Intelligent public relations: strategies for the future of reputation management

By Jennifer Hardie

I recently spoke at a PR conference where I was asked to talk about my view of “Intelligent Public Relations”. There was lots of debate and discussion about what makes PR “intelligent”. Here’s an excerpt from my paper and some points that I raised.

Gone are the days when people were put in the public relations department because they were “good with people” or needed to organise hotel stays or book flights for visitors coming to visit their organisation. In today’s modern organisation, the public relations department must be strategically aligned with the overall business strategy. This means that the public relations department must be multi-skilled, multi-lingual and capable of working in a number of environments.

The modern public relations department is the keeper of an organisation’s reputation. In today’s world, reputation is not just nice to have, it is business critical. Intangible assets such as brands or customer goodwill account for 78% of market value of Fortune 500 companies.[1] This is a huge change from just 30 years earlier, when only 17% of a company’s value was attributed to its reputation.

If any organisation wants to be intelligent in the way it operates, it needs to consider its reputation. Reputation refers to how positively or negatively a company or organisation is perceived by its key stakeholders such as employees, customers, investors, NGOs, suppliers, regulators, analysts and even the media.

Alan Greenspan, former US Federal Reserve Chairman once said: “In today’s world, where ideas are increasingly displacing the physical in the production of economic value, competition for reputation becomes a significant driving force, propelling our economy forward.”

Why has there been such a shift to the importance of reputation? The increased use of social media and people power are largely responsible – social media is being used to hold companies and governments to account. The voice of the little person can now be heard in a way that it couldn’t before.  Today, you are not who you say you are, you are who Google says you are.

With the risks of social media, there are also great opportunities. Social media is an opportunity for reputation management because it has never been so easy to observe, monitor and track your reputation now that the conversations are public. Engaging in this space is difficult and culturally challenging. Traditionally organisations in this region are private and communicate through formal announcements. But nobody will put a boring press release on Twitter or Facebook. Organisations need to become more open or transparent, say more, show more, reveal more, and do so in a genuine way, and be prepared not to be controlling. Otherwise they will have no voice in their own reputation.

Intelligent tools and tactics

However strong the urge to embrace these waves of innovation and change that are sweeping the global communication landscape, it is equally crucial that we defend and adapt where necessary the enduring principles that have defined the effective practice of public relations for many years. Foremost among these is the principle of authenticity.

Authenticity is nothing new. There is a famous saying: “It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” This quotation was often been attributed to PT Barnum, the legendary 19th century showman whose mastery of stunts and hyperbole crowned him as a forefather of modern publicity. In reality, the words belong to a wiser and more conventional leader: Abraham Lincoln. And even two centuries on, the fact that these words could belong to either end of this spectrum speaks volumes about the position of strategic communication at the nexus between serious business strategy and explosive, creative public engagement.

And don’t those words ring true today, when we consider the rapidly progressing maturity of the communication profession in the Middle East? Who among us, when reading a statement or press release, does not regularly look up in disbelief and ask, “do they really expect us to believe that? Do they still think they can get away with saying that?”

The crux of the matter is this: there can be no benefit to reputation without credibility. There can be no credibility without authenticity. People who say things that they themselves do not believe, will cease to be believed by others. Companies whose grand claims and boasting do not match the reality of the service and experience received by their stakeholders will store up resentment and destroy goodwill.

Of course, the need for authenticity is nothing new. Trust has always been central to reputation and to public communication. Companies, organisations, leaders and governments all rely on trust, and there is no stronger tool for building and maintaining trust than the strategic application of communication. The context, however, is new in at least one important dimension: the expectation of absolute transparency. Never before have publics had so much visibility within organisations. It has been driven by two factors: controlled and uncontrolled visibility.

Controlled visibility has risen steadily in the past two decades as organisations have opened their doors and windows for stakeholders to see in. Witness the bulk and thickness of company annual reports. Witness the transformation of corporate websites from simple brochures to massive information resources for stakeholders. Witness the birth of a new sector, corporate responsibility – and the public communication that these activities drive. Witness, in our profession, the exponential growth in headcount for communication professionals. Why have companies and organisations done this? Not out of the goodness of their hearts. It is because transparency breeds goodwill. Goodwill secures licence to operate. It justifies a premium. It defends against crisis. Goodwill is the very essence of success. It is easier to do business well when stakeholders feel they know you and trust you – authentically.

Uncontrolled visibility is, of course, a consequence of the media revolution. Early on in the age of social media, many traditional organisations felt threatened and worked hard to lock down and control social media, for instance by blocking access to social media websites for employees at work. It’s futile, of course – what use blocking facebook on work PCs when every employee has it in his or her pocket on a smartphone? An organisation that is worried about its employees wasting time on YouTube doesn’t have a problem with social media, it has problem with employee motivation and performance culture. You cannot build information-proof walls around an organisation any more. Technology and culture will make them porous in an instant.

Control freakery about social media is also self-defeating, because an organisation’s best possible ambassadors of authenticity are its employees. Witness a company like Google: its brand is tied up closely with the reputation for excellence and creativity of its people. Witness the rise and success of corporate blogs, when they show genuine thought leadership.

The consequence of all this, for strategic communicators, is that the genie is out of the bottle. So many organisations are living the transparency revolution, sharing their genuine essence with the world, that those who remain private and closed are dangerously isolated on the wrong side of history. It comes down to public expectations, and we have long since passed the tipping point where publics and stakeholders expect and demand organisations to be transparent.

Of course it is acceptable to have secrets. Commercially sensitive strategy, financial data, personal Information and so on are legitimately private. Nobody expects transparency to such a degree. What is expected of us now is that we stop behaving as if everything must be private, and start instead from a presumption of openness and transparency, unless there is a reason to think otherwise.

And it’s not just about facts and information – it’s about communicating the genuine nature of an organisation, its corporate culture. Don’t tell me your mission, vision and values embrace respect and customer service, if your workforce doesn’t. Witness the success of a company like RyanAir. This low-cost airline promises only one thing: the cheapest possible flight, explicitly with no creature comforts, and staff who are famously unhelpful to customers. The promise is brave, and it works. Ryanair was founded as recently as 1985 and is now the seventh largest airline in the world. The communication works because it is authentic.

RyanAir’s outspoken CEO Michael O’Leary might not have much in common with Abraham Lincoln, but they would agree on one thing: tell it like it is. Why? O’Leary would say, because it works. It makes you successful. Lincoln, would say, because it’s the right thing to do.

They’re both right.

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This article draws on the knowledge base from ISOC courses on communication strategy.