‘Paese che vai…usanza che trovi’, can this ancient Italian adage, saying that each country has its own ways of doing things, be paraphrased by saying: each country has its own reputation. Really?Here follows a brief recap -albeit in a much wider context- of the major takeaways I received from last weeks’ London conference on ‘enhancing Britain reputation’ (see previous posts) organized by The Management School.
It appears clear that this ‘country reputation fad’ is quickly gaining momentum. One first, admittedly superficial, impression is that –similar to the late eighties when the term reputation was invented by public relations agencies to distract corporate attention from the increasingly negative public perception of the then widely abused term of ‘image’, and subsequently consolidated as a ‘serious’, ‘academic’ and ‘management’ function, mostly by Charles Fombrun, that intelligent, creative and magnificent ‘corporate audience’ performer- this time, public relations agencies in conjunction with their design, marketing, advertising and promotional cousins- are intensely lobbying to convince governments and public sector organizations in every country that they are able to manage and increase international reputation in order to gain competitive advantage in the attraction of investments, tourism, major world events and talents: the sum of which appears today to be one of the world’s richest economic sectors.
A true bonanza! But, from our profession’s point of view, is this not mostly a bubble? And, if so, what risks do we run by failing to conceptualize this fad and responsibly caution our stakeholders (caveat emptor)? Let’s review recent events: °Edelman launched some some years ago a country index (wisely called trust barometer with a moderate use of the term reputation and always accompanied, for reasons we will see, by the term relationships), followed by Weber Shandwick, Ketchum, more recently Cohn & Wolfe, and just about every other single global pr brand.
°the World Bank is reported to have opened consultation with high level professionals to understand if a developing country’s reputation might be used as an indicator to differentiate loans.
°Condoleeza Rice and Karen Hughes have convened 100 plus corporate pr leaders to discuss ways to improve US reputation world wide.
°The Management School in London has organized a summit on Enhancing Britain’s Reputation, also in preparation of the 2012 Olympics.
°Just about in every Country (Italy included, by the way..) public relations is making its way into the public sector, or joint public-private sector initiatives which imply huge investments in branding and communication processes.
Every ‘caveat’ (watch out!) coming from serious scholars, professionals or analysts is looked upon by the ‘industry’ as an attempt to hinder the growth of the practice.
May we please take a second look and review this situation?
The concepts of reputation, and the related one of reputational capital of any organization (corporate, public sector or social) raises some strictly managerial questions:
°over the years we have all learned recite the mantra ‘you can destroy reputation in a minute but it takes a long time to create it’. Can we think again? Is this not an oxymoron? Organizations known for generations of mismanagement, faux pas and just plain blunders, are often able to maintain an acceptable reputation and brand equity. It is what some define as reputation inertia… One example might be American Express. A company superbly managed in the late seventies and eighties, then mismanaged for at least another decade, but still maintaining a strong reputation. Another, more close to my home, is the Bank of Italy. Historically with a very strong reputation, collapsed in recent years and now recovering simply by a change of leadership parallel to a substantial change of mission….
On the other hand, organizations who do not necessarily score a solid reputation or brand equity can quickly increase this by exceptional performance in a very short time. One example is Johnson & Johnson, certainly not a mismanaged organization today but, at least within our community, highly praised for having handled the Tylenol case many, many years ago (now even that is being repeatedly questioned by Jack O’Dwyer..) and still capitalising on that event.. Another example of blitz in reputation building could be Google. How many blunders will it have to make before it begins to lose its aurea?
°in certain circumstances, as a manager, I could well decide to risk certain behaviours, which I am well aware may damage my reputation, because I am convinced that the benefits, if that behaviour produces desired results, outweigh the negatives. An example: I would prefer to lie to a stakeholder group about the specific consequence of an action I wish to undertake (the case was recently discussed in a PR Week discussion with professionals in London, which raised a lot of unnecessary noise in the pr blogosphere). I know very well that if I do that and other parties become aware of my lie, I will damage my reputation. However, I might assess that, even if that happens, the damage will not be devastating, or in some cases even turn into positive value. But how am I to assess this in a credible way? This is a relevant management dilemma, rather than debating on whether lying is ethically acceptable…of course it is not! But how many times may I do this? And, how and which indicators am I to use in order to evaluate which segment of my ‘reputational capital’ I am actually risking if I take such a decision, knowing very well that the consequences of my decision, by definition, are almost integrally situational?
°the only thing I do know is that 85% of reputation is behaviour and 15% is communication. But wait a minute! Even in this other ‘mantra’, is organizational communication not behaviour?
These thoughts….only to express that by analysing and monitoring the state of my reputation, I learn very little which can help me improve it….
Ok! But then where do we turn?
Let’s take another line of thought…
Say that you decide that communication activities of your organization are, generally, a tool to develop effective relationships with your influential publics. Say that relationships are the overall aim of your public relations (in the sense of relationship with publics) efforts in stakeholder management, while your organization’s communicative behaviours contribute to determine your reputation by a mere 15%, so experts claim.
If you are a manager and are confronted by the dilemma: ‘should I focus on improving my reputation or my relationship systems?’ it would appear evident that the operative focus be on the relationship variable, as it is certainly more influentiable by more than 15%. Correct?
This does in no way imply that reputation is not important…. it is! But if your role is to mix your competences and resources to improve that reputation, you are much better off focusing on the relationship variable for at least two very good reasons:
a- a relationship is construed both on performance and communication (even admitting they arer two different animals);
b- the variables which evaluate a relationship and allow you -the professional public relations manager- to identify areas of needed improvement, are much more governable than those which characterize a reputation. Only to briefly recap: trust in the relationship, commitment to the relationship, satisfaction in the relationship and perception of the power distance in the relationship- are the indicators in which a sum of four perceptions are required from the two parties of the relationship, i.e. how one side perceives those four indicators from its point of view; how it perceives the other party perception of those same indicators; and viceversa).
To sum it up, and hoping that others will wish to express their points of view…..it is important for our profession to approach these issues with great care in order to avoid, in some cases even involuntarily, contributing to the inflation of a market bubble which would only, short of an immediate increase of our incomes -deriving from those spin contents related to the so called ‘reputation management fad’- end up actually damaging, yes!, the very reputation of our profession. Your views?