I spoke on a panel one week ago organized by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) in Connecticut. The topic was “Can They Really Say That About Me?” I was joined by terrific panelists….John Hines of Clark Hill (Online Reputation: Legal Perspective), Polly Wood of Reputation.com (Protecting Your Online Reputation), Dr. Pamela Newman of Aon‘s Newman Team (Insuring Reputation) and Stephen Schultze of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy (Policy Perspective on Reputation). We all had a terrific time learning from one another since we all approached reputation from different angles. I approached reputation from a company point of view, John from a legal point of view, Polly from an individual point of view, Pamela from an insurance perspective and Stephen from a policy angle. John Hines organized the event and we are hoping to take the show on the road to Chicago.
Stephen brought up a question that has been lingering in my mind since the session ended. He asked whether society was perpetuating a “reputation gap.” He posed the idea that there is a divide between those that can police their reputation and those that cannot. It costs money, time, resources and know-how to protect your reputation, build positive mentions to push down the negative, open new domains and populate social media to create good first impressions. The “have nots” do not have the same access to information and Internet savvy to protect their reputations, balance the positive with the negative or hire an online reputation management specialist to help better situate their reputations. Just yesterday I wrote on this blog that nearly $1.6 billion was spent in 2012 managing reputations online. With figures like this, Stephen Schultze has to be right asking whether there is a reputation gap. The answer is clearly “yes.” Perhaps some of these online reputation management companies should provide services pro bono for some of the unfortunate who are maligned online and do not know where to turn to for support.
As for me being in the reputation business myself, I do make it my business to help people whose reputations have been tarnished by explaining what they can do and where they might seek help. So I hope that I am doing my bit to narrow the reputation gap.
A quick note for a Saturday. In this article, I read that small and medium sized business spent nearly $1.6 billion in 2012 managing their reputations online. This figure is expected to reach more than $2.9 billion in 2017. I imagine that if you added in large sized businesses, you’d be closer to $4 billion. (Just estimating) in 2012. This confirms that there is an entirely robust online reputation management industry that has just gotten started. And the reasons behind this new cottage industry are strong when you take into consideration that nearly 94% of people do not move beyond the first page of Google or Bing to get what they were looking for. Last I had heard, the number was closer to 89% but it certainly is creeping up. I bet it hits 100% in no time.
Lately I have been wondering if reputation is going the way of sustainability. Years ago, sustainability and corporate social responsibility was on everyone’s agendas in corporate American and around the world. It was hard to distinguish what was the difference between corporate social responsibility, corporate responsibility, community development, philantrophy, charitable giving, sustainability and all the other terms that were increasingly undefined, bundled together and fuzzy around the edges. Today, nearly all companies have CSR reports and it is expected of leading companies. CEOs too agree that CSR is critical to their business. A recent Accenture/UN Global Compact study found that 93% of global CEOs believe that sustainability issues will be critical to the future success of their business and 72% cite “brand, trust and reputation” as one of the top three factors driving them to take action on sustainability issues. Revenue growth and cost reduction are second at 44%. Everywhere you turn, sustainability is on the agenda. All in all, that’s a good thing. However, I still think that the terms have been interchangeable and are used indiscriminately except by those really in the know.
In a new book I just heard about, The Nature Of The Future: Dispatches From
The Socialstructed World by Marina Gorbis, she argues that in the future we may start to see Reputation Statement Accounts just like we get from the bank. But these monthly statements will not inform you of your monetary transactions, but will tell you “how much you’ve earned by contributing to sites such as Wikipedia or Flickr, how many points you’ve earned by providing rankings or ratings on various community sites, or how much social currency you’ve spent by
asking someone for advice.” We already have these kinds of ratings through Kred and Klout although somewhat different.
Her book also refers to the Whuffie Bank which is a nonprofit built on a new reputation currency that can be redeemed for real and virtual products and services. “The Whuffie Bank issues whuffies based on a reputation algorithm that blends information from different social networks and provides an accurate reflection of people’s web reputations. And as the Internet and social networks become a large part of people’s lives, your web influence will become an increasingly accurate reflection of you.” That sure is the truth looking us in the eye.
I am afraid to say that everyone is a reputation expert today. Reputation means so many things that it is getting harder and harder to pin down. And I hope it does not become the new sustainability which has meaning depending on who you are talking to.
On to the future.
Am on a tour of Asia to talk about our research on social CEOs. Obviously, social media is at different stages in various markets which is making my presentations very interesting to me (hopefully to others too!). When I was in Tokyo earlier this week, we found ourselves talking about how new social media was still new (only 10 years old at most) but how quickly it had grown in Japan recently. My Japanese colleagues told me how the reputation of social media or SNS (social networking systems), as they call it, has improved after the horrific earthquake and tsunami of two years ago. Since the telephone networks were not working, people turned to Twitter and Facebook to communicate. On the Twitter blog, they said that there was a 500% increase in Tweets from Japan when the earthquake hit. In turn, I told the story of how websites changed from static brochureware after 9-11 into two-way gateways when it became apparent that people wanted to be able to find out from company websites if people were okay, if financial transactions were still going through and what time to show up for work the next day in New York. Interesting parallels of how disasters can quickly change behavior and how social media’s reputation turned positive when emergencies are at hand.
As you already know, I am keenly interested in how CEOs manage their tenures. In my book on CEO reputation, I referred to the various stages of a CEO’s tenure as the seasons of a CEO. When I wrote it several years ago, it started with the Countdown period (pre-announcement), the first 100 days, the first year, the middle years and ends with the last 100 hours and legacy-setting. Since then, I have continued to follow CEOs closely but have been particularly fascinated by how CEOs can use social platforms to build their companies’ reputations and to some extent, their own. That is what I explained in this new article on CEOs getting social in their early tenure. (See also Weber Shandwick’s Socializing Your CEO II)
Surprising to me, despite billions of people communicating and socializing online, little has changed in experts’ advice to CEOs or other executives on how to navigate their early tenure by taking advantage of social tools. In three separate research investigations on how CEOs spend their time by Harvard Business School, the European University Institute and the London School of Economics, and Fondazione Rodolfo Debenedetti, the words “social” or “digital” did not appear once in the nearly 30,000 words written. Management consultants’ white papers on CEO transitions reveal little attention to how to effectively use social platforms. I have about 15 articles with smart advice on CEO successions and transitions that I send to new CEOs and not one mentions using social media. Further still, an online search of the most relevant 30 hits for “how CEOs should use social media in their first 100 days” does not retrieve a concise blueprint whatsoever. Instead, the mentions consist of lists of Twittering CEOs, reasons why CEOs don’t use social media, events and primers for getting into the social game, articles written by CEOs of digital agencies, and do’s and don’ts for CEOs who use social media.
Social media should be incorporated into new CEOs’ early playbooks. Whether CEOs are communicating, engaging in two-way conversation or simply listening in, social media platforms should be gradually adopted. As technology increasingly permeates all aspects of business and society, CEOs cannot afford to be out of touch with their cultures, how their products or services are being received and what their competitors are up to. Moreover, as the next generation of technology-literate CEOs start taking office as 77 million baby boomers leave the stage, being socially-literate will become the norm, not the exception.
For these reasons and because all these management consultants seemed to be overlooking social media as a leadership tool in their early CEO days, I wrote this article titled Get Social: A Mandate for New CEOs. It just appeared this week on MIT Sloan Management Review’s nicely redesigned Social Business site. Please take a look if you are a new CEO and getting the social bug! Or if you are advising CEOs to jump on the social bandwagon even a little. I firmly and proudly believe that this might be the first (or among the very first) articles on how and why CEOs should be social citizens at the start of their tenures and not wait til their seasons come to an end. There are some great examples from CEOs and presidents of companies such as Aetna, Etsy, GM, MassMutual, Best Buy and BAE.
Bill Keller wrote this fascinating piece in The New York Times about how the Catholic Church could repair its reputation. As he points out, the Church operates just like a business with more than one million workers, one billion or more customers, more outlets than Starbucks, more real estate than Trump and a powerful lobbying arm. And like many companies today, it just lost its CEO and has the opportunity to reset its reputation and restore its luster now.
Keller asked several consultants how they would go about advising the Church to repair its reputation as they name a new Pope and move forward. Here are their suggestions:
1. Find the right new pope. One with drive and charisma who is communications savvy. One who is more than a caretaker. A Pope who is dynamic as well as a road warrior with unending energy to persuade customers back into the fold.
2. Manage the culprits out. Out with those who have sullied the Church’s reputation. Or as they say, “managing out” the ones responsible for the abuses of recent years. This would include full disclosure behind how predatory priests were allowed to stay within the institution. And third, hire a highly-regarded compliance or ethics officer who would have full support from the top. Keller quotes Wharton’s Michael Useem and his experiences helping to clean up the Tyco mess of years past.
3. Understand the past but look ahead towards the future. One consultant suggested a big time summit or strategic review that would be responsible for developing a new and improved Church strategy, mission and values with a plan to execute accordingly.
4. Adopt a global/local point of view. The article describes one consultant’s idea to let its 220,000 parishes make their own decisions attuned to local customs and preferences. “Rome could encourage the parishes to be laboratories of worship.” Interesting idea. Beta labs full of women participating, gays welcomed, local music.
5. Go social. Bring the Church into the digital age…fast. I did not realize this until Keller pointed it out but Pope Benedict tweeted as @Pontifex but only 35 times despite having 1.5 million followers. A social media strategy would go far in encouraging meet ups and spreading news and information to the committed. I have just the right document for him too….our research on social CEOs. Perhaps the Church could get some lessons from President Obama’s social media machine.
6. Get PR support. Interesting since that’s the business I am in. Keller rightfully states: “Its stock response to criticism from without or dissent from within has been to been to drop into a defensive crouch, stonewall or go negative. That can come across as bullying and arrogant — in other words, not very Christian.” Media training and message development would definitely be high on the list here.
What would I add to this list..
7. Build a solid crisis plan that raises red flags when early warning signs show up and design rapid response mechanisms. Figure out how to stop the leaks and understand how it happened in the first place so it does not happen again.
8. Measure the Church’s reputation now when it is at its most challenged so that the Church could mark progress as a new Pope begins and reform makes it to the agenda in the year(s) ahead.
9. Commit to a strategic internal communiations plan that engages its customers and followers. Get everyone on the same page. Start by going on a listening tour and asking what needs to change and what can stay the same. Feed back that information and describe how the Church will tackle its greatest problems and improve on its strengths.
10. Build a reputation advisory council that can help restore the Church’s reputation for the long-term. This is serious business.
Faking reputation. Hard to believe! YELP knows so. The review site says that 20% of reviews never see the light of day. They are considered either suspect or fraudalent. Some businesses even try to commission people to write reviews or bribe product users to write something positive. You can solicit these reivewers-for-hire people on craigslist. What gets me, however, is that there is an entire cottage industry of reviewers-for-hire who will write bad reviews that knock a business’s competition. An article in Ad Age last week presented a slew of facts that makes me wonder where this will all end – a Gartner study reported that fake reviews would grow to to nearly 15% in the next two years. They even forecast that the FTC will be taking a few Fortune 500 companies to court for faking reviews within the next few years. These reputation fake outs will weaken credibility of review sites when they’ve never been so important.
Starting this past week, YELP is going to shame businesses that pay for fake reviews to shine up their reputations. Read this article to learn more. By setting up a sting operation (the stuff of spy novels), YELP is said to be exposing eight companies by placing the following consumer alert on their profiles: “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.” (See above picture for the real deal) Potential customers will see the incriminating e-mails trying to hire a reviewer. And don’t expect these alerts to go away soon. Definitely a red-faced moment if caught.
This all makes me think again about how important reputation is in this information age where everything is accessible and disclosable. Reviews that lead to positive and negative reputation are their own form of currency and wealth. The lengths to which businesses will go to protect or heighten their reputations are endless (and sometimes deviant).
I can’t say I am surprised. Recent research we did on corporate reputation found that online reviews were nearly as important as word of mouth and recommendations from friends and family. I think that weeding out the fake outs is going to be a big business itself to maintain the credibility of reviewers.
I was thinking of new trends in the reputation space today. And I was thinking about how reputations can easily be formed, shaped and cultivated through crowds. If a crowd on Twitter or Facebook organizes to give a high five sign (I presume that means thumbs up), to a company or brand, its reputation gets a lift. And if the crowd does not think highly of a particular company’s words or deeds, the collective force of that crowd online can demolish a reputation. Is this some form of crowdrepping that I should be paying particular attention to? I think so. It often feels as if the crowd is deciding whether a company gets five stars instead of three or if it gets a complete Do Not Pass Go (that’s from Monopoly). Just musing for the afternoon.
Social media risk is now a mainline risk according to U.S. executives surveyed by Deloitte in a study with Forbes Insights. The research, Aftershock: Adjusting to the new world of Risk Management, was conducted in the spring. As described in their executive survey, social media is now among the traditional risks we often read about in the risk management field such as the global economic climate, regulatory changes and government intervention. Social media ranks fourth because it can act as an “accelerant” to all the other risks. Just give it some air and it spreads like wildfire. In fact, Deloitte refers to it as the “wildfire” effect because social media can push a company’s reputation into a tailspin. They might also call it the gas pedal effect!
Which risk sources will be the most important over the next three years?
|Global economic environment||41%|
Source: Deloitte and Forbes Insights, 2012
It is not every day that I read an article several times over and then take notes. That is what I did after reading Graeme Trayner’s paper presented at the Annual Market Research Society Conference, March 2012. Its title is “Emblems and Shortcuts: Rethinking Corporate Reputation Research.” Graeme is a partner at Brunswick in opinion research and a fellow reputation-follower. I first heard his name when I found a wonderful research article about the concept of the “permanent campaign.”
I basically agree with his thinking on the state of reputation research – where it has been and where it needs to go. His overarching point of view is that current reputation research might be too mechanistic, rational and simplistic for how people shape perceptions about companies today. Yes, the current framework most commonly used is powerful because it easily reduces the many drivers of reputation to six or seven key dimensions such as financial performance, quality of products, leadership, etc. Despite its simplicity, that is the beauty of it. I think he is referring to some of the publically available frameworks from Harris Interactive, Reputation Institute and possibly Fortune’s Most Admired. I see his point that these methods make an enormous assumption that people are rational actors and make decisions about what companies to buy from based on these preordained reputation drivers. And, these frameworks do not take into account reality, that is, different stakeholders see companies differently (financial analysts do not view company reputations the same way as consumers or the media do). He posits that this way of thinking dilutes what is really happening today. On the other hand, I should add that the beauty of these frameworks are that they are mostly publically available and can serve as valuable guideposts to how companies are viewed. They serve a great benefit to companies looking to track broad perceptions over time, those without big budgets and those CEOs who do not take reputation as seriously as they should. These frameworks have their deficits and I do believe that most company leaders recognize that when taking advantage of them. The solution is to use them as snapshots but to really gauge reputation, a company needs to customize their own research.
Graeme calls for a newer approach that takes neuroscience and behavioral economics into consideration. Essentially he calls for greater attention to how mental shortcuts, symbols and what the crowd is thinking to help us make choices about companies. He calls for a fresh approach that takes into account “a series of interconnected associations and frames, rather than a static set of reputation drivers.” The world of perception is indeed one big network of images and loose connections, particularly when we are bombarded with so much information today.
There are many things he writes about that are important to think about when it comes to reputation (which is why I took notes to keep for myself). A few stood out when it comes to identifying the cues and symbols that help shape reputation perceptions.
· The idea that people use fast or slow thinking (he cites Kahneman, 2011) when it comes to forming opinions. Slow thinking is “deliberative and logical,” whereas fast thinking is what we do most of the time and involves embedding impressions and intuitions about companies and things in our minds. When I think about how impressions get shaped about companies and leaders for most people whose livelihood is not reputation, it often feels like “hearsay” or “half-truths” certainly do the trick. For example, JPMorganChase was a reputation champion until we heard about the $2 billion trading loss on May 10th. On May 9th, they were a leader and one day later, a laggard. For most people, they just heard something fleeting on the news and it became a permanent stain on their reputation. Who has the time to drill down into the facts?
· He also cites the idea posited by Robert Heath (2011) on low involvement processing. In essence, people are forming images without conscious awareness – “people are still taking in images, associations and messages from advertising, even if they are not fully engaged.” We can’t take it all in but we are taking it in at a low level. And these perceptions stick as well. I may never buy a Boeing aircraft but I form impressions through bits and pieces of scrap information.
· The part that I also like thinking about is the concept he cites about “social copying.” With the pervasiveness of the Internet today, people have access to what everyone else is thinking. That online reinforcement that everyone likes blue M&Ms further deepens one’s thinking about whether a company is a good one or not so good one. “Understanding the social ‘stickiness’ of aspects of a reputation is crucial to identifying how to evolve corporate profiles.” For this reason, in my view, online reputation management is so critical to managing reputation today.
He recommends some thoughtful ways to embed this thinking in corporate communications campaigns for the betterment of reputation. These are many of the things that we do every day in this field. We urge companies to find that one important “signature” initiative that we sometimes refer to as thought leadership and make it memorable, distinctive and impactful. A good example might be IBM’s Smarter Planet. Graeme calls this an “emblematic initiative.” Applying muscle to this initiative is critical. His other suggestion to corporate communicators is to start with an issue that tackles a societal problem. The key is making that known and making sure it aligns with the business. A good example is TOMS shoes, a shoe company that donates a pair to a person in need every time someone buys from them. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that when I was looking for summer soles.
Take a read when you want to slow-think and be deliberative. It feels good.