Thursday, 17 January 2008

Reputationovski - now there's a challenge

So Christmas is finally over, the tree (now bald) has found its way into the garden to appear sad and forgotten until Easter when it'll finally find its way to the local refuse site. But in the wonderful world of international relations, there's no let up in the horn-locking that goes on between the countries of this fair world of ours.

So the latest contestants in the ring are Britain and Russia who appear to have dusted off an old copy of Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (look it up on YouTube) and are trying to bring it into the 21st Century. In a bizarre turn of events, the Russian authorities decided to wade into one of the British diplomatic offices in Moscow and....err....close it down. Now the British Foreign Secretary is claiming that the dispute will "hurt Russia's reputation".

Now, correct me if I'm wrong Mr M, but precisely what would that reputation be ? I do feel that people in the public eye, and this extends to the popular press too, are all too quick to play the reputation card, almost like everyone walks round with a reputation rating inscribed on their foreheads ("I'm better than you" - that sort of thing). Sure, there are cases where an objective appraisal of reputation would result in a broad consensus that reputation is either good or bad (usually the latter) but that's almost impossible to do with a country. It's just too complex and contains far too many dimensions to make such a statement meaningful and, further more, is more or less meaningless since it is impossible to convert it into any sort of tangible value because it's so hard to compare it to anything.

So Russia's reputation is on the slide ? So what.

I'm often asked in my line of work how you can contextualise reputation, and the honest answer is that you have to boil it down to aspects of personality (corporate or personal - doesn't matter) that matter to the reputation in question. And those aspects can only really come from the person or corporation themselves. It's not for the humble likes of you or I to decide that a company should be carbon neutral, for example. That needs to be the company's decision.

I intend to step this one up a level and start a comparison of the reputations of planets. Or trees. Or lamp posts. Or politicians....

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Waiter, there's some data in my soup

OK, firstly an apology for being rather quiet on my blog recently. Christmas and work seem to be conspiring against me. But something in the press really fired me into action.

It actually started when one of my colleagues at work asked me to write a piece on "best practices in data management" (stop yawning at the back...). It's a topic I know well having worked for many years in data-centric environments. But as I wrote my epic it occurred to me that some of the fundamentals around data, and in particular data privacy, are more grounded in individual awareness than they are in corporate protocols or policy making. When it comes down to it, in today's world people just simply need to be more aware of data, what it means to them, and what they need to do about helping it remain in the right hands. Data is simply part of life now, in the same way as food, water or The Archers.

The recent debacles in the UK around losing sensitive data really do illustrate this point very, very well. Clearly, those involved have little awareness of what data means and how it needs to be protected or, quite simply, they would never have done what they did. If you asked them whether they would be happy posting the entire contents of their wallet - cash and cards - in an unrecorded letter then I would be amazed if anyone would say yes. But because data is a big mish-mash of text and numbers (usually sitting on a rather dull looking CD-ROM) then somehow people completely miss the value of it. It's obviously too intangible for most people to get their heads around. Yet, as I say, data is simply part of everyone's life now. We've opened Pandora's Data Box and we should just get our heads around what it means. And that means you, me and everyone else need to understand that data is both important and valuable, especially where it relates directly to us. And, in many respects, it is potentially even more valuable than cash and cards.

Now where did I put that envelope.....

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Gordon Bean

There comes a time in the lifespan of a reputation where you must consider cutting your losses. PR gurus wax lyrical about their Phoenix-building expertise and how even the most damaged of reputations can be revived with a bit of effort. But even those in the lofty heights of PR land must be wringing their hands about poor old Gordon Brown.

It must have come as a bit of a shock to the House yesterday when Vince Cable compared Gordon Brown (the Prime Minister of one of the richest countries in the Western world, don't forget) to Mr Bean. More particularly, he noted Brown's "remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean". Now, apart from that being a bit of a blunt insult, it does reflect a more serious undercurrent that Brown is a bumbling and inept fool, a view being held by an increasing proportion of the population.

Is this a lost cause ? I think not. Sure, he's had a bit of a rough ride of late but in the grand scheme of things its no worse than some of the japes that Blair was involved in, and certainly hasn't cost the country anywhere near as much as the whole Iraq debacle. Furthermore, people - journalists especially - have very short memories, conveniently forgetting how strongly Brown managed the economy for quite a number of years.

If I was Johnny Spin in charge of Brown's reputation, I'd be doing everything I can to build up his profile in the areas in which he is unquestionably strong, and let the tabloids do their short-term thing coming up with new and innovative Bean-esque headlines. There'll soon be something else to feed their vitriol allowing Brown to get on with the job. Just ask Steve Mclaren....

Friday, 16 November 2007

Alphabetti Spaghetti Job Titles

I remember when I started out in my career that the whole existence of the "Chief-Something-Officer" just didn't really hit the radar. Everything was about "Directors", with the epitome of one's career being the "Managing Director". How times change, heavily influenced (yet again) from our illustrious friends from across the pond. From the Chief Executive Officer stable came Financial and Marketing variants, closely followed by Information and Knowledge. Then banks came out with a Risk variant, post-911.

Now, hot on the heels of the sub-prime credit crunch comes the Chief Reputation Officer at Merrill Lynch. Fabulous. How do you write a job description for that one ?

What is most important to understand is what the very existence of such a role says about the company employing such a nebulous executive. Is it effectively saying that everyone else doesn't need to worry about reputation because Johnny PR has it all covered ? I firmly believe that, in today's online world, it is everyone's responsibility to defend a company's reputation, not just the senior management or, in this case, the CRO. But in a world where CSR is becoming such a hot topic, why shouldn't there be an equivalent and equally important initiative around Corporate Reputation ? Surely it's in everyone's interests to elevate and maintain a respectable and moral reputation for today's corporations. And it is the acts of the masses that can make a difference, not poor old Mr CRO at Merrill Lynch.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Raising The Stakes In Your Next Career Move

In today's world of online job searching sites it is more likely that your next board position will not be posted anywhere, with The Sunday Times being perhaps the most obvious exception

"We now live in a world where data proliferates online at an unprecedented rate."

Senior positions are the realm of that nebulous and often misunderstood world of 'Search and Select'. Those in the search business rely on deep-rooted networks of senior contacts to recommend, coerce and hopefully poach their candidate from their current position, often for substantial fees.

There are a number of criteria on which they base their judgement as to whether they have the right candidate. A major factor is familiarity of the market, of the movers and shakers in that industry and of people who can reach likely candidates. Reputation, or at least public perception of the candidate's successes, becomes very relevant. This will be backed up by an appropriately worded CV, interviews and possible background checks.

Traditional background checks for very senior appointments tend not to look very deeply, largely because the candidate is almost certainly well known in his sphere of business already. But we now live in a world where data proliferates online at an unprecedented rate and social commentary about everyone and everything is becoming commonplace.


Search firms are now turning increasingly to the online world as a valuable source of information to add 'colour' to a prospective candidate’s background, with this interrogation of data, especially across social media, providing dimensions to an applicant’s character that previously would have been unseen.

Data may reveal how staff regarded them, competence as a public speaker and leadership skills. Someone may even use today’s blogsphere to reveal other, more revealing information. Such issues may be addressed and search firms find this very interesting.

But this should not be interpreted as the portent of doom, nor should the budding chief executive fear this data backdrop. It is simply a reflection of the world we live in today; a world where people's willingness to capture their thoughts, beliefs and frustrations are ever-more frequent. We have truly opened Pandora's Box in allowing everyman to express their views online so now we should simply engage in that environment, understand it and use it to our advantage where possible.

"Social commentary about everyone and everything is becoming commonplace."

So what should a proactive CEO do? To quote an old cliché, be prepared: know what people are saying about you and know which of them matter. Whether you set up a few simple Google Alerts, or engage an external reputation monitoring service for your business, you need to have an early warning system that allows you to be the first to know when a potentially damaging story comes out. If needed, the usual PR and corporate governance processes can kick in to represent your side. Make sure you are transparent and responsive.


But before one of these stories emerge, make sure you know which are the influential writers and which can be quietly ignored – be they traditional journalists or bloggers. Carry out an audit of all the traditional and online media in your industry, keeping a list of the top ten or 20 most influential. If one of them mentions you or your company, pay attention and respond if appropriate. But remember that your top 20 may change each week.

For the more web-savvy, you can respond via a corporate or CEO blog. however this is not for everyone. Some people are not natural writers and others run the risk of their blogs looking too edited or sanitised and therefore not the natural views of the writer.

Whichever method of communication you are most comfortable with, engaging your customers and employees early on is the best way to avoid an avalanche of criticism - and potentially losing that great job.

This article was first published in Chief Executive Magazine, a reprint of which can be found here.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The long and winding road

How many people remember Gerald Ratner ? Anyone who does probably remembers him for one thing - the fact that he very publicly destroyed the Ratner brand, literally overnight.

The Sunday Times published an excerpt from his forthcoming book, which is the story of the circumstances of this quite astounding corporate suicide, and what happened next. What is quite interesting is Ratner's observation that, 16 years on, the ridicule he suffered still hurts. Well, that hurt is certainly something that he'll live with for the rest of his life, but what about his reputation ? There have certainly been some phenomenal bounce-backs from public ridicule in recent years. Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer and Neil Hamilton (OK, maybe not) spring to mind, but in all cases they were the brand, and it was their public reputation that was under threat. This is wholly different, because it involves gaining the public's trust to buy your products. And when the very person who gave his name to the brand says they are rubbish, and furthermore that the buying public are idiots if they buy there again, there can really only be one outcome.

I have to admit that I have only read the Times article, not the whole book (yet - it comes out on 1st November) so can't really comment much further than that, but I wonder whether there are some cases where damaged reputations are just irretrievable. Or whether the public's memory of what happened is such that, 16 years on, their memories of what happened are substantially less than Mr Ratner himself. Perhaps his book can shed some light on that answer to that, but given his Ratner Online site doesn't appear to be challenging Ernest Jones or H Samuel (the brands that Ratners turned into when Ratner was ejected from the board), the evidence would suggest not.

For those that want to read the article, click here.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Reputation on the line

The CEO blog is a well-established phenomenon in the US, with up to 70% of large companies having one. And their UK counterparts are catching up. Blogging, for those not yet in the know, is the internet equivalent of writing a diary, but with each entry being available to millions of readers.

The online world is undergoing a revolution, fuelled by consumer-driven-content sites such as MySpace and YouTube, which allow users to post their videos, pictures and views. Where the internet was once all about downloading, we are now seeing a culture shift and people are creating data like never before.


"A recent survey showed that 94% of consumers value opinion as highly as advertising."

This new world of online opinion – also known as 'citizen journalism' – is changing how individuals interact with companies and their brands, and how they purchase and form perceptions. And traditional PR and marketing urgently need to adapt to this emerging trend. A recent survey showed that 94% of consumers value opinion as highly as advertising when selecting products.

Ultimately, this is shaping how reputations are built, altered, improved or destroyed. While corporate reputation is becoming an essential component of success, the online effect of public opinion can create worldwide fame and notoriety in a matter of minutes, and can destroy a brand in a matter of days.

So, even if you don't 'live' in the world of blogs or have never visited a chat room, you can't afford to ignore them. There is no 'truth checker'. Blogs can be anonymous – and dangerous.


This phenomenon isn't limited to the under-25s. It was estimated that by the end of 2006, 70% of large companies in the US had an official blog, often contributed to, if not owned by, the CEO. But is the CEO blog a valuable part of the citizen journalism phenomenon? And, more importantly, is it a valuable part of a company's PR or marketing strategy?

A well-regarded blog is an immensely powerful vehicle for the marketer, providing candid and succinct views on topics of the day to a large audience, and at very little cost. However, this can be diluted when the originator is a CEO. People are more willing to trust their peers than corporate leaders. And herein lies the problem. While CEOs are increasingly feeling a need to take part in the blogosphere, their very existence calls into question their objectiveness, which is a founding principle of blogs.

Most companies have corporate communications policies and programmes that are carefully monitored, and corporate blogs are therefore perceived by many as being as controlled and biased as formal corporate marketing. The blog's subject matter and tone can be just as problematic, as CEOs bear the expectation that their communications should cover serious industry issues.


So, does this polarised approach to corporate blogs have a material impact on the reputation of either the CEO or the corporation he or she represents? The answer is a resounding yes, but not necessarily because of the information contained in the blog itself.

"People are more willing to trust their peers than corporate leaders."

Blogs spawn commentary, opinion and views from those that consume them. And the background chatter can be as potentially damaging as the breaking of a corporate scandal.

The CEO considering contributing to a corporate blog should carefully consider its impact on company reputation, as the desire to use it as another marketing channel could seriously damage the very opinions that the CEO is attempting to augment.

Your reputation is your most valuable asset. It can take years to build and seconds to destroy. Don't let citizen journalism put it at risk.

(This article was first published in Chief Executive Officer magazine on 22nd September 2007)