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Reputation management has had a democratic revolution

Cover of  by James Frayne

Think about the last time you bought a car, booked a holiday, chose an airline, went to the cinema, made a reservation at a restaurant, or hired a removal company. The chances are you made your decision having searched for others? opinions online, rather than looking in newspapers or watching (or noticing) ads.

Think too, about the last time you heard credible and memorable opinions about the biggest firms operating in the UK ? about things people really care about, like the quality of their products or their ethics and business practices. Again, the chances are you saw the opinions of ordinary people online, rather than in the mainstream media or in ads.

We are entering a completely new world where the reputations of even the biggest businesses are shaped not by elites but by what ordinary people are saying about them online. Those of us that work in reputation management have witnessed the equivalent of a democratic revolution.

The reality is, in this new world where the public voice is decisive, the traditional approach to corporate communications is finished. No amount of advertising, well-placed op-eds, and backroom meetings with influential ?stakeholders? can offset the impact of large numbers of people saying how awful your product or brand is. The image and reputation of modern businesses can now only be shaped in collaboration with ordinary people.

Corporate communications has come to closely resemble political campaigning, as businesses operate within a vast, emotional, aggressive and fast-moving debate. And businesses need to look to the campaign world for ideas on how to respond.

Two types of skills stand out. Firstly, there is a set of skills in the field of ?pure? communications such as the sophisticated use of voter targeting to create messages designed to appeal to exactly the right people that affect their reputation. Businesses should also look at how campaigns use emotional appeals, rather than rational argument, and how they deploy trusted independents to speak on their behalf.

Secondly, there is a set of operational skills that campaigns take seriously. The most important of these are in organisational design, where the use of a war room and a decentralised management culture facilitates rapid decision-taking, and also in the use of effective strategy.

Expertise in these areas will radically improve businesses? ability to affect the conversation around them. However, perhaps the most important practical issue of all to learn from campaigns is the one they themselves take totally for granted ? the creation of wholly integrated communications operations.

In the campaign world, the media relations team, digital team, and ad and marketing teams all take their direction from a single Director of Communications, reporting to the Campaign Manager (the CEO equivalent). While specific people have particular projects to work on, the communications team works together to push out messages that set the agenda, and then works together to deal with communications challenges, or to exploit opportunities that arise.

Too many modern businesses still run their operations on the old ?tripartite model?, with distinct teams working on advertising and marketing, media relations and public affairs. These teams usually have different budget lines and reporting structures, and often they are based in different places. In a world where their reputations are defined by public debate, this can?t continue.

As in campaigns, businesses must have a ?global view? on what it is they want to achieve with their communications effort, and then use a single Director of Communications to implement that across all channels. With reputations being challenged across a much broader front, and by ordinary people who don?t play by any rules, it makes no sense to have teams operating in silos. It particularly makes no sense to treat the ad teams as if they had the ability any longer to operate effectively from 30,000 ft.

If anything, the driving force for change in modern corporate communications should come from the PR world. PR consultants are, after all, the most used for two-way conversation and they tend to work quickly and be flexible. To date, they?ve been slow off the mark. They need to grasp the opportunity in front of them and become the recognised experts in public persuasion.

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