In today’s complex business climate, it can be hard to foresee what the next threat to an organization’s brand or challenges to long-accepted ways of doing business might be. There are reputational challenges that can be planned for well in advance, and then there are the completely off-track issues that sneak up on a business. Sometimes those challenges seem so far-fetched that companies discount the warning signals and are caught flat-footed. Other times the company may make a hasty or well-intentioned decision that ends up putting it in the path of an angry mob.
As leaders in our organizations, and top communicators, how do we navigate not only stormy, but uncharted waters? How can we prepare for anything and everything that a socially-connected world can throw at us? To that I say, we can’t prepare for everything, but we can build a better ship.
Understand that everyone is on the flood plain
Any company that isn’t prepared to pivot quickly with communication today is bound to founder at some point. There are business-to-business companies that may say something like, “I don’t have a brand on the shelf, so why should I worry about consumers?” Or, “We are totally off the radar and have no public perception to worry about, except with our customers, and they already know we are the best.” That thinking is naïve at best and negligent at worst.
Consumer expectations of businesses, the information available to them (accurate or not) and activism in general has evolved to affect change by applying pressure across the entire supply chain. When your customers feel the pain, they look to you to relieve it and may even feel forced to throw you overboard to protect their own brands. Conversely, if you help them weatherproof their ship, your ship will rise with the tide too.
Make a blueprint
You wouldn’t attempt to build anything without thinking it through, right? So, every business should approach their reputation in the same way they would a marketing plan. What do you hope to accomplish in the first six months? Who is your audience? What do your values mean to the community around you? Companies are expected to be active partners in improving the world around them, well beyond environmental and community needs. Look at the success of companies that built social good into the business model, like TOMS® Shoes “One for One” program.
At the same time, you need those programs to be completely genuine and not constructed solely for public relations. If you have no idea where to start, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals set the current issues out into 17 globally recognized challenges. The U.N. is clear to state that in order to achieve the goals identified for each challenge, it will take collaboration from “all stakeholders: government, civil society, the private sector, and others.” Companies don’t need a yacht when they start out; build a dinghy to start. Set a reputational course and take it in steps. Pick a sustainability goal that makes the most sense for your organization and begin there.
Buy the materials
If you are not monitoring the conversations that surround your industry, start! In some cases, this means investing in software to help you keep your ear to social chatter. This may also mean hiring someone dedicated to the role. If you want to be ahead of what will make news and reach social channels, you must have a good understanding of where the dialogue is and where it is expected to go.
You will also need to actively participate in that dialogue where it happens. The discussion won’t always take the expected route, but you will be able to identify the shift if you are actively listening and engaging in the discussions that make sense for your business to engage in. There are a lot of quality services out there to monitor key issues. If you are just starting out, Google Alerts can work to test the waters.
Engage with your reputation builders (or destroyers)
Employee activism has made a significant impact on businesses over the past few years; in many cases, it’s gotten more publicity than consumer activism. In 2018, Google became the face of employee activism, when employees petitioned the company to stop working on a military contract. Google would eventually walk away from the open source AI technology after some top developers quit and others refused to work on it. The same year, employees staged a global walkout to bring attention to Google’s handling of harassment accusations against high-level executives. And in March of 2019, Google was back in the news, being accused of retaliating against employees who organized the walkout. Voxreported on a email that the employees had leaked. Any email distributed to employees can be shared with the outside world.
Employees can be your biggest allies. But in order to enjoy their allegiance, businesses need to involve them at all levels in understanding how and why a company operates.
If your company made some wrong turns, it needs to be open and honest with employees. If they believe that the company is genuine, they can be your organization’s most credible champions. Build a solid mechanism for engaging employees at all levels, from the CEO down, in the societal challenges that you choose to address.
Put your boat in the water
Once you have the plan, the materials and the people, you are set to make progress. There is a good chance that this can be the most uncomfortable part of the build. This is the point where a company needs to make real commitments and real progress. Are your assumptions about your audience correct? If you decide to set hard goals for the company, are they going to be reachable? Like the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, they will likely need all your stakeholders to make them successful.
This is also the best time to sit down with the people you may have seen as detractors in the past. There are great examples of large corporations working with NGOs and making great progress after gathering together to focus on common goals. While the reasons for collaborative action may differ, a drive for a common destination can be very powerful.
The Nature Conservancy recently announced a collaboration with Nestle Purina and Cargill on a water project to improve sustainability in the beef supply. Groups like The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund have actively pursued partnerships with leading manufacturers to address the supply chain. This supply chain activism will impact anyone who touches a product. So, those business to business companies that tried to stay out of the discussion won’t have a choice when the entire supply is under scrutiny.
Your reputation needs to be something you think about every day. Live and breathe the reputational course you have set. Don’t simply set a course and forget about it. There are plenty of people who will force you back on track if you stray, either willingly or unwillingly.