Your Reputation Precedes You – And What Does It say?

Someone meets you in person for the first time, and they say: “I’ve heard a lot about you.” What’s your instant reaction? “All good, I hope.” Often with a nervous giggle.

That, in a nutshell, is the current state of reputation management. As individuals and companies, we know that people think certain things about us. We may even want to change that reputation. But all too often, we don’t do much to manage the process, other than tell “good” stories about ourselves and hope like crazy that people forget the bad ones.

Problem is, today there are more people than ever judging your reputation. It used to be just your friends and family, or in the case of companies, customers and suppliers. Today, with social media and the internet culture all-pervasive, there’s no chance that your hell-raising university antics will remain confined to your old varsity mates who you never see anymore. It’s all out there, everyone can see it – and in the case of businesses, it’s getting steadily more negative.

That’s why it’s always interesting to see the results of studies like the Harris Poll Reputation Quotient, which measures corporate reputation for companies in the US, and delves into six dimensions that impact a company’s reputation and influence consumer behaviour. These dimensions are products and services, financial performance, workplace environment, social responsibility, vision and leadership, and emotional appeal.

Think about each dimension for a moment. Do you know how people see you in each area? Fact is, consumers have an opinion – and their message is clear: if you want my money, I want to know who you are, what you stand for, and that you’re trustworthy and transparent.

So what can companies do to start on the reputation management journey? Bottom line: the most admired companies are not only well managed. They align their communications strategies with two key things: their business strategies, and the needs of what we in the industry call “stakeholder audiences” – the various people whose opinion makes a difference to the way we are perceived.

Apple, which tops the list, is a great example. It doesn’t have the best, or the most, products. But years of telling people what it believes now see it rank first in areas like financial performance, products and services, vision and leadership, and workplace environment. On the other hand, Hewlett Packard is a great company, but its reputation is feeling the pinch in areas like ethics and vision and leadership.

Can reputation be improved, or even turned around? Absolutely. But it takes a clear strategy, a bit of time and the realisation that reputation is not something that gets managed through a once-off corporate image campaign. It’s all about engaging your stakeholders, telling them what you stand for and where you’re headed, and taking them along for the ride.