Reputation, Dimensions of
Dimensions of corporate reputation has been understood in three different ways. The first way concerns the idea that organizations can hold different types of reputations (or have multiple reputations). The second concerns the answer to the question “Reputation for what?” The third way refers to dimensions in the social scientific sense, where there are four dimensions of corporate reputation, and reputation attributes is just one of them. This last way refers to corporate reputation as a “global variable” that must be broken down into multiple dimensions, each of which may have its own influences on its existence and may also have individual consequences or outcomes associated with it. Reputation topics or dimensions are seldom the focus of corporate reputation research, but they are an important component. This entry focuses on the three perspectives of dimensions of corporate reputation, including how the reputation dimensions are identified.
The first way by which the dimensions of reputations can be understood is through the concept of multiple reputations. Using John Balmer’s framework of AC4ID, organizations can be seen to have different dimensions of reputation. The actual reputation is concerned with individual perceptions and/or social facts, uncovered through interviews or participant observation. The communicated reputation refers to what organizations say about their reputations, whether reframing, distilling, or highlighting. This is often uncovered via content analysis. The conceived reputation occurs through sensemaking and co-construction of individuals. It can be uncovered via interviews or content analysis. The construed reputation refers to the construed external image, or what top managers think outsiders think the organization’s reputation is. This is often uncovered via interviews. The covenanted reputation refers to the reputation as a result of the brand promise. It can be uncovered via archival research, content analysis, interviews, or surveys. The ideal reputation refers to the optimal positioning of the organization (“current reality”). It comes from reputation/market research that takes the organization’s economic, market, and competitive landscape and realities into account. The desired reputation refers to the top management team’s aspirations for the organization in terms of the type of reputation they want the organization to be known for. This idea of the “known for” leads to the second way by which reputation dimensions are understood. This is often uncovered via interviews or survey research.
Reputation for What?
Corporate reputation research on the question “reputation for what?” has generally focused on the company attributes known as reputation attributes. The attributes include the general categories of products, services, and the quality of companies’ commercial offerings; customer orientation; economic/financial results and performance; executive leadership; the workplace; ethics and governance; social, civic, and environmental responsibility; innovation; international presence; and corporate communication. In some studies, aspects have been combined. For example, strategic management often combines products and services with customer orientation, but the marketing discipline breaks them up into separate dimensions. Likewise, business and society research often breaks ethics and governance into two categories and considers social, civic, and environmental responsibilities as different types of attributes, each deserving attention. As most of these cognitive attributes reveal, reputation attributes can be placed on a continuum from macro to micro, with the subattributes having components or subattributes of their own. Likewise, some research studies consider emotional appeal to be a reputation attribute. The focus of this section concerns cognitive, substantive, or topical dimensions of reputation that can be considered as areas that are properties of the organization or that concern their performance.
Corporate Reputation Attributes
Products, Services, and the Quality of the Commercial Offer
The products, services, and quality of the commercial-offer category refers to whether the company offers high-quality products and services that are a good value for the money, whether it stands behind its products and services, and whether there is value in terms of the product, the brand, and the money spent.
Customer orientation refers to how companies treat their customers, separate from products and services. Topics studied here include whether companies are concerned about their customers and have employees who treat customers fairly and courteously and are concerned about customer needs. It also includes whether the company takes customer rights seriously and seems to care about all of its customers regardless of how much money they spend with the company.
Economic/Financial Results and Performance
The category of economic and financial results and performance consists of the company’s degree of success and financial performance. This includes whether the company is profitable, is solvent, delivers financial results that are better than expected, and appears to make financially sound decisions. This category is also concerned with the quality of economic information and whether companies like it would be a good investment. Among other characteristics are that the company has strong prospects for future growth, has a clear vision of its future, recognizes and takes advantage of market opportunities, and outperforms its competitors.
The leadership category includes whether the company is well managed and has a strong and appealing leader with excellent leadership qualities and that the leader has a clear vision for its future. This category also includes whether the company is well organized and has excellent managers who are qualified and who seem to pay attention to the needs of the company’s employees. One study identified five substantive dimensions used for assessing political candidates—(1) competence, (2) personality, (3) charisma, (4) reliability, and (5) integrity)—and adapted the attributes to the examination of CEOs’ media images and reputations.
The category of the workplace includes having an internal reputation as a good employer with good employees, high standards for the way the company treats its employees, good labor conditions, and ethical and professional values, and that rewards its employees fairly. Additional traits include concern for the health and well-being of its employees, offering equal opportunities in the workplace, and the nature of the organization’s corporate or organizational culture.
Ethics and Governance
The ethics and governance category concerns whether the company is open and transparent about the way it operates, whether it behaves ethically, and whether it is fair in the way it does business.
Social, Civic, and Environmental Responsibility
The social, civic, and environmental responsibility category includes whether the company is committed to the community, to charitable and social issues, to protecting the environment, and to supporting good causes. Other characteristics include making an effort to create new jobs, acting responsibly to protect the environment, and having a positive influence on society, even reducing its profits to ensure a clean environment.
The innovation category includes whether the company is an innovative company, invests in research and development, offers new products and services, has a culture of innovation and change, adapts quickly to change, and is generally the first company to go to market with new products and services.
The category of international presence concerns the number of countries covered, the results of its international operations, and its strategic international alliances.
The category of corporate credibility concerns the credibility of the company’s advertising claims, its honesty, and its well-being for its publics, audiences, and stakeholders.
Attributes Across Cultures
It is important to point out that the reputation attributes included earlier were primarily based on corporate reputation scales that measure reputation vis-à-vis surveys and public opinion polls. Other measures of reputation come from media coverage. Cross-cultural media research has revealed that there are other reputation attributes that are important to people that do not always match what is prevalent in press coverage. For example, research in South Korea has shown that while media coverage devotes more attention to human resource management, marketing, and corporate issues, the public is more concerned about the attributes of the CEO and the ethics of the company more generally.
Dimensions of Reputation as a Global Variable
Before a firm can be said to have a reputation, people must be familiar with the company’s name (organizational prominence). Public prominence is generally regarded as the first dimension of reputation. This raises the question of whether all firms even have or desire a reputation. Some firms do not; rather, they prefer to be anonymous and under the radar. This allows them to stay out of the public’s eye. Other firms, typically business-to-consumer firms, are well-known for being prominent.
Public esteem is regarded as the second dimension of reputation. The public esteem (or prestige) dimension is largely the degree to which the firm is liked, trusted, admired, regarded, and respected. While most organizations want to be liked, trusted, and admired, not all organizational forms have high degrees of public favorability as one of their aspirations. This dimension is also thought about in terms of a generalized favorability (positive, negative, or neutral). Public sector organization research shows that many organizations in this sector simply want to be middle-of-the-road, or neutral, so as not to raise expectations too high but simply meet minimal expectations.
Reputation attributes are regarded as the third dimension of reputation. This dimension is the same as the “Reputation for what?” discussed in the previous section. However, there are an almost endless number of attributes that could define an organization’s reputation, provided the attributes are material to the stakeholders, audiences, or publics doing the evaluating. These include performance traits, organizational properties, and various other relational aspects tied to the organization’s structural communication properties and communication style.
The most common attributes in corporate reputation research are executive leadership, workplace culture, environmental and social responsibility, corporate governance, and financial performance. Performance traits have been described more completely in the earlier section “Reputation for What?”
Organizational properties or traits are tied to the very existence, definition, and constitution of an organization and thus cannot be easily changed without changing the character of the organization. Juridical traits refer to organizational traits that are determined or recorded by the courts and public records. Other, more common organizational traits concern an organization’s demographics. Organizational demographics are organizational age, industry sector, size, revenue, geographic origin, and strategy. Anthropomorphic, or character, traits refer to traits that typically apply to people but through anthropomorphism are applied to organizations. Anthropomorphism refers to imbuing or ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects. So character traits for organizations would be human-like characteristics, such as trustworthiness, reliability, dependability, and goodwill. Other traits ascribed to organizations include corporate personality traits. Character traits refer to moral or ethical qualities revealing the nature of the organization, including what the organization does out of the public eye, when no one is watching. An organization’s inherent traits refer to those that have been with the organization since the organization’s “birth.” Inherent traits have generally been considered to be “genetically” determined, thus revealing the “organizational DNA” root metaphor.
Organizations often form linkages between themselves and their traits, their corporate conduct/performance attributes, and their stances or connections to public issues or other organizations, such as their competitors in their industry. Associations are also formed by audiences when they make connections between what they see, hear, or experience about organizations and then conjoin these observations to their internal associative networks. Examples of plexes include an organization’s sociometric traits, institutional traits, technical efficacy traits, issue ownership, and network centrality. An organization’s sociometric characteristics are concerned with the organization’s network relationships. These include variables such as country of origin, organizational accreditations and/or certifications, the size of the community where the organization’s headquarters are located, the size of the communities where its regional offices are, and organizational density (the size of the “crowd”—i.e., the number of organizations in the organization’s industry or committed to the same course of action).
Institutional traits signify the organization’s symbolic conformity to socially constructed standards and categories that are more context specific and less universal than character traits. Technical efficacy traits are the tangible/material outputs delivered by organizations that are valued by their stakeholders because they meet their needs, interests, and expectations, however parochial or general these may be. Technical efficacy traits are different from performance and achievement attributes in the sense that they signal the organization’s ability to take action and “make things happen.” The criteria of delivery are simply quality and quantity and purely instrumental in orientation. Thus, a technical efficacy trait is not that an organization produced a superior product but that the organization made material and observable changes to produce a valued product. This is a strong form of technical efficacy traits. A lesser form is that the actions affect reputation simply because people believe that there are implications for technical efficacy based on what they see or hear. The basis for audience appeal is that the organization delivered on something of value to the audience.
Issue ownership concerns where organizations fall on the issues of the day and their ability to be in front of or behind those issues and to be associated with the popular views of issues and not associated with issues lacking public support. The organization generally held to be the thought leader, the token representative, or the company that comes to mind in the context of an issue is generally regarded as the one that owns the issue. An organization’s network centrality concerns its degree of embeddedness or disembeddedness within a network, including ties with notable persons, places, organizations, objects, attributes, or issues.
Organizations’ Structural Communication Properties
Organizations possess a number of properties tied to their structural communication. The most common properties include ideographic characteristics, policies, communication channels, ideologies, and organizational alignment. Ideographic characteristics are, for example, the graphic symbols used to represent or brand the organization and the graphic style on its website. These include stationery, printed matter (e.g., brochures and leaflets), advertisements, websites, vehicles, building architecture, and corporate clothing. Visual identity as a communication attribute communicates something about who an organization is (including how it sees itself); how it is to be identified, recognized, categorized, positioned, or distinguished among a field of organizations; and how it relates to the world and its stakeholders.
Characteristics of the organization’s formal policies for communication include, for example, written corporate communication policies, such as those stating who can speak on behalf of the organization as a company spokesperson; identity guidelines; policies on workplace civility; social media policies; and whistleblowing policies. Communication channel characteristics consist of items such as the navigation structure of the organization’s website, the number of communication channels available to stakeholders, the number of touchpoints possible for the stakeholder, and the “media richness” of the channels that are available. Organizational ideologies concern the informal processes associated with producing, consuming, or co-constructing, or deconstructing, organizational messages. This includes how organizations handle, punish, reward, or encourage the suppression of dissent or conflict or engage in conflict avoidance. Finally, organizational alignment refers to when organizational leaders and members disagree or are not on the same page about the organization’s identity; it affects members’ identification, organizational support, commitment, organizational performance, and personal resource allocation.
Organization Communication Style
An organization’s communication style can also produce reputation attributes. Language expectancy theory applied to organizations suggests that what organizations communicate and how they communicate should affect, at least initially, the perceptions of new stakeholders, publics, and audiences. In situations where these groups have very little information to judge an organization, and no access to third parties such as word of mouth or the news media, they will rely on their assessment of the organization’s communication behaviors for judgments about the organization. Some properties tied to communication styles include the organization’s insistence, tone, and self-disclosures and its stance toward its publics.
Organizational insistence suggests that the words organizations use reveal important aspects of their social and psychological worlds, such as the organizations’ collective self-esteem, their views of their audiences, the situations they face, and indications that the organization may have hidden, secret, or distorted identities. Word choice also reveals how strategic and focused (e.g., with the expression that one is “on message”) or unfocused a speaker is. Roderick Hart describes this as insistence, an indicator of rhetorical focus and agenda control. Its assumption is that repeating key terms constantly reveals a speaker’s preference for a limited, orderly world intended to keep an audience on a short leash.
Organizational tone refers to the way an organization sounds, as determined by its word choice surrounding particular themes that reveal something about the organization’s preferences. Organizational agents who represent the organization through discourse (e.g., speech writers, public relations practitioners, or copywriters) are not always cognizant of these tendencies until someone brings them to their attention. Some aspects of tone include an organization’s optimism, characterized by the degree of blame, hardship, and denial or by the degree of praise, inspiration, and satisfaction coming from the organization. Another degree of tone consists of organizational certainty, which refers to the conviction that something is true and indicates the highest degree of precision. An organization’s realism is reflected through its language indicating tangible, immediate, and recognizable matters that affect people’s day-to-day lives. An organization’s commonality is revealed through its preference for discussing solidarity and the agreed-on values of a group and the rejection of the idiosyncratic or the unusual. Computer-aided text analysis programs are one way by which organizational agents and third-party observers identify these various aspects of tone.
Organizational self-disclosures reveal the organization’s motives, interests, biases, tendencies, habits, drama, regard for self and others, and blind spots. For example, organizations can be known for the degree to which they talk about themselves, their accomplishments, their abstract virtues, and/or their human interest. They can also be known for the degree to which they embellish, deny, or inspire or the degree to which they accept responsibility or blame others and/or the environment. This includes organizations’ communication about their performance on the performance and achievement attributes, such as involvement in corporate social responsibility (tooting their own horn, relying on third parties, or modesty).
Organizational stance concerns the perceptions publics have of an organization’s willingness to enter into dialogue with a public.
Research on corporate associations has two meanings. One definition concerns the inferences people make about organizations, their characteristics, and their interplay. Here, the focus is on the observer’s evaluations and interpretations. The concept of corporate associations refers to all the information that a person links to a particular company. They may be primary or secondary. A primary association refers to the attribute category, and a secondary association refers to the microlevel attributes within the category. For instance, a consumer may know that a company makes a particular product, but what he or she thinks of the product (i.e., its price, quality, degree of innovation, ease of use, reliability) is a secondary association.
The second kind of corporate association refers to the salient linkage between the company as an object and other objects, be they performance attributes, other companies, the industry, the product market, other people, the CEO, or the issues of the day. The difference between a corporate association and a corporate attribute is that a corporate attribute is understood as a topic within the context of a focal organization. That is, the attribute is subordinated to the named company and occurs in the context of the company in an asymmetrical manner. In contrast, corporate associations are the attributes that are formed because of the salient linkage between the company and the other object in a symmetrical way, where the focus is on the linkage as a property instead of the focal organization. A good example of a corporate association is one formed through a cross-sector partnership, attachment to a management fashion, or an innovation (e.g., total quality management, Six Sigma, or learning organizations). Likewise, issues of the day, organizational crises, or new topics of thought leadership may serve as such associations.
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