Paradoxes in Reputation Management
Several paradoxes may emerge when reputation management recipes are used. Paradox refers to the idea that the arguments for using the recipes can be turned about-face and become arguments for not using them.
Organizations, both private and public, are now expected to manage their own identity and be proactive in positively influencing society’s perceptions of them. They are expected to follow recipes that have been provided by consultants and are associated with previous success stories. Failures and disappointments are frequently explained by a lack of leadership and determination in implementation.
Both organization theories and recipes for reputation management are usually presented as internally consistent and rational. However, since there are multiple theories as well as divergent practices in a given field of action, those who believe in rationality and control may be in for many surprises. This is not an argument for not using such recipes or theories. Practice-oriented theories, like those underpinning management recipes, are limited in scope because they are supposed to guide managers in action. Those observing the action from a distance or taking a more pragmatic attitude may sometimes grasp reality better, but their theories may not easily serve as an immediate guide for action. The much-noted complexity associated with the public sector in contrast with the private sector may, nonetheless, be a reason for public managers and communication professionals to take a step back and reflect on the paradoxical nature of organizing. This entry presents seven paradoxes associated with reputation management.
The Uniqueness Paradox
The first, and much-noted, paradox is the uniqueness paradox. Reputation management is claimed to help create diversity, but one could just as easily argue that it contributes to homogenization. When everyone seeks to be unique but follows the same recipe for creating uniqueness, the outcome may be that they all become more similar. This may happen, for instance, when unique local products are to go through a certification process in order to be branded as “terroir” or when TV stations seek to develop unique programming in a competitive market.
The Trust Paradox
The second paradox relates to trust. A major reason for doing reputation management is to build trust, but one could just as easily claim that the consequence of following the recommended recipes may be to undermine trust. Mistrust can, in some cases, be a precondition for general trust. However, the communication professionals and the managers who are the main actors in reputation management according to the recipes are not among the most trusted in society. If the aim is to create trust, it would therefore be better to leave the task of communication to other professionals or those who are actually doing the work.
The Transparency Paradox
The third paradox relates to the assumption that if organizations open up and show the public how and what decisions are made and what the results are, people will automatically have more trust in organizations. But research on the relationship between transparency and trust does not show that there is such an effect. The effect of transparency on trust may in some cases be negative, depending on the task area and culture. As soon as more information is provided, other information will be less in focus or even hidden. The state of being transparent cannot involve full openness; it is most likely characterized by strategic communication.
The Risk Management Paradox
It is claimed that organizations must follow reputation recipes to prepare themselves for responding to crises and reputational loss. In some cases, however, reputation management itself may generate the risk it is supposed to ward against. One example of this would be when a central leader who is asked to comment on survey results ends up misinterpreting them in a way that dramatizes the situation and as a consequence creates a reputation crisis. Exaggerated promises (“We shall be the top-ranking institution by 2020”) also may provoke a negative attitude in the environment and lead to a worse reputation. Reputation management in itself can therefore be a risky project.
The Integrated Communication Paradox
Integrated communication is claimed to be an ideal situation where several disciplines and functions collaborate and an organization’s central leadership manages all communication. In practice, however, leaders may either not want to integrate the various specialties of communication or at least find it extremely difficult to do so, because it is a contested area of expertise and a potential challenge to the role of the top manager.
The Private-Public Paradox
It is claimed that private and public organizations have no principal differences as far as reputation management goes. This claim presupposes that the most important aspect of the public sector is how efficient it is in implementing decisions and delivering services. If using a different approach—one that emphasizes more the democratic nature of the public sector and sees representative democracy and impartiality as a precondition for service delivery—the conclusion would be different. The aim of reputation management for public organizations should rather be to uphold public values like impartiality, neutrality, and expertise rather than to seek “efficiency” in service provision as the one and only goal. Those who do not see this difference may end up being surprised when opponents criticize them for undermining the integrity and values of the public sector.
The Professionalization Paradox
For a reputation management recipe to have lasting significance, it is claimed, those who administer it—those who plan and take care of the communication function—must gain increased status through professionalization. If by professionalization one means a more advanced knowledge base, however, it is uncertain whether this will give higher status, since the associated movement toward standardization and routinization of knowledge allows for other professionals, and not least managers, to take over tasks related to communication. Professionalization of the knowledge base of communication management does not always lead to increased status and influence.
Byrkjeflot, H. (2015). Driving forces, critique, and paradoxes of reputation management in public organizations. In A. Wæraas & M. Maor (Eds.), Organizational reputation in the public sector (pp. 54–72). New York: Routledge.
Lewis, M. W., & Smith, W. K. (2014). Paradox as a metatheoretical perspective: Sharpening the focus and widening the scope. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 50, 127–149.
Wæraas, A., & Byrkjeflot, H. (2012). Public sector organizations and reputation management: Five problems. International Public Management Journal, 15(2), 186–206.