Nothing is more vital to your company than its reputation, and this might be the year to confront that issue directly, forming a reputation steering committee. Such committees are promoted by Jennifer Janson, a Toronto native and managing director of Six Degrees Ltd., a consultancy in Reading, England.
You may agree with the importance of reputation but be hesitant to add any more bureaucracy. After all, you have marketing, public relations, and communications officials. Isn't that sufficient?
"Reputation management is different from traditional marketing and public relations. It's a more holistic view of your reputation – from how people answer the phones at your call centre, to how visitors are greeted by receptionists, to what people say about you on Twitter and Facebook, to what the media are saying about you," she explained in an interview.
Probably nobody is directly responsible for your reputation right now. You might counter that everyone is concerned about reputation but she argues that means nobody is actually accountable. Worse, a lot of people could sink your reputation, including that young intern you just brought in to handle social media and who is speaking for the company on Twitter and Facebook without any scrutiny.
She urges you to make one person accountable. It might be your chief risk officer or be inserted in the job description of a communications official. But whoever is chosen, that individual must have power to influence changes broadly, ensuring your operations aren't letting your reputation down.
Communications personnel don't usually have that authority. And chief risk officers tend to be preoccupied with compliance. So she suggests a chief reputation officer, someone who might become a "sparring partner" with the chief risk officer, opening the discussion of risk wider. If the company is considering shifting revenue between countries for tax purposes, for example, the reputation officer may have to remind everyone about the espoused corporate value of supporting local communities.
The reputation steering committee would include well-connected senior officials. In her book The Reputation Playbook, she outlines this agenda for your first meeting:
This can make your reputation soar or sink, as people come in contact with your organization. She suggests everyone identify an example within the past 10 to 30 days where core values were exemplified by individual and corporate behaviour. Then turn it around, with examples of worrisome or downright awful behaviour. Behaviour counts. Behaviour is where the risks are.
The committee then needs to identify the biggest issues within each area of the company that, if spread publicly, could damage the company's reputation. With broad representation from various arms of the organization, individuals will have solid knowledge of their own area and get a sense of what's happening elsewhere.
Ask each member whether they use social media and, if so, what applications. It's also helpful to know who else in the company is active in social media, since they are ambassadors on your behalf.
The communications representative should report on what is being said about the company online – what perceptions exist now.
Ask yourselves what behaviour and processes best support the organization's values and how you might use social media to amplify those. "Companies like to focus on differentiators. But they should look at behaviours and how those align with values. If you say customer service is a key value, but it takes three days to respond to an inquiry, that's not consistent with your values," she said in the interview.
Identify gaps between behaviour and values, and other issues that need to be addressed. Then assign responsibilities for follow-up to each member of the committee, so everyone feels some accountability.
A good reputation starts with the chief executive officer, who must exemplify corporate values. The corporate culture should support good financial performance as well as happy employees, because they are unhappy, their behaviour will reflect their dismay and corporate reputation will suffer.
She highlights the importance of social media, because damaging information can spread so quickly. One aggrieved person in the past might have told 10 others – now they can tell 10,000. There is nothing wrong with young people handling social media for the company – they tend to be adept at it – but the CEO and chief reputation officer should know what is being said and train the person so he or she understands the best way to handle the role. "In a sense, that young person is the CEO's mouthpiece on social media," she said.
Corporate reputation is not new. But companies are much more vulnerable these days, not just to angry customers but also to angry staff. So set up your reputation steering committee, and call its first meeting.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.