The Digital Reality of Reputation Leadership.

In an interview with Anu Bhatnagar, Alternative Strategist Susan Furness suggests the fine line of Reputation just got finer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent people, societies, and corporates back to basics on the cusp of a massive shift; from here to questioning – where do we want to go, what kind of world do we want to build and what truly matters.

Trust is crucial is all of this. An economic definition suggests Trust is a person’s confidence in the honesty and integrity of someone they don’t personally know. Post-Covid Trust has emerged as a high-value currency, almost a beacon of hope for people who want to something to rely on as they seek certainty in this uncertain world.

Reputation is omni-driven

For businesses, trust and reputation are increasingly a critical challenges as well as vital assets. Weber Shandwick’s Corporate Reputation Report 2020 cites primary research suggesting that reputation is now omni-driven. And, of course this makes sense as most communication and connects are, right – omni-channels, omni-devices across omni-times zones and even omni-generations. That is, a company’s legacy portfolio of reputation drivers are no longer dependent on solely a few, often select ‘PR’ factors. Everything matters in reputation today, from attitude of employees, to product quality, to financial performance, to corporate culture, and to communications, and of course to show ‘we’ show up, especially in times of crisis.

Businesses and leaders must fast learn that behaviours, actions, policies and promises are watched and even scrutinized by omni-communities, 24.7. The acceptance or rejection of the leaders and their policies depends on how well they are trusted to deliver on promise.

So… what does this all mean for a brand?

We asked Susan Furness, a brand communications legend of UAE, known for her ability to sense ‘future trends’ to answer vital questions on Reputation Leadership. We also tap in her fortune-telling skills to unravel the future of reputation, now.

Q: Please define Reputation Leadership for us.  How different this is from the oft repeated term reputation management

Reputation Management, morphing into the more grown-up definition Reputation Leadership have each had their moments of fame over the last two decades, really taking off circa 2005. My considered thought then was there is no point in just managing reputation; you need to lead in it.

But is this the case today? Is it my place to lead or manage my reputation? And how does this influence brand image, if at all?

Let’s unpick this. Let’s look ‘inside’ the words – Reputation and Leadership. Let’s feel into the core of their meaning. Let’s release relevance for today’s reality.

Reputation is what others think of you. And no matter what you do, what one person thinks may not be what another thinks. This is because of perception. Perception is individual to the individual. What lands as say ‘interesting’ for one person, may land as ‘darn right confusing’ for the other.

Another notion of perception is opinion. The presence of opinion means that reputation is not actually mine. Reputation is the opinion of me held by another.

Look at it this way; my reputation held in opinion by another is either a positive gift or a positive lesson.

Notice, I have suggested that they are both positive (the gift and the lesson) – which they are, if I am open to receive.

Let’s look at the word leadership.

Here’s my favourite definition of a leader and/or leadership. I have also included a definition for management, remembering that Reputation Management preceded Reputation Leadership as the pre-#trend in the early 2000s. 

The purpose of Leadership is to create more leaders.

The purpose of Management is to get the job done (the process of getting the team to deploy).

So, back to the main question.

Here is my definition of Reputation Leadership today.

First up, Reputation Leadership is an oxymoron. You cannot lead something that belongs to another, as in their perception of me is my reputation through the eyes of another.

You may need to sit and think about this!

You can only accept your reputation when it is given to you – as a gift (praise) or a lesson (criticism).

Thus, if we consider the definition of brand image as the impression or perception or opinion or the image that another has of ‘the brand’ be it a personal brand or a corporate brand,  perhaps it is Reputation Management that is the critical strategic support needed in enhancing brand equity today – in this DC to AC world (during covid to after covid).

I could go on (and on) deconstructing and re-constructing brand image today, but I as I have more Qs to get through, please come back to be if you need more.

What impact does social media have on brand reputation?

In today’s digital era, reputation – or perception – is as good as a Snapchat Second. Years ago we PR pros would moot ‘it’s as long as a ‘New York Mile’. That reduced greatly to a Facebook Minute, before the second given by Snapchat or indeed Stories reduced the reputation window.

Having said that, on social channels the lifespan of content too reduces the reputation-impacting content. In some cases content is uploaded and then gone before you can call the Crisis team, right? But it still may have caused a stir, or a meme, or a GIF, or even beamed up into the shared media space, which is often difficulty to track.

Who leads the quest for Reputation Leadership and how?

Taking the other part of the phrase ‘Reputation Leadership’ – the leadership bit, I am going to make a statement around Leadership. And, as a strategist in business and in life, I rarely make statements these days. This is because experience has led me to find truth in observation, not opinion – a stance that I find especially critical as I deliver high-impact strategic advisory during these omni-channel, omni-view, omni-generational, omni-timezone times.

Here’s the statement: Leadership is the critical responsibility in managing reputation, be it brand image, brand value, brand promise, brand delivery, brand experience and more. 

So yes, from the entrepreneur to the stalwart to the president to the team captain, and every leader in between, showing up is paramount to reputation management, even on the days you may want to crawl under the duvet. I call this one of the attributes of a fearless leader.

And here’s more good news. Fearless leaders excel at passing the baton, empowering to create oneness of brand. It’s the fearful leaders that are perhaps seeding another oxymoron around leadership – until they let go of ego, to speak in, before speaking out.

What do we need to tell in our reputation leadership story?

Words matter. Words have energy. All words can create a ‘felt shift’ in the receiver or audience. The felt shift will ignite an action. This can be a positive, conducive action or it can be a negative, disruptive action, or it can land in no man’s land. Whatever, words spark a ‘cause and effect’.

Thus, the best thing entrepreneurial leaders can do, or any organisation leader for that matter, is to spend dedicated time to co-create brand voice and capture this as a Master Message Manual. My experience shows me this is best achieved in consultancy with a non-biased strategic wordsmith with the ability to listen to the words not spoken, as well as hear the words that are alive and kicking.

The next step is to allow this vocabulary and glossary to wash through the (brand, company, organization) to align every touch point, meanwhile allowing each team member the ‘trust’ to show up with individuality in customer, client, consumer, and media engagement.

It’s also crucial to remember, it’s not about what you want to say, but what those you are committed to serve (your audience) want to hear or need to hear. Indeed, I offer this same steer when an entrepreneurial start-up is looking to name the company, product or service. This can be quite emotional for an entrepreneur – more about what he/she likes, visions and dreams around brand identity (name, colour, logo and typeface).

May I suggest that the business is NOT a/your baby. Rather it’s true ‘ownership’ lies with your customers (all stakeholders). I will explore this more in my next blog perhaps.

What three things make a business leader a great champion of brand reputation leadership?

  1. Talk in before you talk out
  2. Listen to the heart, before you ask your head, and then engage your hands and plans.
  3. Acts of love and kindness provoke acts of love and kindness in others.

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