Businesses need to earn public trust, and it can easily be lost. How can communicators rally their companies or clients to address this new reality, and how will we know if we’re successful?
“My good opinion once lost is lost forever.” - Jane Austin
Although 200 years old, this famous line still rings true in the world of modern brand communications.
Brand reputation, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It sits in the collective judgements and feelings of a broad set of stakeholders, including consumers, who are more informed, demanding and sceptical than ever. Indirect stakeholders, such as local communities and activist groups, also have a growing influence thanks to the democratisation of communication.
It's clear organisations no longer hold the same control over their reputations as they used to. Not only are they subject to more groups of stakeholders by default, but they also face heightened scrutiny 24/7 with the proliferation of new media technologies and outlets, along with the emergence of social media platforms. Mix in the current climate of mistrust — where misleading and inflammatory content is given equal billing with genuine news in social feeds — and a reputation that has taken decades to build can be torn apart in just minutes.
It’s simply too unpredictable for organisations to adopt the reactive posture of reputation “management.” As communicators, we would only be setting up the brands we safeguard for a fall.
Instead, we should work towards a consistent and recognisable long-term effort: that of building reputation resilience. Coined by Deloitte, this framework urges organisations to consider reputation in the full business context and channel resources to actions that align with their corporate values. This stems from the position that investing in reputation is about more than winning hearts and minds; it must deliver tangible outcomes to the business. In doing so, reputation becomes more than just a vulnerability to manage, and a critical asset that can drive the business forward and engender public trust.
One good example is the popular Swedish oat milk brand, Oatly. Well-known for its vision-first approach to branding, it applies the same level of rigour to earning public trust underpinned by a resilient reputation built on the pillars of sustainability, transparency and authenticity.
These key values shine through consistently in all its brand communications, offline and online. The company declares the climate impact of its products on its packaging and website, detailing how it’s derived and verified by leading researchers on food and climate change. Over and above its annual sustainability reports, it also publishes its chief sustainability officer’s “to-do list” to emphasise the brand’s commitment through actions and not just words.
Agency-side consultants too can play a crucial role in earning public trust for the brands they represent. It all boils down to quality counsel. Would this campaign or initiative, and its resulting communications, represent genuine goodwill? Or are they merely virtue signalling to create a superficially positive appearance?
This external counsel can be indisputably impactful. Agency-side consultants can bring fresh perspectives to the table and, most importantly, are objective experts not influenced by internal biases about what’s new or special. They can help their clients think big or home in on ideas, brand image and voice, the focus of their messaging, the mediums where they’re active, thought leadership strategy, and more, to ensure their client’s presence and positioning truly stands out.
For instance, we at Allison+Partners work with a digital platform that saw its use skyrocket exponentially as people stayed at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the trust crisis in Big Tech in recent years, we knew our client would soon be placed under a microscope due to its far-reaching impact and influence. How it communicated its response to such scrutiny could make or break this newly formed public trust.
Moving beyond mere awareness building, our team worked collaboratively with our client to begin setting the foundation for reputation resilience. We adopted an “outside-in” radar to stay in step with public attitudes and engaged in consistent efforts to highlight the positive human impact of the platform, such as connecting users amidst increasing isolation. We seized the golden opportunity for more community bonding events — educational livestreams, music performances, webinars and so forth — to lift people's spirits during trying times and counselled on impactful COVID-19 relief efforts.
However, reputation at present remains a somewhat intangible concept. Even the most sophisticated of organisations have only a fuzzy idea of measuring their success in this aspect.
With data-driven decision making impacting various aspects of businesses, Allison+Partners increasingly sees more clients that recognise the importance of melding the art of communications with the science of measurement. They've moved away from “vanity” metrics (such as advertising value and PR value) to assess coverage through the lens of PR impact, derived from allocating points to priority metrics like key message pull-through, media verticals, tone of voice and more. Another resource brands can tap on are the Barcelona Principles, which outline steps to evaluate communications activity in a meaningful and relevant manner.
Moreover, like any asset, reputation should be measured and understood in the context of a company’s business goals — and to do just that, communications need to have an equal seat at the executive table. As front lines to the public, we communicators can offer instant insight into stakeholder perception, steer brands away from potential crises and add valuable input to any planning process.
We can also take it a step further by implementing corporate reputation surveys to not only measure and track permanent shifts in stakeholder perceptions but deliver strategic insights that tackle future reputation challenges.
Only one thing is certain: Cultivating a good reputation takes time, consistency and patience. It's not about a quick win or going viral, but more about being consistent and clear about your corporate values, backed by action and continued progress.
Simone graduated with a Bachelor of Business Management from Singapore Management University and kick-started her PR career as a professional intern at A+P. She has since worked with a variety of clients. In her current role, she is part of a dynamic team that conceptualises and implements successful public relations campaigns for consumer, corporate and tech accounts.