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Reputation management means asking the difficult questions

Reputation, reputation, reputation. Oh, I have lost my reputation! (Othello, Act 2, Scene 3).

Some unusual things have been happening in business of late. Organisations which are not used to saying sorry have been saying sorry. The ‘disruptors’ have been learning that disruption can only go so far until society and individuals begin to kick back – Ryanair, Uber, Facebook, You Tube are facing unprecedented levels of criticism over their reputation.

There is something more than coincidence about this. There are a host of different reasons why these organisations are in trouble, but in one factor they are united. Their actions have destroyed their reputation – and reputation matters.

Michael O’Leary at Ryanair has worked for years to establish a highly distinctive, brand image. The airline equivalent of Millwall’s ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’.

Yet there is a massive difference between image (which brands create and cultivate) and reputation (which is bestowed on the brand by others, and can just as quickly be withdrawn).

Public relations is often seen as the fall guy when reputations dive. In the aftermath of Uber losing its licence to operate in London, the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, spoke of the company employing “an army of PR experts” as if this was a bad thing. What I imagine he meant was that the company and its advisers had gone into brand protection mode and appeared to be brushing the problems under the carpet under a deluge of counter-attack and positive spin.

You cannot spin your way out of a crisis. This is simply the wrong way to look at PR.

PR should be the organisation’s greatest critic

One of my favourite comments about public relations (and one which my staff over the years have probably got bored of me saying) is that PR should be the organisation’s greatest critic.

Proper PR asks the difficult questions before anyone else does. And, if the communications team does not get answers it thinks it can defend, then it demands change to put things right. Whether it’s “Are we reporting sexual assaults by our drivers effectively” or “Are we putting our advertisers’ content alongside terrorist videos”, the first task of PR and reputation management is to undertake rigorous risk analysis and address the gaps it finds.

At 360 integrated PR, we like nothing more than working through the hard stuff companies face and helping them resolve those issues. ideally, we like to do this long before anyone in the public sphere asks the same questions. It’s called planning.

It looks as if the recently appointed head of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, may be getting the message if this article on his email to employees reflects his true feelings on the matter.

Do your PR and communications teams have the clout and the freedom to ask those questions and the right to get them answered honestly? Only then can your greatest critics become your most convinced ambassadors.

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