Not a surprise. Today I read that maybe we need more CEOs like the new CEO of Citicorp who has a very low public profile. He is practically nameless according to the article. Barely noticed in the trendiest restaurant where banking moguls hang out for lunch. I probably could have predicted this. The headline reads, “Quiet Boss at Citigroup Setting Tone for Wall Street.” And as predictable, those CEOs who are in the news for good and bad reasons are being shunned for having a public profile when I am sure they’d prefer to under everyone’s radar screens too. The next time around we will be hearing that this low, quiet profile that Citigroup’s CEO now has is what got him into trouble when times get stickier. It seems like it is either too much or too little visibility and nowhere in between when it comes to CEO visibility and presence. Let’s see what the new year brings on this topic of neverending interest when it comes to CEOs. I think the common saying is, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, which according to Wikipedia is described as having “two equally repulsive choices, neither of which results in a positive outcome.” I think that is exactly it — pros and cons and little in between to having any public profile for your company.
I’ve always said that every industry gets its turn at reputation downfalls. Every industry has to be prepared for clearing its name when crisis strikes. We’ve seen that in the oil industry, financial services industry, auto industry, pharma industry and so on. The one industry that seems to always fare well in the best industry rankings is technology. However, according to an article in The Economist on what to expect in 2014, we should be getting ready to witness a tech-lashing. The reputation of the Silicon Valley elite are soon meet their due if the tech-party extravaganzas and limosine crowd continue full throttle as they are. As Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist says, “Geeks have turned out to be some of the most ruthless capitalists around….The lords of cyberspace have done everything possible to reduce their earthly costs. They employ remarkably few people: with a market cap of $290 billion Google is about six times bigger than GM but employs only around a fifth as many workers. At the same time the tech tycoons have displayed a banker-like enthusiasm for hoovering up public subsidies and then avoiding taxes. The American government laid the foundations of the tech revolution by investing heavily in the creation of everything from the internet to digital personal assistants. But tech giants have structured their businesses so that they give as little back as possible.” These are not kind remarks about an industry that has been revered for so long.
Wooldridge might be onto to something as more information seeps into the public’s consciousness and the inequality divide starts to gain notice. One example cited by Wooldridge was a recent party where a 600lb tiger posed for revilers in a cage and a monkey was made available for Instagram pictures. [Where was PETA?] Another article on Gawker headlined this supposed joke: “If you ask people in Silicon Valley about the dismal job market, they’ll laugh and say, ‘What’s ‘job market’?’ A new mobile social networking app?” And if you are still not convinced that something is underfoot, The New York Times ran an article this week about how all the Silicon Valley million-billionnaires are changing the tenor of neighborhoods in San Francisco, buying up all the real estate and generally crowding out the long-timers. One person is quoted as saying she is surprised by how coldblooded these technorati are. Not a pretty portrait.]
All of this criticism is tied up with ill feelings about technology companies having handed over data to the NSA whereupon Edward Snowden exposed this wrongdoing to the world. These serial reputation-damaging incidents are beginning to chip away at the technology elite’s image-making and positivity they’ve done in making our lives more productive and interconnected.
2014 might just be the year when the technology sector loses its luster and customers and the general public begin to wonder what social good they are doing with all their riches and IPO shares. A reputation risk for the technology sector for sure.
Someone recently said something to me that had me thinking. They were describing a CEO and said that they were amazed how willing he was to show his vulnerabilities. Leadership humility is very attractive these days because so many CEOs and leaders are being cut down to size as events careen out of control around them. A recent article in the Guardian echoed this same sentiment although the writer, Lynnette McIntire, referred to this trait as “humanity,” not humility. She says: “But the most persuasive CEOs are those who show how their personalities, histories, values and feelings are aligned with company culture. I have been charmed and disarmed when CEOs talk about what they’ve learned from their children, how a mentor changed their lives, how a hard lesson from life knocked them into gear or how a frank comment by an employee reset a decision.” McIntire struck a chord with the examples she gave. One was about Tom’s Shoes which has a business model of “buy one, give one” whereby a free pair is given to children in need when a customer buys a pair. She pointed out how the CEO, Blake Mycoskie, spoke about how unprepared he was for the criticism the company received about providing free shoes. People were criticizing how this policy was hurting local shoe producers. Tom’s Shoes is now committing to having a proportion of these giving shoes made in Haiti. She also wrote: “Now, Tom’s giveaway programs have a shoe replacement component, dispelling the in-and-out charitable giving image. For many children having black shoes – a school uniform requirement – means their education is not interrupted when their feet grow.” All very interesting to me because I did not realize that Tom’s Shoes’ reputation was being bruised by these criticisms. But also how the CEO listened, learned and began reshaping policy. And how the entire lesson made the CEO appear more human,vulnerable and teachable.
[I should add that I also was pleased that they quoted our research on CEO reputation.]
Leadership is very messy. I was asked the other night at dinner why President Obama was not coming out slinging on the repair of the healthcare website. Why was he not saying anything? And why were his advisors not telling him to speak up and put a stop to the constant naysaying? Well, for one, I think the reason is that there is nothing to say until it is fixed. He apologized and put a bookend on the mess for now. That was the right strategy. Now he should say nothing until it has been resolved. Why keep it in the headlines by saying something? No one wants another BP oil spill where the headlines went on for weeks regarding how much oil was spilling into the Gulf.
I read the New York Times columnist Bill Keller’s to-do list for President Obama on how tosalvage his reputation now that it has stalled. Keller basically says that now is not the time for “grand new initiatives.” True. He goes on to say, “ It’s not that I want the president to think small; by all means, address the threat of climate catastrophe and push ahead on early childhood education. But he needs to get a few wins on the scoreboard.” Absolutely. Now is not the time for the big speeches, big sweeping initiatives, big words. Now is the time for small, incremental steps that change the conversation and get him back on track. I also found it interesting that Michelle Obama chose this time to release news that she is going to focus on higher education for low-income students. Clearly, a great policy decision but the timing is not coincidental. The White House needs some positive news to overshadow the constant barrage of negative sentiment surrounding the White House. Everyone loves Michelle and who can argue with her for coming to the rescue. Wonder if we will be seeing more of the kids now.
However, this too shall pass. Maybe we should spend more time focusing on the devastation in the Phillipines and what we can do.
CEO reputation is still incredibly important. As I have always said, it’s nice to say that it should not be so important or to say that it is should be more about the company than the CEO, but ultimately the CEO sets the tone, style and destiny of a company. A recent survey of top communications officres in Europe confirms the uber-importance of the CEO to a company’s success. What I found most interesting, however, were the findings on CEOs and communications. Considering that these are communications officers, the study has some good inside info on CEO activity:
- 83% said that their communications teams are working on positioning their CEO
- 67% are working on the CEO’s profile (probably online) and a CEO-focused communications strategy
One of the more interesting articles I have read recently describes how the conference business is surging and providing better outlets for CEOs and other executives to speak. All this “live media” or “live journalism” (what it is now being called since you can repurpose it, livestream it, twitter it, YouTube it, etc) is perfect for positioning CEOs (reflecting the findings above) and other top executives you want to shine a light on. Weber Shandwick has a thriving business run by Carol Ballock helping CEOs and top executives find the right platforms to speak at and helping shape content. Our research on the best conferences has finally put some metrics behind this burgeoning phenomenon. Here are a few examples if you don’t believe me. The Huffington Post is hosting three conferences of Arianna Huffington’s marvelous Third Metric idea, Atlantic Media now does over 200 events per year including exclusive dinners and week long conferences. The New York Times is convening 16 conferences in 2013, up from one last year. The Wall Street Journal is hosting its 6th CEO Council. Tina Brown left the Daily Beast to get into the conference business. Many of these conferences, including Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business, are expanding overseas too. Digital media companies are also hosting live events that help position executives, pundits and influencers. It is a gold rush. As the New York Times says, “Live events promote their brand” and “..conference centers are considered just another social platform with Twitter, Facebook and online video.”
I wanted to read the chapter in Trust Inc. by Linda Locke on “Trust, Emotion and Corporate Reputation.” I bought the book because Barbara Brooks Kimmel has done such a terrific job building Trust Across America-Trust Around the World, an organization focused on the fundamental element of trust. Linda is the founder of Reputare Consulting which is a reputation management consulting firm. I know Linda from events at Reputation Institute and her work leading reputation management at MasterCard. She really knows the field, is a thought leader on reputation, has powerful insights, and I follow her regularly on Twitter (@reputationista)…love that handle.
In the chapter, Linda mentions that facts are often not enough. It is a good starting place to build trust but if that’s all a company has to provide in a crisis situation, it is not going to work today. She says: “To earn trust, a company must go beyond the requirements, beyond the simple facts of the situation, and demonstrate that it understands the concerns of the stakeholders.” Showing empathy, care and concern are necessary ingredients to rebuilding trust, protecting reputation for the long-term and beginning to repair the reputation tear. What caught my attention was her recommended breakdown of communications content when a company’s reputation is under the glare of spotlights:
- 50% of a company’s external communciations should express care and concern
- 25% should express the company’s commitment to fixing the situation (what are you going to do, when and how)
- 25% should focus on the facts (again, facts have to be there but it is not all there is).
These are very helpful proportions to use when explaining to companies what they need to do about the content of their risk communications. What fascinates me the most, however, is how companies today have to show their “softer side” when they are in the middle of a brewing crisis and be more vulnerable and empathic. This is a major change in how companies are expected to communicate when they have done wrong in the public’s view.
Linda provides some case studies in her chapter that truly intrigued me. She provides a social-pyschological framework to understanding the public’s emotions to losing trust in institutions. Here’s one to share. She gave an example of a financial services firm managing their reputation during the horrific and unprecedented financial recession of 2007-2008. The firm analysed what people were saying about how they felt during this period. As she describes it, the firm found that three emotions were most evident in the public discussions about the financial downslide that was causing a real sense of fear and loss of trust. They were: irreversibility (consumers fear that what was happening was irreversible and would be permanent); unfamiliarity (consumers having never experienced anything like this economic uncertainty before) and involuntariness (consumers had no control over what was happening to them and could not influence the outcome whatsoever). The consuming public was paralyzed by fear and what could companies do to assuage their loss of trust. For companies faced with these raw emotions, Linda recommends explaining in everyday language (certainly not corporate speak) how the situation happened, how it is similar to a familiar experience they may have encountered in the past, the role of the responsible parties to fix the situation so it does not happen again and how the company will do whatever it takes to repair that broken bond of trust. And certainly empathisize with those affected and show you care if you want to keep your reputation from cratering.
Building trust is the bedrock of reputation. If your company is not trusted and credible, it is going to fail fast and I mean really fast.
There are many ways to rebuild reputation but one way that companies might consider when recovering from a crisis is developing a Compliments page where employees and non-employees can anonymously thank those front line or other employees for doing their jobs well and conscientiously. I spoke to a company a short while ago as they were dealing with a reputation crisis and suggested that they start a Compliments page where community members could thank those front line people they encounter frequently for doing a honest day’s work. It could help. Of course, the site would attract uncivil types but there must be a way to delete them if they stray too far from the site’s purpose and goals.
Some universities have being doing this for a while. It started at Queen’s University in Ontario because the founders wanted to find a way to counteract bullying. University of Pennsylvania has a Compliments Facebook page as does Penn State. On the U of P site, people thank others for returning their lost wallet, for the sense of accomplishment they feel after doing nonprofit work, to a capella group for their beautiful sound and send support to a fellow classmate struggling with pain. The U of P Compliments page has the goal of “learning to do good and spread good.” Penn State’s site says that it is a social project to spread happiness.
Compliments pages are a wonderful idea considering that incivility that can sometimes surround and engulf us. In Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America 2013 study, we found that 70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions. With Americans encountering incivility more than twice a day on average (2.4 times per day), and 43 percent expecting to experience incivility in the next 24 hours, dealing with incivility has become a way of life for many. Maybe it is time to turn this tide of negativity.
Compliment sites can be contagious and make people feel good despite their company’s blemished reputation. It could give an employee that extra boost they need to be productive and positive when they find everything uncertain. Hearing a compliment might keep an employee loyal to his or her company and make them feel they are doing their part in getting their company’s reputation back on its feet. Companies might consider trying this and seeing what happens. Reputations get repaired in the oddest ways.
Everyone wants to measure reputation. Measurement, big data, metrics are all the conversation today. As I have mentioned before, reputation is high on CEO agendas as they see more companies lose reputation equity and that calls for better research. I just came across the Arthur W. Page Society, The CEO View: The Impact of Communications on Corporate Character in a 24×7 Digital World study which noted that some CEOs “report measuring as many as 30 different brand attributes as experienced by as many as 15 discrete stakeholder groups.” That give you a sense of how research has become more complex as the world has become smaller and scrutiny greater. 15 different stakeholder groups! It used to be employees, customers, media, investors and government officials. So whose among these added groups? NGOs, online influencers, bloggers, naysayers….it is never ending.
The report calls this “high-resolution measurement.” A great term. Hard-data rules.
None of us want to ever underestimate the importance of corporate culture and the impact of employee satisfaction on performance. It is not just window dressing. A study by Professor Alex Edmans at London Business School found that when a company makes it onto the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, it generates 3.5% higher stock returns per year compared to its peers. To be exact, it found that companies listed in the “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” generated 2.3% to 3.8% higher stock returns per year than their peers from 1984 through 2011. Management journal, strategy + business says this about this effect of employee satisfaction,”There is money to be made from employee satisfaction. Let’s all get rich and happy, but not necessarily in that order.” I might have to argue with that but anyhow…here are the facts from the research. A great stat for demonstrating that it pays to build a terrific culture:
The results clearly point out that job satisfaction is beneficial for firm value and ultimately, reputation.
Read about it here.
I was delighted to learn yesterday that The Holmes Report included me in its list of 25 Top PR Innovators. This new listing, the In2 Innovator 25, calls attention to the importance of innovation and ideas in the public relations field. The 25 of us were honored for breaking boundaries, challenging the industry and pushing PR onto the wider stage that it so deserves. Not bad.
One of the questions Holmes asked in a mini-survey of the Innovators was “Who most influences a brand’s PR/marketing innovations?” The top influences were CMO, receiving 10 votes, and CEO, which received 6 votes. I answered CEO. In my world, the CEO sets the guardrails for and shapes the corporate culture that allows ideas and experimentation to ferment and that also allows fear of failure to fade away. Without such a culture, imagination and risk-taking would never have enough air to breath so as to grow and flourish.
During my career I have benefited from just such an expanse of breathing space. My former agency CEO Chris Komisarjevsky encouraged me to ideate when I began one of my first research projects on CEO reputation. Today at Weber Shandwick, I have had the full support and encouragement of our CEO, Andy Polansky. Without Andy’s support, without the amazingly collaborative culture that he has fostered, I would have found it nearly impossible to think divergently and follow my instincts. I am fortunate and grateful that my boss and my colleagues have created an accepting, nurturing environment for ideas. My thanks to you all.