Posts Tagged ‘The Economist’
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.
Just read an article in The Economist (which I love) that questions the business of reputation management. The columnist attended a recent meeting in London held by the Reputation Institute (RI) on their new RepTrak results for British companies.
The writer rightfully acknowledges that we are living in a “reputation economy” where institutions and individuals literally trade on the currency of reputation and this type of exchange makes “intuitive sense” in a society where Facebook is worth more than many Fortune 100 companies. Reputation Economy is the term used by RI and its professionals, led by Charles Fombrun, and continue to provide valuable, far-reaching insights to companies around the world. The writer, however, raises several interesting objections to the effectiveness of the reputation management industry as it stands today.
First, he/she (have no clue) objects to the idea that many different factors as disparate as product quality and corporate citizenship are all rolled up into one understanding of what reputation means. That may be true, but I am not sure why that is bad in such a complex and fragmented world where every individual becomes an interest group. For us reputologists (I just made that up), the factors contributing to corporate reputation vary depending on the company’s history, industry and situation they are facing. For example, in the financial industry, unlike say the automotive industry, it is often difficult to distinguish one company from another by focusing only on their products and services. Their reputations are far more likely to be built on sheer trust in the perceived integrity of their leadership and governance.
The columnist’s second objection to reputation management today is the assumption that companies with positive reputations will find it easier to attract customers and withstand crises. As evidence of the supposed weakness of this assumption, the columnist cites many companies with strong bottom lines despite terrible reputations: e.g., tobacco companies (harmful product), Ryanair (poor service) and Daily Mail (mean spirit). Yes, there are always companies that will make gobs of money despite wrong-doing and poor service. Nevertheless, these companies have and will continue to have a hard time attracting and retaining the best talent. But in this online world where advocates and fans matter more than ever, it will be harder to keep that bottom line as stable as it once was.
But the greatest objection to the reputation industry, according to the columnist, is and I quote… “its central conceit: that the way to deal with potential threats to your reputation is to work harder at managing your reputation.” He/she continues with… “The opposite is more likely: the best strategy may be to think less about managing your reputation and concentrate more on producing the best products and services you can.” Here I agree at least in part with the columnist’s thinking. The best way to build reputation is to “have a customer” as Peter Drucker always said. Without customers, there is no business to have a reputation worth building. The reputation industry, however, does not urge industries to ignore producing the best products and services in favor of managing reputation. To the contrary, building the best products and services is part and parcel of a good reputation. Also, however, today’s society is much more complicated and often it behooves a corporation to do more than just having great products and services. Apple, for example, may have the best products but if it does not give a damn about how it treats employees or contributes to society, it will face problems that if allowed to accumulate may well threaten its bottom line. We see that now with regard to questions about their handling of factories in China.
I think that the columnist should rename the article to Why companies should worry MORE about their reputations or else.
It has been an unusually warm couple of months here in New York. I can’t help but think that global warming is staring me right in the face. I often think of myself as a bear that hibernates when cold weather arrives. I often joke with my neighbors that they won’t see me until spring because I’ll be going into my bear cave for my “winter sleep” when the first chill arrives. So the past couple of months have been an anomaly as I have wandered out doors more often than usual on the weekends. Of course I have to go to work and do the ordinary errands that surround my life but given the choice, I stay inside. Maybe that is why I like to write about reputation because it gives me an excuse to sit in my little office cave that is closed off to the world.
All of this got me to thinking about how climate change gets communicated today when there is criticism about the science after controversies arose from the release of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. This happened a year or two ago. Undoubtedly this is the perfect case study for how an industry (climate change scientists) suffered reputational damage and now has to recover and restore reputational equity. Climate change skeptics were fairly adept at effectively persuading many in the general public to doubt the scientific validity of global warming.
I was glad to see an article in the New Scientist (sorry, you need a subscription) by Robert Ward (policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics) on how some of the reputation recovery methods that I recommend in my book might be applied to regain confidence and trust in climate science. He sees the situation right, “Even if the claims of misconduct and incompetence are eventually proven to be largely untrue, or confined to a few bad apples, mud sticks.” This is a truism — no matter how much science you have on your side, it is sometimes never enough when it comes to public opinion. Sometimes the facts just don’t matter as much as they should in a perfect world.
Ward is right that hope is not a solution to rebuilding reputation. Many CEOs used to think they could outlast controversy but in fact learn the hard way that it only extends the problem. ”Communicating tirelessly” — one of my recommendations — is the right path forward. ”No comment” does not work as it used to. Whether it is finding neutral partners or independent coalitions to bring additional voices into the discussion or actually training climate scientists to transparently talk about and defend the science — its certainties and uncertainties, communications will do more good than harm in this digital world.
An interesting analysis of temperature records appeared in an article in The Economist which speaks to the importance of bringing in a third, fourth or fifth party opinion to validate scientific findings. I read it on a plane to Europe in November but kept it because it made commonsense as an approach to understanding the climate change debate — is it getting warmer or not? Let me just add here that the topic of global warming is a lot more complicated than I will ever understand — gaps in readings, different criteria, different types of thermometers, urban settings where temperatures might be recorder higher, etc. But interestingly, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project stepped into the argument on climate change 18 months ago to test existing analyses. And they did so with the addition of skeptical scientists and funders as well as Nobel prize winners. As it is often said, let’s open the kimono and thus they did. And they found that the existing temperature records that the earth was warming was not far off the mark from what had been previously reported. A peer review is underway and I look forward to learning more about that when it is released. Next up, however, for climate scientists and institutions affiliated with climate change,would be communicating openly and collectively (and maybe relentlessly) to explain how the newest findings answer questions, raise new ones and guide us as to what we need to be doing Now not Later.