31 Aug 2022

Like real beauty, reputation does not run skin-deep. You can’t, in the words of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, just “put on your shiniest suit” and expect that people will be convinced. Nor can the C-suite expect a communications function to wave a wand and make it all better.

Responsibility for reputation needs to sit at all levels and functions to truly embed resilience…and culture is key.

Where reputation is concerned, an organisation’s functional reality needs to marry up to its brand perception. And in most organisations, there’s often a gap between the two.

This reputation gap can exist with both external and internal stakeholders: customers whose purchase doesn’t match the sales hype; employees who ‘don’t get’ management’s strategy aspirations, the list can be long.

Reputation engagement is about narrowing the gap between perceptions and reality. If you want a good reputation all the time, you need to behave well, be engaged with and respectful of the networks that you operate through and with, and make sure that your narrative is authentic.

But where does the buck-stopping responsibility lie for enhancing and maintaining corporate reputation? We would argue that accountability for corporate reputation should sit at all levels of the organisation – a KPI from chair of the board to mail room – and not just in the corporate communications function.

Accountability should be an outcome; not a starting point. To ensure it happens, executive boards need to encourage a sense of ownership, making employees feel that their interests and actions—not just their financial rewards—are bound up in the enhancing of company reputation.

But – of course – it’s not that easy.

Just the word ‘accountability’ flags issues. Some academics have argued that ‘accountability should hurt’, that if accountability is an enjoyable process, then the organisation isn’t doing it right. Understandably, few people would willingly volunteer for that sort of punishment.

A corporate culture that encourages responsibility, ownership, fosters trust and embraces the ability to learn from mistakes is key. Human nature is self-interested: without the right motivation, employees will be willing to take actions to further their own interest at the expense of those of their organisation.

Several organisational features contribute to a responsible culture that encourages an ‘ownership’ approach in employees. Ethical leadership sets the conditions for employee wellbeing and job satisfaction which fosters emotional ownership. Secondly, trust: individuals identify with organisations that openly value their contribution. When staff stop trusting, they will start to prioritise self-preservation over initiative. Lastly, personal development plays a role. If employees can connect the intangible aspects of their work, they can begin to own what they do and how they do them. This increases self-confidence and commitment and is the point when employees choose to be accountable.

When organisations that are able to get to a stage where accountability is no longer about ‘success’ or ‘failure’, but about people’s willingness to own the process of reputation building and its consequences, if they can get to the point where they can say “I did this, and this is how I did it,” it can be transformational for both the organisation and the employees involved.