Can corporate reputation lessons be found in global affairs?

November 14, 2013

By: John Onoda

When I see North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un relying on Dennis Rodman to establish his credibility with the American public, read that Venezuela’s leader has tried to influence national elections by moving Christmas to November, and hear reports that Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad insists he is amenable to leaving office if an elections shows “it is the will of the Syrian people,” I often reflect how these reputation-building efforts by foreign leaders compare to those of CEO’s of major corporations.

While there are differences, many of the same principles apply, not only for leaders but for their communicators.

1. You Aren’t Fooling Anyone

The world is too transparent. Digital technology and social media are overcoming efforts to conceal and obfuscate. Yes, some countries and companies are more successful than others at suppressing information, but the truth will eventually become known. It is even filtering into North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation, and filtering out of controlling states like China and Iran.

2. Allies Matter

It always makes a difference if others are willing to stand up and make arguments on your behalf, no matter what side you’re on. The Coptic Christians in Syria point out that they are safer under Assad’s secular regime than they would be under a democratically elected Islamic government. While Venezuela’s economy is in shambles, many of the nation’s poorest people still express gratitude for programs instituted by strongman Hugo Chavez. Similarly, corporations under fire benefit when key stakeholders and business partners come to their defense. Of course, this happens more readily when positive relations are established well before support is needed.

3. Traditional and Social Media Usually Don’t Determine Substantive Outcomes

Tyrants are still in place as are repressive governments regardless of how much vituperation is hurled at them on social media platforms or how much negative coverage is generated by the press. Similarly, corporations can often endure a period of public outrage and disfavor, especially if there are substantive efforts under way to address the problem. Communicators must be careful not to overstate the impact of negative perception.

4. Fending Off Criticism Is Not the Same Thing as Advancing Your Agenda.

Good firefighting only prevents destruction, it does not create anything. Just because rogue regimes in countries like Myanmar, Syria and North Korea may survive criticism for decades does not mean they can flourish. Likewise, a company’s ability to emerge intact after a crisis or period of criticism doesn’t signal that it has a healthy reputation.

5. Strong, Positive Relations Are Built on Real Accomplishments

Reputations that earn the respect and trust of others demand all the positive vision, planning, effort and willpower required to build a great cathedral. This cannot be produced by a despotic state that has no vision beyond survival and suppression, whose key initiatives are focused on negative outcomes. Struggling nations like Libya and Egypt today often lack a clear and unifying vision and falter in the establishment of the strong pillars (such as fairly elected, representative governments and a strong judiciary) that must be in place for societies to flourish.

The same dynamics are evident in the world of business. Bad companies are focused on hiding and covering up, suppressing the truth and attacking perceived enemies. Faltering companies often lack vision and real competitive strengths. Their communications are usually mediocre, tactical and perfunctory.

The strong and enduring corporations – IBM, Toyota, Johnson and Johnson, Unilever, Chevron, etc. – are very accomplished in integrating and sustaining all of the key components – vision, values, culture, management, products, services, corporate social responsibility, and financial performance. While they cannot avoid mistakes, missteps and criticism, they are resilient and likely to thrive for many years to come. It’s not surprising that these companies have a history of strong communications.

Let us be thankful that most of us don’t work for crazed, despotic regimes; and hopeful none of us are employed in the corporate counterparts. For the most part, we are lucky enough to be employed by “normal” organizations that have great opportunities for communicators to play critical roles in shaping, strengthening and protecting valuable corporate reputations.

John Onoda, who has led the communications functions at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss, is a senior advisor at Gagen MacDonald, a firm that helps to develop and execute strategies related to organizational change and transformation.