Corporate reputation: 5 ways to lose it

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BY THE THAMES — I am hiding from the Hallow’een mobs by sitting in a pub near the river in London. I am not proud.

I was watching music videos with my 12-year old today and she insisted we change channels when Lady Gaga’s song persistently referencing her “disco stick” came on.

“I don’t get it, but I know I don’t like it,” she said. And I am happy to be middle-aged outraged, but didn’t my parents listen to Chuck Berry sing about his “ding-a-ling”?

What has changed in the world in 50 years? Arguably, not very much. In matters of corporate reputation, we still want businesses to have the same moral and social concerns as people — even when they are not set up to do so.

Whereas businesses weren’t always under such immediate threat from politicians, the press and social media — on a global basis — industries also used to take a much more long-term and lackadaisical approach to reputation.

Today, at least we have access to measurement and we are more savvy in management of people and messages.

None the less, here are our five fastest ways to destroy your reputation. Because unfortunately company after company still get it wrong too often:

1. Don’t perform (and say you did)

There is no way that a business can have a good reputation if they are not hitting the numbers that they project. You have to perform to have any reputation at all. If businesses aren’t getting results there’s really no positive reputation to manage. As the saying goes: you can’t polish… something unpolishable. The worst kind of offense in this category is still the company that pretends there is no problem.

2. Blame the equipment

In the much discussed case of Audi’s ‘unintended acceleration’ the company initially put the problem down to ‘driver error.’ Which is like my friend Ellen Green who went to the Folie Bergere in the 70s and found gum at the bottom of her salad bowl… “Nice try”, said the frosty Maitre d, “we know you put that there to get a free meal.” You must know that it wasn’t you first. And even then, the customer is always right.

3. Ignore the leaky boat

Social media is being much maligned as a mob-rule that can turn on companies quickly and with great effect. But it’s not. You just have to be more aware and not give people something to complain about. There are over 500 “Royal Mail” groups on Facebook. (The word ‘suck’ appears in many of them.) And France Telecom has 300+ with the word ‘suicide’ in a lot of them. Missing, and not acting on the warning signs of company problems is a surefire way to cause yourself pain.

4. Do something horrible

This sounds too obvious. But it’s not. The way you manage your people, the way you ensure safety at work, the way you spend your money in the community all affect the way you do business. Operational issues ARE the way you do business. And often we don’t think about how those issues affect those around the business. Many, many businesses are waking up from this recession and realising they burned the furniture to keep warm. Now they’re looking for a chair.

5. Ignore your reputation

One day we’ll look at companies who don’t worry about their reputation and wonder how they ever survived. It’s easy to manage a crisis, relatively speaking. It’s much harder to actively manage your reputation in a positive way.

Very few businesses, at the end of 2009, can look at this list and say “none of these apply to me.”

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