Inside the corporations that aren’t near the top of Fortune’s Most Admired list — in other words, at most businesses — a commonly asked question is “What program can we do to be among the companies that get all the attention?”
This question indicates a shallow understanding of how a corporate reputation is developed. Reputation is not the product of a single ad campaign or initiative; and it is not produced by marketing and/or public relations activities apart from daily operations. Rather, it is a matter of managing all parts of a business in a way that takes into account the interests of diverse stakeholder audiences.
A key question for communicators is, “How do we even begin the process of building a highly regarded corporate reputation, especially at an ‘average’ company?”
In regard to corporate reputations, the place to start is with the reputation of the communications function inside the organization. If that reputation isn’t strong, there is a good chance a great reputation cannot be built and sustained in the marketplace.
Why is this?
Because the best corporate reputations are the result of business and policy decisions that are perceived favorably by all audiences, plus the avoidance of major missteps (oil spills, data breaches, finding of criminal behavior, unfair treatment of workers or contractors, callous disregard for customers, etc., etc.)
The correct alignment of all these factors does not happen by accident. In most cases, it requires a chief communications officer who can exert influence when a host of key decisions are made. How should we respond to an environmental mishap? How do we communicate with employees as we make major changes in our business? How do we address public policy issues in a toxic political environment? How do we get Wall Street to properly value our investment in sustainable growth? How do keep friendly relations with business partners when relationships have to be re-engineered? And on and on.
What does the top communications professional need to prevail when these crucial matters are decided? Influence based on the reputation of the communications function within the company. Influence is more important than a communications department’s budget or head count when it comes to enhancing corporate reputation.
Of course, not even the best and most successful communications functions win all the debates when a company’s leadership discusses key issues, but they prevail often enough to keep their organizations well ahead of the competition. Departments whose value is not appreciated or who are considered marginal players have almost no voice in the major decisions. Corporate reputations suffer as a result.
So here’s my suggestion: If you desire to make significant progress in bolstering your company’s reputation, start with an objective assessment of how your function is viewed by internal clients and by determining whether you have an influential voice when the most important business decisions are being made. If the findings indicate that your reputation isn’t strong enough to give you a seat at the table with top decision-makers, I suggest you address this weakness before expending vast amounts of time, energy and political capital on initiatives that probably won’t significantly improve your company’s reputation.
It can be done. Almost all top communications functions were at one point marginalized yet they found way to become indispensable in all strategic discussions. By gaining respect and influence, they helped their leadership teams pursue courses of action that led to stronger corporate reputations and, almost always, better business results over time.
The key for communications professionals is tackling challenges in the correct order.
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.