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Greg Power is president and chief executive officer of Weber Shandwick Canada, a PR, marketing and communications firm.

Most people quote Warren Buffett when they talk about corporate reputation: “Twenty years to build and five minutes to ruin it.” But recent research suggests we should also consider Joni Mitchell’s wise words: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.”

Reputation is one of the most powerful drivers of business success. Before COVID-19 transformed our working lives, a Weber Shandwick survey of global executives attributed 63 per cent of their company’s market value to its overall reputation. It also said Canadian business leaders showed a somewhat lagging appreciation of the risks and rewards associated with reputation.

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Compared to the global average, Canadian executives were 12 percentage points less likely to say the company’s reputation is a priority to the board, and 10 percentage points less likely to say they are monitoring or measuring reputation.

The data clearly shows that a significant “reputation gap” exists and Canadian executives do not place the same priority on reputation as their global peers. But in today’s high-stakes environment, a focus on reputation has never been more critical.

As business leaders adjust to the impacts of COVID-19, they must be ready for increased reputational scrutiny. Where and how a brand shows up, how it communicates and the actions it takes will be analyzed with more care during this crisis.

It’s critical to think of how your actions today will affect your company’s reputation tomorrow. While factors such as customer service and financial performance remain relevant to business performance, today’s reputation drivers are far more rooted in the recency effect of a company’s reaction to COVID-19. Have its actions made people safer? Is it helping vulnerable communities? Is it putting people before profit?

Brands that step up and take meaningful and impactful action will be rewarded in the long run, and those who are opportunistic or put lives at risk will face serious reputational damage.

As we navigate this crisis, here are key principles every leader should be following to safeguard their company’s reputation and, more importantly, to do the right thing:

Put health and safety first

The primary focus of leaders should continue to be on the well-being of their employees and contributing to public safety. Demonstrating care and control in this rapidly evolving environment must be the first priority.

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In the early days of COVID-19’s spread across Canada, the focus was on the steps essential businesses were taking to keep employees safe. As the country now charts a course back to work, businesses must decide when and how to safely and responsibly reopen, and all companies will be judged by the measures they take to safeguard the health of their employees and customers.

Actions speak louder than words

As well-intentioned updates repeating many of the same assurances stack up in inboxes, brands must guard against message fatigue. Messages of hope and optimism are important, but this is a time to demonstrate clearly how you are helping.

Your reputation won’t be shaped solely by what you said during this crisis, but instead, by whether you followed through with action. When Canadians look back to this time, your company will be judged by whether you helped solve a societal problem, made people feel safer or appreciated, or saved lives.

Create lasting change for the better

The acute nature of this crisis has led to swift action by many companies, including monetary donations, new business models, retooled supply chains and the adoption of new policies and safety measures to support workers.

Leaders must now ensure that these are not flashes in the pan, but rather lasting changes.

Coming out of the crisis, reputations will be affected by whether a business made changes that transformed society for the better, or were temporary responses for some quick positive PR. A focus on sustainability and responsibility for the long term will be core drivers of reputation as a result of the pandemic.

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Be ready for what’s next

While we hope the worst is behind us, the reputational ramifications of COVID-19 are far from over. As the pandemic continues, it is critical to make plans that can help you anticipate new and re-emerging challenges, as well as further opportunities to show you are listening to your public, engaging with their concerns and taking action when it matters most.

The COVID-19 crisis is an enormous disruption of the status quo, which opens the door to new thinking by the public about whom they trust and admire as corporate leaders. It is a moment of fluidity where building a reputation as a driver of business success has never been a bigger priority.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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