Reputation Management,Role of Communication in
Organizational communication plays a central role in the management of reputation for organizations. While communication’s primary role is to support the organization’s overall strategy, this is manifested in particular ways when attending to the organization’s reputation.
This entry discusses various roles that communication and communication management play in reputation management. They are listed alphabetically rather than chronologically. However, none are guaranteed to build or enhance an organization’s reputation. Each entails risks as much as they do opportunities. Many may be woven together into more comprehensive strategies, while others are incompatible or at odds with others.
Advocacy, Activism, and Issues Management
One role communication plays in reputation management is through advocacy, activism, and issues management. One strategy is institutional plausibility alignment where the organization adapts its view somewhat. This is where an organization identifies and defines a rhetorical exigence, addresses multiple audiences, and then attempts to “sell” an adjusted attitude that balances the competing forces of resistance and accommodation. However, there are many times when an organization does not adapt its views, and it must persuade external audiences that the organization’s position on issues, including controversial ones, is acceptable and legitimate. In all cases, the organization must present itself favorably to its various markets.
Often, organizations hire specialized communication agencies to provide the content for these public affairs campaigns. Typical services include market research, competitive intelligence, campaign strategies, copy writing, and management of the various communication channels. An additional aspect of advocacy, activism, and issues management is the dispensing of rewards and penalties to third parties and information intermediaries (also known as infomediaries) who present the organization’s view more favorably to external publics and to penalize behaviors from those whose efforts have a negative influence on the assessment of the firm in the eyes of its critical stakeholders.
Brand co-creation involves companies opening themselves up to allow consumers and other stakeholders to become active co-creators in the brand. The outcomes can range from the reconstruction of new brand meanings to collaboration on new products and services. True brand co-creation enables consumers to engage with one another and the company in front of one other. Brand co-creation gives companies the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to their desired identities and reputations. If done well, brand co-creation creates new social and intellectual capital and new brand ambassadors, partners, and third-party endorsements. Brand co-creation, though, is not easy. It involves commitment to authentic dialogues, true transparency, and, above all, access. It creates risk, and it entails commitment to many of the other principles discussed throughout this entry, including dialogue, transparency, listening, and interactional justice.
Organizational curatorship comprises all the activities that organizational actors employ to preserve, exercise connoisseurship over, and orchestrate their resources. Organizational curatorship exists to overcome resource vulnerabilities that organizations face due to erosion. For example, reputable executives and headhunters become targets for headhunters. One important lever here is connoisseurship where resources are devoted to connecting the dots and making connections within the organization to sources of value creation. For example, 360-degree appraisals can identify who has the talent to create value and where they should be colocated to tutor others to share key skills. Tacit resources can best be preserved via close mentorship and apprenticeship programs, as well as by implementing systems that reward talented individuals for sharing their knowledge.
Dialogue is a reputation management practice that occurs through communication and involves building cooperative and trust-based relationships with a broad range of external constituencies and critical stakeholders. These are often with noneconomic motivations. They have the potential to avert the impact of reputational threats. Organizational dialogues involve organizing roundtable discussions involving all the stakeholders the company critically depends on for group problem solving. Managers often meet personally with all the parties that could play a decisive role in the evolution of the reputational threat. Organizational dialogues have the potential to co-opt influential outsiders by allowing them joint decision making so that they provide key decision makers with information proactively.
The Internet has made organizational dialogues much more viable. Four types of online dialogues are (1) the directed dialogue, (2) the open-script dialogue, (3) the moderated dialogue, and (4) the crowdsourced dialogue. Directed dialogue and open-script dialogues occur off-line and are then posted online, with the open-script dialogue giving the outside parties greater control over the script and the video production. Moderated dialogues occur online through online platforms or social media. With crowdsourced multidialogues, any user may propose a topic.
Practicing good media relations involves more than simply pitching stories to the news media or attempting to kill or stall them. It involves being a resource for journalists. Organizational representatives who work with the news media today almost inevitably need to be media trained. They must also work to facilitate the same type of training among other organizational representatives who may serve as good ambassadors for the organization.
Media relations involve bridging and buffering. There are times when representatives may need to discourage the pursuit of news stories about the organization; then, there are times when media relations officers must open the doors and provide better access to individuals within the organization who can assist journalists with the stories they wish to cover. Fundamentally, media relations officers must understand the concept of news values, the basic lens that helps establish whether stories or ideas will be of interest to the news media’s audiences. Good media relations also entail understanding that the audience’s relationships are with the news media, not with the organization, which means understanding the rules, guidelines, and operating procedures of working with the media to reach those audiences.
The goal of media relations is not simply to get a news article placed but to think about the particular relational or reputational outcome the organization wishes to achieve with the media’s audiences. Even though the media relations officer has no control over what is printed, the clarity of outcomes the organization wishes to achieve with those audiences, coupled with the understanding of basic news values, will increase the likelihood that the organizational representative will stay on message and avoid mixed messages.
Orchestration, Alignment, and Congruence
Communication is also involved in the orchestration and alignment of internal stakeholders to garner support for the organization’s mission, to speak with one voice, or to orchestrate the multiple voices who speak on the organization’s behalf. This aspect is similar to the building of the organization’s reputation platform but goes beyond it. The reputation platform is concerned with establishing the organization’s position, but orchestration, alignment, and congruence are concerned with the platform’s expression and implementation.
Often, when organizations face reputation challenges, internal conflict emerges about the allocation and distribution of resources and perceptions of fairness in decision-making procedures themselves. How organizations and managers handle these issues and “account” for themselves are questions of organizational justice. Interactional justice is concerned with how people are treated interpersonally during moments of truth and challenge, which is a practice of interactional justice. Interpersonal justice involves whether people felt like they were treated fairly and with dignity by the organization. Informational justice concerns perceptions of fairness about the explanations people receive about the decision-making process and outcomes.
Organizational culture arises out of the patterns of behavior, language, and expectations of employees as they work together. Investing in the development of organizational and corporate cultures is important because culture can affect strategy implementation and organizational performance. This does not mean attempting to enforce a top-down culture, but it does mean being aware of its existence and capitalizing on it to accomplish the organization’s purpose, goals, and objectives. The organizational culture helps create an efficient, implicit contract system within the organization that helps employees manage all the contingencies they face in their job. When prospective employees have faith in a company based on its reputation for having well-known “unwritten rules” to respond to unforeseen contingencies, they will have greater trust in the management. Here, organizational managers must maintain good reputations themselves for applying the cultural rules fairly if they expect employees to take risks, improvise, or innovate. In turn, managers are able to support the organization’s desired reputation. If the organization’s culture is dysfunctional or unhealthy, reputational risks arise; attending to the organization’s culture is one of the first things organizations must do when the organization encounters systemic errors, failure, collapse, corruption, and so on.
Organizations must have a clear and coherent sense of organizational identity before any serious work in reputation management can take place. Organizational identity answers the self-definition question of the organization. The organization has its official view in line with how it defines itself in its charter and to regulating agencies. Top management teams have their view. Employees have theirs. Awareness and fostering of organizational identity are important because they are often considered the court of last resort. They help support, justify, or explain organizational decisions that cannot be settled on purely technical or rational grounds. Communicating a positive and plausible strategy is important to stakeholders. This communication includes explaining the organization’s strategy and justifying its performance in ways that make efforts appear more consistent with its past, its desired future, and its stakeholder expectations or the reporting requirements of outside agencies to which it must give an account. Companies develop communication strategies because the failure to articulate a compelling yet achievable vision that inspires a patchy cascade of strategic goals, or simply the lack of time to devise consistent lower-tier goals, can send mixed messages. When organizational leaders have dissensus in organizational identity, it hurts organizational performance and puts the organization at risk.
Another reputation management strategy concerns organizational listening. This requires a listening policy where the organization considers its own identity, and that of its social, economic, and industrial sector, that enables it to better gather, understand, and interpret specific expectations from relevant stakeholder publics related to the objectives it aims to pursue before, during, and after its decision-making process. Organizational listening should come into play when the organization develops its overall strategies and those of its reputation platform. However, it continues throughout environmental scanning, stakeholder engagement, dialogue, and reputation-monitoring processes as well. Important to organizational listening, all the various organizational touchpoints where feedback comes into the organization must be coordinated so that the right internal decision makers receive and take action on information in a timely manner.
A key aspect of organizational listening is instituting feedforward. Feedforward is a proactive way of unobtrusively eliciting feedback and taking action on what is learned from parties while their issues are latent. If problems or issues can be resolved privately, then the parties involved have their issues resolved requiring no further action and are less inclined to see how systemic the issue was or to investigate whether others had similar experiences. Feedforward also has the potential to avoid the organization manifesting or priming reputational concerns among its stakeholders.
Partnerships and Alliances
Creating partnership and alliances is another way by which organizations can build or enhance their reputations. Partnerships and alliances are matters for communication because communication constitutes the partnership, as it is a collaborative effort involving stakeholders. Partnerships create opportunities for creative problem solving, enhanced organizational functionality, and access to resources that were previously unavailable. It also can create a halo effect as companies become associated with the positive attributes of their partner. The partnership provides a new signal message that is highly relevant to targeted stakeholders and prior to the partnership was unavailable. This is of particular interest because organizations are able to communicate aspects of their business or mission that may have been previously obscured or underdeveloped. Finally, partnerships and alliances may provide buffering from unwanted regulation and criticism of an organization.
A reputation council and the related brand council is a cross-functional senior team entrusted with the stewardship of the company’s reputation. Brand councils monitor what companies say and do; reputation councils focus on stakeholders’ opinions of companies and how their actions, communications, and associations affect those opinions. Reputation councils are more focused on identifying reputational risks than crisis management. They help companies remain proactive, centralize the handling of reputation risk–related matters, and diffuse responsibility for corporate reputation across the organization. The work of the council consists of identifying the roles and responsibilities of each department; participating, identifying, and prioritizing stakeholders; developing a risk register and a strategic playbook should the organization ever encounter the risks; and then developing a framework for measurement, monitoring and evaluation, reporting, and insights.
A reputation platform serves as the starting point for more detailed descriptions of the organization’s strategic position and direction. However, the production of a reputation platform does not start sequentially. It is an iterative process involving many people. It includes the organization’s DNA—that is, its character, identity, and culture. It includes the views of program managers and those who roll out the organization’s communication tactics and control its media channels. They are involved in the platform’s production; then, once there is agreement on the platform, the platform guides further organizational decision making and behavior. The platform requires a clear articulation of the organization’s identity beliefs and self-definition. It contains a position statement, which describes how the organization wants to be seen, known, and remembered, vis-à-vis its competitors relative to each of its stakeholders and/or constituent groups. Platforms are accompanied by branding efforts, so that publics are able to recognize a message as being distinct and different from those of its competitors. Organizations often brand their strategic messages found within their platforms. One of the challenges for reputation platforms is strategic balance. Research shows that even though organizations may want to differentiate themselves from their competitors, there is an optimal level of differentiation. Organizations do not want to steer too far away from their shared category or the cultural crowd.
Silencing and Distancing
Another communication strategy that organizations employ on behalf of reputation management concerns silencing and distancing. Just as organizations want to establish thought leadership on issues and ideas that position the organization well against its peers or competitors, organizations also want to avoid association with controversial issues, actors, contexts, and events that pose reputational threat or create policy implications that may commit the organization to additional responsibilities or resource expenditures that take it off strategy, off message, or away from its purpose or desired reputation. Organizations use various distancing strategies to keep their company names out of the public debate as much as possible. At the same time, they attempt to keep their name from being linked to these controversial issues or keep actors from being mentioned in the same breath, appearing in the same news articles, or appearing at the same events.
Most aspects of public debate and media attention are not under company control. Moreover, it is also difficult to ensure that no organizational employee breaks the cordon of silence, speaks off message, or shares his or her own personal views publicly if he or she does not align with the company objectives. However, organizations can create communication handbooks, plans, and polices that include issue, risk, and crisis management guidelines that spell out the regulations and the procedures. These need to be fully understood by employees. One particular policy is requesting employees without a formal communication role to avoid making public statements or speaking to outsiders about these issues and to direct information-seeking outside parties to those running the communication. However, implementation of this policy depends on the cooperation of individuals.
Organizations use strategic projections to communicate their purpose, strategies, or material disclosures or to participate in public discussions about the issues of the day. Before strategic projections can occur, the organization must have sufficient clarity in its identity. Strategic projections occur through its communication and branding practices, its brand portfolio and architecture, its visual identity, its internal marketing, and its efforts to develop meaningful brand experiences for its customers and audiences. When using product or service advertising as a strategic projection, the advertising’s informational content is not as important because the mere spending of money serves as a credible signal to consumers of product quality.
Another reputation management strategy that organizations can employ through communication concerns thought leadership. Thought leadership is when companies offer thought-provoking insights on issues that matter to their customers, other stakeholders, society, or subgroups of society. The issue must be important enough that these groups care enough to stop, listen, and reflect on how they can use the information. Thought leadership works by companies showcasing their intellectual capacities to be seen as the “trusted voice” on the problems and issues that matter to them. They circulate publications, are prepared to openly challenge the status quo thinking, and act on important business or societal themes, starting with their own strategic choices and actions. As a result, these companies are positioned more favorably when compared with others they are referenced against.
Transparency signals are the message cues that lead to the inference that an organization is transparent. These message cues are important because for the organization or its officers to say outright that the organization is transparent leads to suspicion, cynicism, and a lack of trust. Companies may attempt to demonstrate that they are transparent, but ultimately, it is for the party requesting information, engagement, or simply more accountability on the part of the organization to determine whether or not companies are so. Transparency signaling, then, refers to salient use of transparency signals. Positive transparency signals are message cues—the more they occur, the more audiences should infer that the organization is transparent. These include, for instance, taking ownership of messages rather than speaking in the “divine passive,” which is where the source of a message is not identified (e.g., “It has been decided that” rather than “I decided that …”). Another is the divulging of negative information. Negative information is that which reflects poorly on the organization but has material consequences for its stakeholders. Negative transparency signals are message cues—the more they occur, the less audiences should infer transparency; for instance, excessively high self-praise for the organization, hedging, or qualification of statements. Transparency signaling as a reputation management strategy does occur as a primary goal; it serves as a secondary goal to some other purpose, such as the reporting of a company’s social or financial performance.
Valorization refers to the act of establishing the value, respect, or dignity of something or for someone through argument. In terms of reputation, this usually refers to building a business case for investing in reputation management or reputation risk management; demonstrating the value, good deeds, or outcomes of an organization’s activities; or simply explaining the merit and value of an organization. Valorization is also concerned with getting the maximum value out of a project. Thus, in terms of reputation management, the reputation manager identifies a set of outcomes that should grow out of investing in reputation (e.g., reduced turnover, increased commitment, or loyalty) and then finds ways to measure the outcome and connect it to the company’s measures for reputation.
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