Books: Your most priceless asset

A distinctive US journalistic style shines through this engrossing book on how to protect a corporate reputation and the consequence of a bad one, says Colin Byrne.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Putting the finishing touches to this review in an airport lounge, I caught sight of a leading article in the Financial Times on the latest dubious business practice scandal, headed 'The Mounting Costs of Reputational Risk'. When a business observer such as the FT uses headlines such as this, you know that corporate reputation management is now core business thinking, no longer the snake oil and esoteric theories of consultants and business academics.

As a, ahem, consultant with a firm that helped develop much of the thinking on reputation management in the 1980s and '90s, I often start presentations with that awful phrase 'this isn't rocket science'. Sadly, many books on the subject have pretended it is just that, leading to the cynicism you still see in the eyes of some executives when the issue is broached.

This book sets out by stating that reputation management is not an exact science at all, but rather an art with definite guiding principles (18, according to the author). I agree with him. You can take two firms, ask them to do similar things in relation to their stakeholders, and one could still dip below the radar screen, while the other is kicked in the nuts by activist groups and the Guardian.

Given that this is the work of Ronald Alsop, editor and senior writer on the Wall Street Journal, it is unashamedly American in its focus and that distinctive US journalistic style shines through. Chapter 1's opening is typical: 'As Bill Margaritis drove back to Fed Ex Corporation's headquarters after lunch, his stomach grew queasy. It wasn't a reaction to the spicy calamari he orders whenever he dines at Memphis's Pacific Rim restaurant. He had just answered his cell phone ...' More Patricia Cornwell than Patience Wheatcroft.

However, I was attracted to this all the more because it was written by a business journalist and not a business boffin. Alsop's approach is good stories, interestingly told in support of commonsense propositions.

It's a practical handbook, not a dull management textbook, and all the more welcome at a time when corporate reputations are under ever more public scrutiny.

This is also a business book with a wry sense of humour and a journalist's sharp eye for details. In the chapter 'Live your values and ethics', Alsop reflects on Enron's downfall with a sardonic poke at an ethics code that gives, as he puts it, new meaning to the phrase 'empty words': 'We want to be proud of Enron and to know that it enjoys a reputation for fairness and honesty and that is respected ... Let's keep that reputation high ... Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here.' Yeah, right.

Alsop offers the little gem that the Smithsonian Institute has immortalised this work of pithy corporate communication by acquiring the Enron ethics code for its collection of historical American memorabilia.

The truth is that for some of this book, we cynical Brits will have to suspend judgment on the seemingly OTT language and paternalistic tactics of the US firms he quotes approvingly as good practice. One vision statement he cites gushes: 'We demand integrity. Our people come first. We take great care of our customers.' This from a company we know for making okay-ish takeaway pizzas. 'And, comrades, tractor production is up again this month,' I want to cry in response.

That aside, this is one of the more readable business books I've read, and one of the most practical and interesting on the subject of corporate reputation management. It is crammed full of good, well-explained case studies, research and interviews, all contextualised in chapters geared to each of Alsop's 18 'immutable laws' of reputation. He puts the key issues of CSR and community relations into context alongside the many other attributes of a well-tended corporate reputation. Being not just post-Enron but post-Jack Welch, his book touches on the role of 'The Charismatic CEO' but does not overplay it.

Although recent history (from 11 September to the fall of Enron and the rise of Sarbanes-Oxley) clearly colours the book and helps give it contemporary, fresh and 'live' appeal, Alsop is at pains to point out that he planned the book before the recent corporate abuses came to light. Indeed, his notes and files had to be recovered from the debris of the WSJ's offices, a stone's throw from Ground Zero, weeks before Enron filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2001.

This book serves as a well-signposted roadmap for anyone interested in understanding and protecting a company's most priceless asset. Alsop explains, with the credibility of a seasoned and keen business observer, the benefits of a good reputation and the consequences of a bad one. This book has certainly settled my choice for client Christmas gift this year.

- Colin Byrne is chief executive of Weber Shandwick UK & Ireland

The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation

Ronald J Alsop

Kogan Page £17.99

MT price £15.99

To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

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