Reputation for sale: why PR people need to think more like doctors and less like accountants

When it comes to our health, we know that we cannot balance out bad habits with good ones. If you drink too much alcohol then you may get liver disease, no matter how often you go to the gym. Eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is great, but you will probably still get fat if you also eat pizza and chips every night.

With our finances it is different. If I overspend on nights out with friends this month then I might compensate by cutting back on the amount I was going to spend on new clothes. At the end of the month my bank balance will be the same no matter how I split my spending. This is because money is what’s known as ‘fungible’ – the pound coin I have in my hand is the same as the one in my bank account and I can replace one with the other with my wealth staying the same.

So which is your reputation most like – your health or your wealth?

The language commonly used to talk about reputation would certainly suggest it is seen as more akin to wealth. How many times have we heard or said the phrase “a company’s reputation is its most valuable asset”?  An ‘asset’ can simply mean something ‘useful or valuable’ but is more commonly thought of as something that someone ‘owns or controls’. This leads to the notion of reputation ‘capital’. Reputation is something that can be quantified and valued.

The danger in using financial terms such as these is that people start to think of their reputation as a series of bank accounts. It doesn’t matter if my reputation goes down in one area as I can just top it up in another and have the same total result.

Unfortunately this is not how reputations work. Just as in health, good behaviours do not necessarily cancel out bad ones. Your company’s overall reputation can be as strong and healthy as you like but that won’t stop something bad from making it very ill indeed. We need to think of reputation less as something you ‘own’ and more as something you ‘are’.

So how can we start using the language of health rather than accountancy to think about how we maintain and build reputations? Just as there are three main ways for a person to keep healthy, we can use the same approach to keep reputationally healthy.

Keep fit

Just as eating well and exercising regularly are steps everyone should take to keep fit, there are steps that all companies should take to keep reputationally fit. Treating employees and customers fairly, paying taxes on time and communicating regularly with investors are just some examples of behaviours companies should always be doing and can be tracked and measured.

Vaccinate

No one knows when they’re going to get ill but we can predict what might make us so. Every year the NHS creates a flu jab to prevent against what it believes are likely to be the most prevalent and dangerous flu strains that winter.

The same approach applies to reputation where there are predictable issues that could affect a company’s reputation. These may change regularly but can be foreseen and therefore pre-emptive actions taken to mitigate any danger. For example, all companies should be aware that data protection is an increasingly important issue and can vaccinate themselves against reputational damage by reviewing their data security, having a crisis plan in place and also starting to tell positive stories now about how they manage data. Similarly, all large companies should be aware of the scrutiny they may come under when data about how quickly they pay suppliers is first published in April 2016.

Medicate

Unfortunately, no matter how fit you are and how many vaccinations you have, you can still get ill and that illness can be fatal. The only way to fight this is to identify an illness early and to medicate it. For a company, this is where issues and crisis management comes in. Reputational illnesses need to be identified and treated quickly before they develop into something much worse that can damage the health of the whole company. These illnesses cannot be predicted but a company can have a plan in place for how it will assess and treat them when they occur.

Matt Battersby

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search