Keeping your reputation spotless

By Max du Bois

A grandee of the PR world once commented “Do ten things right and they don’t notice, do one thing wrong and they certainly do. It’s our job to get the ten things noticed to bury that one”. 

Why is it that some organisations seem to have shiny, ‘teflon’ reputations that carry their name into people’s hearts, wallets and into the halls of power? Yet most of us are left pushing against a crowded and noisy world, to get the causes that drive us and the good we do out there, constantly looking over our shoulders for the reputational iceberg that’s just waiting to trend.

The act of keeping a reputation spotless all to often focuses on the need to deal with the ‘bad’, when in fact the real work, and the real value to an organisation, is in building not just a resilient reputation but an engaging one. One that isn’t just capable of withstanding ‘bad’ but one that puts you on the front foot.

Most ‘bad’ isn’t in itself a real threat to an organisation, although with the chief executive on the phone and trustees hounding you like a newly minted reporter, it can certainly feel like it. Most instances are ‘stone in the shoe’: a minor and irritating pains that are inconvenient and need to be dealt with quickly but have no real impact.

The stronger the reputation, the easier it is to brush these spots off. But, get too many of these and they distract you from promoting the organisation which, in a world where being out of sight is definitely being out of mind, is a major problem. The cumulative effect of these minor irritants can build, increasingly eroding the resilience of your reputation to a point where small things have a big impact and positive things don’t.

A constant stream of bad news also has a very negative effect on the way organisations are run. They create a bunker mentality, making management teams and trustees risk averse to innovative ideas or fearful of major initiatives, and sap the morale of staff.

The 'significant' events, like financial mismanagement or harm to someone in our care, have of course, a profound impact. But then they often go to the heart of an organisation and highlight critical failings. Whether they have a catastrophic result, rather than just a highly damaging impact, depends on how strong a reputation you've built and whether they are perceived as one off events that have been resolved, or just one symptom of a rotten organisation. There's always the hope that it can be buried but if it's an unfixed systemic fault then it will come out.

The poor reputation of a sector as a whole will also tarnish often good organisations. In care, the recent exposure of abuse has put all providers under intense scrutiny. The perceptions of pay in the charity world means that the vastly reduced salaries, when compared to those in public sector or the commercial world, can be universally held up to scorn. Some, nothing can be done about on an individual basis, but really need to be addressed as a sector. For others, clear differentiation helps separate an organisation from being polluted by association or mistake.

The bedrock for keeping a spotless reputation is having a good reputation in the first place. And a good reputation can be built by three things.

Firstly, a clear understanding of your audiences. Which audiences are the most important in helping your organisation achieve its goals and how do they interact with you? A disproportionate amount of time and effort is often spent firefighting on peripheral audiences, rather than building a good reputation with core audiences. A spot or two round the edges doesn't really matter in the scheme of things.

Secondly, clear, key brand messages that engage and inspire these audiences. Brand can be split into two elements here: preference and trust.

Preference includes those things that hook our audiences to engage with us, from tactical fundraising products and campaigns to more strategic policy positions. It is crucial in engagement but needs underpinning to have any real value.

Trust is the critical thing. It is why what you say is believed and underpins almost every aspect of any communications. By itself, it’s not enough to engage audiences, but without trust, all communications will be largely wasted. What trust comprises of will vary from sector to sector, organisation to organisation and audience to audience. It's built not by making banal values statements or grandiose claims but by demonstrating them in action and impact, time and again. It's a slow build but, since we are working for the good guys, one that people are surprisingly open to. The real challenge is making it engaging and differentiating.

Trust also goes to the heart of the organisation. Good brands are a ‘truth well told’, not overpromising or papering over the cracks… and this is the core of it, reputation won’t make a bad organisation good but it can make a good organisation great.

The final pillar, communications. With relevant content and the right channels a basic given, the trick is making sure that everything is seen to come from the same organisation and all heading towards a common goal. And this goes far beyond slapping the logo on things. Done well, this gives a powerful context to each individual activity and draws together an organisation’s collective strengths.

Once these are in place, there's then the relentless day to day work of maintaining the reputation but, if done well, you can be confident that most spots won't stick for long.

Max du Bois is speaking at the CharityComms Reputation conference on 21 May.


‚ÄčImage: Banksy & Hirst: Keeping it spotless. Source: eddiedangerous - flickr -