Feedback is information about something said or done by a source that is returned to the source or originator. Within communication contexts, feedback is reaction to a sender and its messages—it is the receivers’ views of the sender and the sender’s messages or actions. In the practice of managing corporate reputations, feedback includes information specifically about a message’s value, importance, and effect on an organization and its stakeholders and audiences. Feedback also has a significant effect on corporate image, identity, and reputation. Feedback has great utility in organizations as they attend to their reputations, which encompass past and present behaviors and performance. This entry summarizes the salient components of feedback by addressing its systems orientation, types, collection, and application.
Feedback is part of the system of communication that includes stimuli, senders, messages, channels, noise, receivers, and responses that occur within particular contexts. Feedback about a sender’s messages, actions, or other aspects loops back to the sender from a receiver of those messages, actions, or aspects. In this way, feedback enables a system to operate continuously. Certain mechanisms for obtaining feedback collect it frequently and regularly and then make the data available for analysis and application. The utility of feedback is in its contribution to ensuring or establishing stability or homeostasis for an organization’s reputation, even in the face of adversity.
Feedback comes in different guises that provide various forms of information. The most basic kinds of feedback are negative, revealing that something is wrong and must be corrected, and positive, indicating that all is well and is going well so that the system can grow. Feedback may be focused on something very specific about a person or organization, and it may be focused on a particular aspect or quality of a message. Feedback may be given immediately or be delayed. It may be spontaneous (low monitored) or well constructed before it is given (high monitored), or it may be withheld or distorted.
For corporate reputations, other, more specific types of feedback help make sense of the various responses or reactions to organizations and their messages, actions, and so on. Criticism includes three kinds of feedback that are more specific versions of negative-positive feedback ranging from dissension to affirmation. The first kind of criticism is destructive feedback, which is malicious and meant to cause substantial harm to the target person or group and its network of relationships, especially through rhetorical acts. The second kind of criticism is constructive feedback, and it comes in two forms: (1) deviation-counteracting feedback, which contains information from receivers that a sender is on the right path and upholding the receivers’ expectations and values, and (2) deviation-amplifying feedback, which contains information meant to inspire a better course of direction through alternative methods that conform to public expectations and values.
Feedback is essential to learning about one’s self, especially to capitalize on strengths and minimize or eliminate weaknesses. In this way, feedback becomes an input to the system, which means that there must be control guidelines that are used to determine when information is feedback, and when it is not, and if it is feedback, what kind it is so it can be applied appropriately. Mechanisms must be in place and be appropriately sensitive to monitor or listen to an environment for information that may be valuable for attaining certain objectives.
Methods for measurement and evaluation of corporate reputation, image, identity, messages, actions, policies, and other matters can and should be set up to obtain certain types of feedback for successful communication between an organization and its publics and stakeholders. The more feedback can be used to accurately anticipate environmental, stakeholder, or public action, the more important it can be because it has predictive value, especially for managing issues.
In the context of managing corporate reputations, the key matter about feedback is what publics know about an organization but do not disclose to that organization, thus creating a blind area of reputation for that organization. In short, an organization does not know what it does not know. Unless there is a mechanism to rectify that ignorance by seeking and obtaining feedback, that blind area will persist and likely grow. The result is an organization that operates in a kind of fantasy about its reputation and identity among stakeholders. Such an organization focuses on its own self-image—what it believes itself to be and what it believes stakeholders know—without much or any data that reveal the congruence or divergence between what it knows about itself and what others know about it. Corporate reputations, then, are best managed when an organization is open to feedback, seeks feedback systematically, reports thoroughly on the findings from feedback, and applies feedback for continuous improvement.
Feedback can be valuable only if it is used and used well. The mechanisms for collecting feedback are vital to sorting out information that is truly feedback instead of noise. Feedback, then, is true input. An active, purposeful, methodical, and predictive approach to collecting particular kinds of feedback offers people and organizations opportunities to make the most of the information that comes in. The key is having a climate that encourages good-quality feedback and uses it to make things better. Feedback must not be polluted by noise, which can distort, interfere, disrupt, or obscure it. Feedback is best applied in a transparent process that is open, honest, accurate, and timely.
Positive feedback is always nicer than negative feedback, and considerations about feedback sources affect which feedback is retained and applied. Expectations for selecting and retaining data about what is going on in an organization’s environment (internally and externally) guide what and how anything is perceived and, ultimately, used in sensemaking. For example, the caliber of a stakeholder may matter, as some stakeholders may be more important (i.e., more salient) than others for specific reasons, such as power, legitimacy, and urgency. Less important (i.e., nonsalient) stakeholders’ negative feedback may be ignored but probably should not be. Stakeholder saliency is one way in which organizational leaders and corporate reputation managers manage their resources for stakeholder relationships. Such resource allocation must be done with keen awareness of all stakeholder groups and their impact on an organization’s effectiveness by determining their powerfulness in influencing corporate decisions and actions; monitoring their opinions about matters that bear on their legitimacy to effect change on corporate image, identity, and reputation; and understanding the level of urgency their feedback may have.
Regardless of stakeholder saliency, when an organization is averse to negative feedback for any reason, the opportunity for improvement is lost. In many ways, organizations can suffer from the problem of lower-level members not passing on negative information upward in their organizations, perhaps out of fear of any consequences, especially personal or professional ones. Additionally, organizational members may magnify, minimize, or omit certain aspects of feedback to protect themselves, insulate a team, or fit perceived or assumed biases or expectations management may have. Such filtering of feedback inherently calls into question moral, ethical, and, perhaps, legal factors of sensemaking that affect decision making and subsequent action.
The consequences from negative feedback pale in comparison to the consequences from poor incorporation of feedback concerning distorted identity and reputation repair. Negative feedback, when used effectively, should result in new learning and improvements. Poorly incorporated negative feedback can result in passive-aggressive stakeholder behavior: If stakeholders believe that an organization is not open to feedback (or at least not open to negative feedback), they will tell other people what they think and feel instead of the organization. This behavior serves to enlarge the organization’s reputational blind spot if it is not measured. Another result is a function of mismatches between stakeholders’ and an organization’s views about matters affecting image and reputation. Organizations that either (a) overreact to something stakeholders view as relatively unimportant or inconsequential or (b) underreact to something stakeholders view as critical or substantially consequential mismanage their resources by doing too much or too little, respectively, to manage corporate identity and reputation. Stakeholder trust, then, suffers as management’s competence and sense of “reality” are put into question.
The best remedy for these problems is a valid, reliable, and ethical method for feedback collection, analysis, reporting, and application that is valued and enacted throughout an organization. Additionally, the sharing of findings from feedback involves the dynamics of message design, which is central to the managing of corporate reputations. In this regard, messages can work to feedforward information that is in anticipation of the main messages, which reflects the framing of anticipated future matters or topics. For example, an organization can use feedforward strategies to enhance its reputation with assertive messages or mitigate threats to its reputation with defensive messages (i.e., apologia) through discourse shared in appropriate media channels. Feedforward is a proactive way of eliciting feedback and taking action before issues become problems because the communication directs people’s attention to particular matters that are relevant to all parties.
Feedback’s greatest value is in its contribution to organizational learning, growth, and development. Feedback must be used to continuously improve an organization and its relationships with its stakeholders and audiences. What an organization’s leaders know and do not know about their organization can and must be revealed. Frequent and systematic gathering and application of feedback from stakeholders and audiences bridges the gap between what organizations know and do not know about themselves.
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