We are living - and working - in a peculiar moment. Thanks to the internet and the proliferation of news outlets, information has never been more abundant. Yet, all content is not created equal. The value and veracity of content is now hotly contested. In this environment, ideas are judged by their messenger as well as their merits. At a higher level, we find ourselves now inhabiting and operating in a marketplace of reputation.
This reputation economy presents companies, governments, and nonprofit organizations with both tremendous opportunities and challenges. On the opportunity side, there are more media outlets than ever before, and so there are more choices for how to channel key messages to audiences. Knowing which outlets are most influential - and have the best reputation - among your targeted audiences and stakeholders is a critical first step before deciding where (and whether) to engage.
Moreover, the Internet has shattered the media sphere’s barriers to entry. If a consumer product company has a strong reputation with its customers, or a nonprofit is reputable with its donors and beneficiaries, or a government is well regarded by its constituents, there’s no reason it can’t become an effective media organization itself. More and more companies are spending money on owned media: newsy microsites, blog content, digital video, and social media content; not because these are trendy, but because they can connect with audiences in unfiltered and unfettered new ways.
At the same time, reputations are increasingly fragile. Although positive reputations are built up gradually over time, negative reputations can be harmed by a single story. An isolated product defect or the poor judgement of a single employee can jeopardize the reputation of a company. In an age of information abundance, when many media outlets or social influencers peddle scandal, a gossipy or inaccurate media story can imperil an organization’s reputation with bottom-line consequences.
It feels quaint and somewhat old-fashioned writing about reputation. Like advice your grandfather would give. But, in our global era where information, capital, and people move across borders with new rapidity and recurrence, old wisdom has newfound relevance and newfound applications. What kinds of ingredients go into reputation? In our work advising corporate and government leaders on strategic communications, we focus on the 4 Rs of Reputation Management: Reliability, Relevance, Respect, and Relationships.
Establishing reliability and trust is critical. Organizations which aren’t credible among their stakeholders essentially cede their license to operate. Organizations and their leaders must be perceived as reliable; successfully achieving what they set out to do.
Relevance is an underappreciated ingredient of reputation - if one’s audience can’t identify with or relate to one’s mission, it’s hard for that audience to support it.
While it’s necessary to be relevant, it’s even more preferable to be respected. Business practices which garner respect are the holy grail of reputation. Respect is gained through a combination of laudable actions and effective communication of the vision driving those actions.
Relationships are the glue that hold together the other key elements of Reputation Management. In order to know what your stakeholders view as reliable, relevant, and meriting respect, you must first understand and appreciate their beliefs, values, and opinions. Identifying and engaging key stakeholders is a critical first step to gaining these insights. The next level of engagement should focus on deepening these relationships to cultivate champions for your organization.
Chartwell has deep experience with stakeholder analysis and engagement across a wide range of sectors. One of the first things we do for any new client is to help it identify and prioritize its different stakeholder groups and then determine the most effective channels to engage them. We appreciate that these different groups bring distinct preconceptions, interests, and attitudes to our client and its peer group.
Reputational considerations vary from group to group, and we work closely with our clients to make sure their organizational objectives and messaging strategies account for this variation. While inconsistency and hypocrisy are rightly penalized in this reputation marketplace, the so-called “message discipline” or “message consistency” need to be adapted to today’s media environment.
Niche channels targeting ever narrower target audiences now enable a kind of message flexibility or modularity — an organization can emphasize one thing to investors on CNBC, another to lawmakers reading The Hill, another to opinion leaders reading the New York Times opinion page, and yet another to its current and future customers on Instagram. At the same time, there still needs to be to an overarching narrative that brings coherence and clarity to an organization’s communications.
In this reputation economy, we’re staking our reputation on helping our clients measurably improve their reputations. Contact us at email@example.com if you want to talk more.
Chartwell Strategy Group | Washington, DC • Boston • New York
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