16/07/2010

CEOs globally agree that public trust in business has deteriorated and its reputation has suffered in the aftermath of the banking crisis. But companies can take steps to rebuild confidence and to win back hard-won trust, argues Allan Biggar, Founder and Chairman of All About Brands plc, a specialist branding and marketing services company.

Step one: a big piece of humble pie, a pay cut, and a bout of proving you’re a winner.

A little over a year ago, a struggling once-upon-a-time winner and big money generator, one of the best known personalities involved with one of the biggest and best known brands in the world, was facing redundancy and potential profile and financial oblivion.

Come mid-2009 he and his brand bounced back with the spring of a single-cycle bungee jump: he went down a long, long way — then bounced a long, long way back.

The thing is, he’s not bounced back down again. He’s stayed at the top.

And right now, there’s a not a soul on the planet — other than his 21 competitors — who want him to do anything else but succeed. How rarely can you say that?

Jenson Button took a massive pay cut to drive an untried car for a new team, after struggling for mainstream teams for eight years with barely a point to his name.

A Formula 1 World Championship driver standing at the pinnacle, the transformation of Button from seasoned old pro (he’s actually 30) to Britain’s world motor racing champion - and media darling to boot - is nearly complete.

Button’s reputation as a winning driver has been fully restored. That it took a salary cut, a large dose of humility and sheer determination to succeed to achieve it should be a thought-provoking lesson for CEOs everywhere.

Ironically, Button is a player in the most capitalistic business in the world; but capitalism is not in a happy place right now. In fact, the joke doing the rounds is that business now rivals politics and estate agency as The Number One Profession to Avoid In A Recession.

Business reputation has taken a bashing. Just as our politicians find themselves increasingly ridiculed, senior business figures are under attack over their salaries, bonuses and reward-for-failure culture. Much of this is fuelled, of course, by blogs, myriad web news channels etc. but, coupled with the MPs expenses row, there has not been such public or media outrage since the poll tax riots of 1990.

A recent McKinsey Quarterly survey of senior executives finds that the large majority agree that public trust in business and a commitment to free markets has deteriorated (85% and 72% respectively).

It is easy to blame the banking crisis and the ensuing recession for undermining public confidence in business, but it has been in decline for a long time. One of the survey’s conclusions is that, while most businesses have proved adept at managing their reputations through conventional outlets - mainstream media, TV and the like — they have been swimming vainly against a tsunami of web-based communications, increasingly influential NGOs and the backlash from declining trust in advertising.

Together, these new forces are promoting wider, faster scrutiny of companies and ‘rendering traditional public-relations tools less effective in addressing reputational challenges.’

What this tells us is that the reputation environment can no longer be so easily pigeon-holed, the off-the-shelf solution much less guaranteed.

But, at a moment when capitalism seems flat on its back, CEOs have an obligation to bolster the reputations of their companies and of free markets, say McKinsey. It is business, after all, that will drive the recovery.

Curiously, while the public seems to accept that politicians can and will spin themselves out of a tight spot, it is concrete action that they demand from businesses. But how can CEOs start the process of rehabilitating their reputations and, more importantly, those of their businesses, when they are focusing on the bottom line and, ultimately, on survival?

First, accept that reputation management is a company wide issue and not just one for the corporate communications or marketing team. PR and Marketing will need to take the lead - but input from technology, HR, legal and others is essential. Ownership must be a collective responsibility and that can only come from firm leadership and direction.

Second, spend the time and money to hire and develop new expertise to help you navigate digital and online communications effectively. Companies need to invest not just to understand it, but so they can keep pace with it. The impact on everyday life of digital communications can no longer be ignored.

Third, emphasise the ‘softer’ side of the business: launch or highlight corporate initiatives that support the community and are green, inclusive, educational or non-profit making in nature. Engage stakeholders and invite dialogue and feedback to counter accusations of spin. Grudging respect from consumers and other audiences for inviting their opinions is better than the outright suspicion that comes from doing nothing.

Fourth, review your brand and brand strategy. Is it time to refresh and overhaul it in the face of increased competition or other external pressures?

Fifth, become more aware of emerging issues and particularly those that can impact your reputation. Task your communications team with carrying out a thorough review of your stakeholder relationships - that may involve revisiting and refining existing relationships, and most likely nurturing new ones.

If all else fails, then the grand gesture often plays well with the public, particularly if it is the total opposite of what is often the norm from our business leaders. Today’s under-siege CEO could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of Jenson Button’s book.

All About Brands (AAB) is a group of international companies collectively dedicated to building business value for clients through the effective development and management of their brands. To find out more visit www.aabplc.com