I had heard of a new CEO listening tour but to me, this was a first. JCPenny is running a social media Apology tour. We’ve all heard CEOs apologize for one thing or another and we’ve all worked in companies where a new CEO visits different employee facilities to meet and greet and hear what is on people’s minds. But JCPenny now has a new campaign on TV that apologizes for letting customers down and thanks them for coming back. If you recall, the former CEO Ron Johnson from Apple fame was booted out when his plan failed, possibly because of the elimination of coupons which drove customers into the store. The former CEO, Myron Ullman, was asked to return and now they are in recovery mode. The two ads say:
“It’s no secret. Recently, J.C. Penney changed. Some changes you liked, and some you didn’t. But what matters with mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing: to listen to you. To hear what you need to make your life more beautiful. Come back to J.C. Penney. We heard you. Now we’d love to see you.”
“At J.C. Penney, we never stop being amazed by you. How you work so hard without looking like you do. How you make every dollar stretch so far and keep your family so close. So we brought back the things you like about J.C. Penney, gave you new things to explore and now, we’re happy to say, you’ve come back to us. We’re speechless, except for two little words. Thank you.”
But back to social media….using the hashtag #jcplistens, JCPenny is in response overdrive from what I saw on Twitter today. They are in constant contact with its Twitter-ites. Every customer or tweet seems to get a personal and speedy response asking to help out, mentioning they will share the feedback with the team if something was amiss and thanking customers for comments. As pointed out on Business Insider, they even told people when they were retiring for the evening. On its Facebook page, JCPenny is polling fans about their favorite brands that they want back after having been cut by the former CEO. And it looks like they are bringing back St. John’s Bay, a favorite. So they are listening hard.
You’ve got to hand to them. They’re trying. And social apology tours are a smart redemption move.
Many clients ask what is the potential impact of a crisis. How long will it last? When will the scrutiny die down? How does it compare to other scandals or crises? How much will it impact my reputation? When should we start the recovery process? The New York Times’ insanely smart Nate Silver who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog had an interesting post yesterday on which political scandal — the IRS targeting of conservative groups or the Benghazi attack in Libya — would be longer-lasting and possibly impact the next election cycle. Silver chooses the former (the IRS scandal) and explains so in his article. More importantly for my interests and for those that follow me was Silver’s five questions that he developed on whether a scandal “has legs.” He credits Bill James’ Keltner list for the initial questions. To determine whether reputational injury will be enduring, these questions are a good place for companies, leaders and others to start:
1. Can the potential scandal be described with one sentence, but not easily refuted with one sentence? Using the 140 character Twitter test is one good way to see if the scandal has legs. Can you say it in 140 characters. Or try it with as few as 16 words which if you recall is all it took to sink former President Bush in 2003 when he said in his State of the Union Address, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantitites of uranium from Africa.” Silver’s argument that if it cannot be easily refuted in a similarly short string of words, you have a problem on your hands. I might add that it could be even less than one sentence…it could be a video or photo today.
2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand? The word candidate could be substituted for company or CEO. In this case, a company that proclaims transparency but is caught doing damage to the environment behind the scenes or engaging in financial manipulation is going to lose its credibility 1-2-3. Think about Enron and their much heralded reputation for innovation at the time. It turns out that their innovativeness was in their financial shenanigans, not in reinventing business processes that led to success. Even though Enron was long recognized by Fortune as one of the most admired and innovative companies in the world, the scandal essentially decimated that impression. In fact, it took its leaders from pinstripes to prison strips.
3. Does the scandal reinforce a core negative perception about the candidate? Or company/CEO in this case. As Silver says, “A scandal can be equally dangerous if, rather than undermining a candidate’s strengths, it reminds voters of what they like least about him.” I think that Congressman Anthony Weiner’s late night racy Twitter sexting reminded people of his unlikeability and brashness. Perceptions that confirm what you already thought of a person or company are hard to shake loose. Another example would be BP’s then CEO, Tony Haywood, who at the time said that he wanted his life back while oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the general perception was that BP did not care about the damage being done to the environment by the oil spill and the CEO’s statement only reinforced that negative reputation.
4. Can the scandal be employed readily by the opposition without their looking hypocritical, risking retribution or giving life to a damaging counter-claim? Most competitors in business do not take advantage when their peers are knocked down by scanal. Companies today easily recognize that a scandal for one company affects all and impacts the entire industry. The question for company reputation is “Can this scandal spread to peers and further damage the industry sector that might already be struggling?” Not a perfect example I fear but an example that comes to mind might be the quality issues that emerged years ago in China when lead paint was supposedly found in children’s toys. That perception continues to linger for products manufactured out of China today. I was recently in a children’s store when a customer asked the cashier where a T-shirt was made because she only bought children’s clothing made in the USA.
5. Is the potential scandal occurring amid an otherwise slow news cyle? This is a good question to ask when a potential reputation disaster emerges. There are countless examples of company reputation debacles that get drowned out by other news that draw the media’s attention. I always think about how some recalls get scant coverage when bigger business stories are erupting. Or how some stories are not uncovered until the cycle is very slow and investigative reporting resumes. Silver mentions how the crude measure of a Google search shows that today, American’s appetite for political news stories is at an eight year low. So President Obama and the Democrats might just avert the sting from the IRS scandal because it’s not the tantalizing subject for readers as it might have been eight or nine months ago. Perhaps when the Dow is reaching 15,000, some stories just fade away.
Last week I came across something that stopped me in my tracks. Actually I was going nowhere because I was on the subway but it struck me (and I shuddered) that I had a moment of insight into a news story that had tremendous implications for companies and their abilities to create lasting reputations. The Pulitzers were announced last week and The New York Times won four. What was so startling to me was that two of the highly prestigious and acclaimed Pulitizers (50%) were for indepth, investigative reporting on the overseas behavior of two different companies. One was a series of reports on alleged corruption at one company and another Pulitzer was won on the costs of human capital in a company’s manufacturing products abroad.
Here is why this is so important — leading companies, the best we have to offer, must safeguard their reputations at all times and not let up for one minute because the spotlight on them is only growing brighter. And just because business operates differently in other cultures or regions, if the behavior does not align with the company’s values or is morally correct, it’s reputation-damaging and wrong no matter where on earth it happens. Earning the right to operate is given to companies through governments or regulators but the license to operate is still very much dependent on the perceptions of communities and consuming public around them and online. How a company behaves matters today and consumers buy based on how companies treat their employees, vendors, customers, communities and others everywhere. Our recent research on the company behind the brand shows that in spades.
These Pulitizers are an early warning sign to companies to carefully consider their behavior on all counts if they want their reputations to be shatterless.
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.
I know I should get out of the house (the sun is shining) but I was so excited to read in the Wall Street Journal about a reputation committee being formed at Goldman Sachs. The lead director James Schiro is heading this effort as the lead director on the board and is apparenlty VERY focused on reputation, according to his first letter to shareholders. Reason I am excited? Because I am a chief reputation strategist, I am always looking for trends and firmly believe that reputation committees are going to being popping up in more Fortune 500 companies than in years past. For a speech I gave before women-directors-to-be a few weeks ago, I mentioned two companies who had reputation committees but that was all I could easily find in a quick search. Board attention to reputation is long overdue. Reputation is a form of wealth, a type of equity that you get to dip into when your company is in trouble or facing issues. You need a good stockpile to weather the everyday assaults most companies are facing day in and day out. It is heartening to see reputation recognized for the worth it is. Here are a few quotes I pulled from the WSJ article that give me hope.
“He [Schiro] said the board clarified the duties of its governance committee to manage Goldman’s relationships with the outside, guard its reputation and review philanthropic and educational initiatives.”
“We continue to be very focused on the reputation of the firm,” Mr. Schiro said in his letter. A “public responsibilities” subcommittee of the board’s governance committee was formed to focus on reputation, chaired by William George, he said.”
I was eager to read JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s Letter to Shareholders this year. Considering the London Whale episode of the past year, I thought his Letter would be revealing. He clearly did not skirt the issue. I cut and paste some quotes below which are direct, apologetic and conciliatory. Also, I used the picture from the Letter to Shareholders here because it was surprising in that it almost looked like a man running for office but mostly because it is something that we advise clients which is to make better use of photos of their CEOs and execs with people (preferably employees) and not alone in some corner office isolated and solitary. You can’t know what is going on in your company by spending too much time in the office. It derails CEOs all the time.
What I like was how he presented his lessons learned for his reputation recovery plan. They are bulleted below as follows and include a favorite piece of advice of mine — problems don’t age well:
- Fight Complaceny
- Overcome conflict avoidance
- Risk Management 101: Controls must match risk
- Trust and verify
- Problems don’t age well
- Continue to share what you know when you know it
- Mistakes have consequences
- Never lose sight of the main mission: serving clients
On Responsibility: “I also want our shareholders to know that I take personal responsibility for what happened. I deeply apologize to you, our shareholders, and to others, including our regulators, who were affected by this mistake.”
On Complacency: “Complacency sets in when you start assuming that tomorrow will look more or less like today – and when you stop looking at yourself and your colleagues with a tough, honest, critical eye. Avoiding complacency means inviting others to question your logic and decisions in a disciplined way. Even when – and especially when – things have been going well for a long time, rigorous reviews must always take place.”
On the Aftermath: “There are a few things, however, that occurred this past year that we are not proud of. The “London Whale” episode not only cost us money — it was extremely embarrassing, opened us up to severe criticism, damaged our reputation and resulted in litigation and investigations that are still ongoing.”
On Reputation Committees: “That’s why we have a risk committee framework within the firm with extremely detailed reporting and many other checks and balances (like reputation committees, underwriting committees and others) to make sure we have a disciplined process in place to question our own thinking so we can spot mistakes before they do real damage.”
Each year Fortune publishes the 100 Best Companies to Work For in the U.S. While the bulk of the company evaluation rests on a comprehensive employee survey, Fortune publishes a wealth of employer statistics about benefits, diversity and jobs. Weber Shandwick has been cataloguing this data since 2006, enabling us to look at how each factor is changing over time and how reputations can be shaped by being a best company to work for.
Most Best Company statistics for jobs, diversity and benefits were unchanged between 2012 and 2013. However, this leveling off could be taken as a sign of good news. 2010 and 2011 were mediocre years for jobs and the improvement in job and diversity statistics in 2012 suggested that the market was starting to strengthen and reputations are stabilitzing. Similar numbers in 2013 may signify that improvement is still underway.
Below are insights into these jobs, diversity and benefits trends:
Jobs: The Best Companies reported virtually the same job statistics in 2012 and 2013, including median job growth (6%) and median voluntary turnover (7%). In fact, with the exception of 2010 and 2011 which were poor years for jobs statistics, median job growth has maintained a steady rate since 2006, only fluctuating between 5% and 7%. Perhaps this job growth range is a Best Company standard.
Improvement in negative growth may be a sign of recovering job market. After hitting a low last year (11%), the number of companies experiencing negative job growth remained steady in 2013 (12%). This is a drastic improvement from 2011 when 45% of Best Companies reported negative job growth.
The rate of Americans quitting is on the rise, suggesting that people across the country are becoming more confident in leaving their jobs to find work elsewhere. Best Companies, however, maintained the same voluntary turnover rate between 2012 and 2013 (8%). The difference between these two trends may reflect the impact that a good reputation can have on retaining a company’s workforce.
Diversity: Diversity initiatives at Best Companies have also remained mostly unchanged. The average percentage of women and minorities working at Best Companies has been consistent since 2008. But with women already comprising, on average, nearly half the Best Companies’ workforces, it is very possible that we will see this trend continue into the coming years. 2013 was another solid year for gay-friendly policies and benefits. Nearly all Best Companies this year have gay-friendly policies (99%) and the number of those offering gay-friendly benefits has hit a record-high (93%).
Benefits: The most noticeable change in employee benefits offered by Best Companies since last year is the decrease in number of companies extending compressed workweeks (down from 80% in 2012 to 73% in 2013). Also taking a small hit is on-site childcare, which fell below 30% for the first time since 2008. The Fortune evaluation, however, does not look at companies that offer flexible workweeks, which could be taking the place of these two benefits. Best Companies could be giving employees the opportunity to better balance their work lives outside of a formal perk. We may be starting to see this trend happening at companies not on the best-of list too. For example, while Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was recently in the media spotlight for banning working from home, it is possible that Yahoo employees have other options for work flexibility aside from telecommuting. The benefit with the greatest improvement is on-site gym, which hit a high this year (73%). All other perks remained largely unchanged from 2012.
On my travels, I met with the CEO of Ocean Park (disclosure: a client) in Hong Kong. Ocean Park is a theme park that promises to connect people with nature and provide memorable experiences for all. Although I had several memorable experiences seeing my first Panda and getting a personal behind the scenes tour of how Pandas are taken care of, I also had an unplanned memorable experience that had simply to do with people. After my presentation on Social CEOs to the executive team, Ocean Park’s CEO Tom Merhrmann joined us outside as we started our tour. Tom is a very social CEO as you can see in his discussion of the Halloween bash with Marketing Magazine or impersonating Elvis, let alone his presence on Facebook and LinkedIn.
When we were outside the meeting room, we quickly ran into two Ocean Park visitors who were enjoying the park. Within seconds, I saw Tom offering to take their picture with one of the girl’s cameras. I had no doubt that the visitors had no idea who he was but were only glad to have their picture taken together to create their own memories of the day. It was nice to see that how observant he was of his customers’ concerns. A few seconds later, I turned around to see him picking up some litter that had fallen to the ground. Between watching a CEO connecting with customers and picking up a speck of garbage to keep a park pristine as it could be, he reminded me that being socially-media savvy is just one element of leadership.
As I mentioned, I am traveling in Asia to talk about social CEOs and generally spread the good word about our thought leadership and Weber Shandwick. It is so terribly interesting to present our research and learn what people have to say and listen to the kinds of questions they ask. Today in Shanghai someone asked me what type of emotional commitment a CEO has to make to become a social CEO. What a great question! It definitely takes an emotional commitment. Not only does a CEO have to commit time and resources but there is a genuine personal commitment as that goes hand in hand with being social. You are putting yourself on the line as well as your ego. It also takes courage. In our new upcoming research which we have not released yet, executives are quite aware that being a social CEO takes courage. It is not for the faint-hearted. However, one CEO reminded me that the CEO job is all about risk anyhow. True.
In addition, at a presentation yesterday in Beijing, someone mentioned that even if you cannot get your CEO to be social (meaning using social media in some shape or form), CEOs need to commit to “the intrinsic value of sociability.” He rightly said that sociability (whether online or not) should not be ignored in this business environment. It can make a significant difference. Smart advice.
Am trying to keep my eyes open. I arrived in Tokyo late last night or should I say early this morning and hoping to adjust before I hit the road visiting our offices, talking to media, presenting research on social CEOs and meeting clients. I thought it would be a good idea to look at The New York Times and understand a headline I saw about “fire ice” in Japan. Why that would necessarily keep me awake, I can’t explain. Perhaps I thought it would distract me from wanting to sleep.
But I was glad because I also found an uplifting oped from David Brooks. I was drawn into it because he started out talking about how he goes to conferences hoping they will provide him with fodder for his twice-a-week columns. His conclusion is that these conference conveners are the same ones that make it on the glossy covers of business magazines and other upscale publications. They are flashes in the pan. He then goes on to say that all those quiet, unassuming, downhome executives are the real movers and shakers we should be hoping to learn from. He says the following as way of contrast with the cover boys:
“Meanwhile, the anonymous drudges at American farming corporations are exporting $135 billion worth of products every year and transforming the American Midwest. The unfashionable executive at petrochemical companies have been uprooting plants from places like Chile, relocating them to places like Louisiana, transforming economic prospects in the Southeast. Most important of all, the boring old oil and gas engineers have transformed the global balance of power.”
Brooks pays homage to the “Material Boys” — the people who grow grain, drill for fuel and lay pipeline. He calls them the real winners. This peaked my interest because it was unusual to read such reputational support for the oil and gas industry but here it was. The oil and gas industry is usually a fairly maligned sector but Brooks gives them a thumbs up for providing jobs, keeping emissions down and making us energy independent in a big way. Always good to see a reputation shot in the arm.