, be seen to behave and not just to parrot platitudes. Because of all this, if organisations behave in a way in which they bring economic growth by pulling along stakeholders, that will be a good thing.

There is at least a temporal balance of short and long-term issues. Reputation seems to be very much a longer-term, strategic matter. While you can lose it immediately, it takes a goodly period of time building up a consistent behaviour, through making and keeping a promise. If, therefore, you set that business model up so that everything is rewarded in the short term, rather than leaving it to the long term - as happens within some parts of financial services - it is not surprising that you get behaviours that are not consistent with building positive reputation. Actually, you end up with a negative reputation.

THE PANEL

Charlotte Crosswell, president, Nasdaq OMX Europe

Luke Johnson, chairman, Risk Capital Partners

Chris Salt, Founding partner, HeadLand Communications Consultants

Professor Stephen Lee, reputation expert

David Mann, MD management consulting, Accenture UK

Ken Lambden, head of equities, Schroders

Matthew Gwyther, editor, Management Today

 

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