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Reputation: Public empathy

Brands that have taken years to build can be undermined in an instant if a company’s reputation is badly handled. Insider Engage discovers the growing importance of empathy to reputation management

Coronavirus outbreak, Leicester back in Lockdown - Fosse Park Retail Park - UK - 11 July 2020
Credit:
Rmv/Zuma Press/PA Images

In times of crisis, reputations can be made or lost, and the present pandemic has thrown into stark relief the brands that have risen to the challenge and those that have failed to keep pace with public sentiment.

Companies in the insurance sector have in recent months made a few gaffes, the impact of which has the potential to affect new business and/or recruitment and retention of staff.

The industry is already wrestling with ongoing cultural issues – claims of bullying, racism, sexual harassment and widespread discrimination – that position it well behind the curve in providing the kind of tolerant, inclusive and equitable workplace that employees demand.

A rash of staff poaching disputes in recent years, shareholder activism around executive remuneration and salary cuts in response to coronavirus have also fed into a wider discourse about the industry’s approach to rewarding and retaining talent.

And the pandemic has thrown up another reputational issue with the very public legal row about denial of BI claims on property policies bought by owners of SME businesses badly affected by coronavirus.

The issue feeds into a growing perception that the insurance industry, along with other financial services sectors, is incapable of showing empathy for the challenges faced by its customers.

How well, or badly, organisations manage reputational risk and deal with the outcomes of negative publicity, arguably tells you a lot about the company’s leadership.

Brand and reputation

But how does that concept of reputation relate to the notion of brand?

Katie Farrell is a director at Deloitte Digital and heads up the brand offering at the division, as well as at Deloitte’s creative consultancy Acne.

She defines brand as “what you stand for and what you believe”, but adds “it’s also what everyone else thinks you stand for”. Reputation, she suggests, is the interplay between the two.

Cordy Griffiths is CEO of tech communications agency Ballou and has worked on campaigns for brands such as WhatsApp and Waze, as well as working in-house at companies including Expedia and Google.

“Increasingly [brand and reputation] are becoming interchangeable,” she says. “It’s a bit of a mistake to think of a brand as a nice logo or product or set of adverts and then reputation as something else. If you view it all holistically, that’s a much safer and more robust position to be in.”

Farrell’s colleague Becky Skiles, who is a partner and chief marketing officer at Deloitte Digital, managing the financial services customer strategy and design team, says that in addition to company brand there is also a broader industry question at stake, which insurance is facing right now.

“After 9/11, there were issues with some insurance companies not paying firemen’s [life] insurance claims and what we saw back then was not just damage to the brands who did that but a reputational hit to the entire sector.”

Who’s in charge?

Given the interconnectedness of an organisation’s brand and reputation, the obvious question is – who should be in control of managing both?

According to Brian Norris, director of corporate communications at communications and public affairs agency Cicero/AMO, it’s the responsibility of every staff member.

“Everybody has the potential to damage the brand. And all employees have the potential to improve the position of the brand as well.”

With the CEO occupying the roles of decision-maker, figurehead and mouthpiece for an organisation, it would seem logical for them to be the guardians of brand reputation.

“The more visible they can be the better. The strategy and tone should be set from the top,” agrees Ballou’s Griffiths.

However, she warns: “Someone like Elon Musk has almost become the brand. So there’s a balance between the leader dominating it and it becoming a kind of cult of their personality.”

Corporate businesses are complex entities, and delivering consistent messaging about all areas of its operations can be too onerous a task for one person.

A range of communications specialists should also be employed as spokespeople, says Norris, including the heads of marketing, communications, public affairs and investor relations.

Griffiths also highlights the importance of engaging head of regional and specialist divisions – for example, country heads, CFOs or product managers – for communicating complex financial or technical issues.

And Deloitte’s Skiles notes the increasing importance of the chief marketing officer, not just as the curator and caretaker of the brand, but also as someone who drives the strategy “for communicating what [a company] believes to its clients”.

Managing change

In addition to designating spokespeople, implementing and practising a plan for crisis response is critical, the specialists argue.

“There’s a certain amount of planning you can have in place, not least identifying who is in the crisis team and what’s the chain of command,” says Griffiths. “Once emails are flying around you need to know who has the authority to sign off statements [and] what happens in the critical first hour.”

A social media presence is pretty much a given for brand recognition nowadays, but there’s more to digital engagement than posting on LinkedIn and Twitter, says Norris.

“Look at those businesses that have engaged successfully with younger audiences. A good example is Channel 4 news versus BBC news. Channel 4 has been significantly more successful, by advertising on things like TikTok – showing an awareness of audience and the most appropriate way to reach them,” he says.

However, there’s more to social media than just broadcasting your company’s message.

“It’s important to listen,” says Griffiths – bearing in mind that social media can be something of an echo chamber, where “haters get amplified”.

Griffiths cites the example of Nissan, whose compact electric car, the Leaf, sold poorly on release. By making use of a social listening platform, the manufacturer learned that customers were unhappy with the steering wheel position, which many found uncomfortable.

“They adjusted the position of the steering wheel and the sales rocketed,” she recalls.

Brands also need to think about their messaging in relation to a changing society. Alongside the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, the growing support for Black Lives Matter and other protest movements highlights issues that companies need a meaningful position on.

“When organisations are thinking about who they put into leadership positions they’re thinking about people who can pivot quickly [and] think creatively, rather than just ‘doing the right thing’. Doing the right thing is terribly complicated right now. It needs a lot of creativity and emotional intelligence,” says Farrell.

Proactive vs reactive

One way of warding off a looming reputational threat is to tackle it head on. Griffiths cites the example of online ticket re-seller Seatwave (since acquired by Ticketmaster) which, along with rival company Viagogo, was the subject of an undercover report by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, that revealed the infiltration of re-selling sites by touts.

Whereas Viagogo reportedly tried to slap an injunction on the programme makers ahead of broadcast and then declined to comment when the programme was airing, Seatwave CEO Joe Cohen was advised to take a more transparent approach.

After emailing shareholders and other stakeholders about the programme, Cohen followed up with a series of blog posts giving the company’s version of events, and live-Tweeted during the broadcast itself, responding to some of the allegations reported in the documentary.

“Seatwave came out of that crisis with almost an enhanced reputation,” says Griffiths. “People were [saying] ‘We really trust this brand now’.”

The Covid-19 legacy

We’ve all seen myriad adverts in the past six months that have made a cliché of phrases like “unprecedented times”, but they reflect a recognition by brands that they need to dial up the empathetic messaging.

Such responses to the pandemic have varied from mere lip service, to the more practical. For example, a number of alcohol producers – Brewdog being one of the most visible – have re-directed their energies to making hand sanitiser.

As Griffiths notes: “It’s great for their reputation and probably didn’t cost them anything financially [as they] weren’t selling that beer anyway, [so they] look like they’re caring and tap into the zeitgeist.”

Norris cites the example of a number of supermarket chains who “brought in initiatives like the additional opening hours just for elderly or vulnerable people where people [thought], ‘I get why you’re doing that, and it’s all to support people’”.

Responses from the financial services sector have been somewhat mixed, however, varying from battening down the hatches to actively engaging with customers to reassure them.

Skiles says brands’ approach to managing reputation has moved from product-centric to customer-centric, and is now reaching a tipping point where the next step is “human-centric” organisations.

“To put that in terms of a simple analogy; a bank wants to sell a mortgage in the fewest clicks possible, but actually humans don’t want to buy a mortgage, they want to buy a home,” she explains.

“When you change the conversation from ‘How do we make it easy for you to buy this thing’, to ‘How do we help you achieve the things you want in your life’, that changes the relationship between a brand and a customer, but it also changes the way you think about the whole ecosystem of the business.”

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