Reputation Management: Where Perception is Truth

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Success does not happen overnight, but failure often does.  Critical moments for business and other organizations will never go away, thus the effort to control negative situations continues to become more sophisticated.  “Reputation Management” is the newest buzz phrase in the public relations field and for those of us long involved in crisis management, this new phrase seems likely to stick.

In fact, among those who maintain a practice in crisis management, it appears that what we have been doing all along is really Reputation Management.  The reason for this new and more intensive focus is simple: A good image is a terrible thing to lose!  It has been said that 30 years of hard work can be destroyed in just 30 seconds.

Is it possible that Reputation Management has become the dominant force in public relations?  A strong case can be made for that point of view.  PR is evolving into Reputation Management for a number of reasons.

First, this new phase should attract more attention from top management.  Presidents and CEOs don’t like to think about potential crisis situations.  For many executives, a crisis is something that happens to someone else.  It is a distant thought that can quickly be relegated to the back of the mind, replaced by concern for profit and productivity.  So, the phrase “crisis management” may not sell well at the top, but every executive must be concerned about the reputation of the company or organization.  Reputation Management is now a major focus of public relations because it speaks more clearly to the higher echelon.

Second, more and more organizations are facing situations that have real potential for harming their reputations.  As a PR discipline, Reputation Management first became hot after the Enron/Anderson debacle and a plethora of other corporate embarrassments at the executive level.  Today, we have a major crisis and national media feeding frenzy almost every day.  And they have become much more bizarre and news worthy than those of the past.  Your reputation can be on the line through no fault of your own.  Who could have predicted Hurricane Katrina and the national mess it created?

How would you handle your part of a crisis such as 9/11 if your organization was directly affected?  What happens when “60 Minutes” calls following your anthrax or security scare, or your employees walkout because you won’t fire a Muslim employee?  What happens when your company turns up with an AIDS-infected employee in the cafeteria and most employees refuse to come to work?  Or when your company is bought by a Japanese firm and you hold a ceremony to announce it on December 7th?  Or, perhaps you operate a Catholic hospital which is opposed to abortion and one of your young doctors performs one anyway.   Most of these are cases I have dealt with during my years in crisis communication.  And in each case, the organization’s reputation was at stake.  Crisis management is a plan of action to be implemented quickly once a negative situation occurs.  Reputation Management is a strategy that is used all year long, utilizing a proactive approach and not concentrating only on crisis.

Finally, and probably most importantly, the media (especially at the local level, where you can be harmed the most) are concentrating more on these types of stories.  Most medium and large-market TV news departments and newspapers now have special teams to dig into consumer complaints and expose business foul-ups.  They salivate when stories like Martha Stewart or the priest abuse scandal show up.   Just listen to the 10 second TV news “teasers” that run before the evening news and you will get a feel for the new media focus on reputation issues.

Perception is reality.  And even though most executives do not like it, the media establishes the perception of your organization.  So, in this new public relations discipline of Reputation Management, dealing with the media in an organized, aggressive and timely fashion is mandatory.  All of my research indicates that Reputation Management is a trend rather than a fad in the public relations arena.  The reasons have been set out above but the philosophy is rather simple: Your image was not built in a day but it can be destroyed in one.

To my way of thinking, every CEO, company president and public relations executive should begin each day in a very basic way by looking in the mirror and repeating: “By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark.”