Reputation management makes a comeback

Reputation management is making a comeback – except this time it is more for individuals than for organisations and has a new technological base.

There is an irony in this as the concept of ‘reputation’ had its origins in early modern history around notions of reputation and honour. J.H.Elliott, in his new book History in the Making (Yale University Press), remarks that when he first began investigating Spanish history he was struck by the frequency with which the word ‘reputacion’ surfaced in the political literature of the Spanish Golden Age period and the discussions in the Spanish Council of State. The concept, he says, “was bound up with the complex notions of honour that prevailed in early modern societies, and involved the standing and reputation of Spain and its monarch in the eyes of both contemporaries and of posterity”. It still has many of the same connotations in modern society – particularly in the sense of ‘losing face’ – but nobody is likely to fight a duel over it even if some nations rush off to war on the strength of it.

In a world saturated with social media individual reputations are hard to manage. For instance, the picture that someone puts up on Facebook might have seemed like a good idea at the time but then turns out not to be so smart when some potential employer finds it and assesses whether the subject should be employed or not.

According to The Economist (23/2/13) a number of companies are now offering online clean-up-services which allow you to remove the problem., a Silicon Valley online company, is offering a $99 starter pack which alerts you to potential posting problems. For $5,000 a year you can “combat misleading or inaccurate links from your top search results.” The company has bought a UK competitor, Reputation 24/7, and has formed a partnership with a big US credit monitoring company.

Reading the article made me wonder: what happened to ‘reputation management’ as the cornerstone of corporate affairs practice? In fact, it turned out to be as some of us predicted, yet another fad. The idea had some value although there were problems. In a conference presentation I made in conjunction with a colleague, A case study on the impact of index methodology on corporate reputation management (it can be found on this site under Articles and Reviews) we flagged a lot of the problems to do with definition and measurement. There are other problems – such as what is the difference between brand and reputation and so on. Most important is the fundamental question: is reputation something corporate PR people manage or is it a product of the totality of what an organisation does?

Clearly PR can’t fix fundamental problems and can’t manage everything about an organisation which shapes reputation – that is the job of CEOs and line managers. Running a workshop for an issues rich Victorian organisation some years ago the PR staff were grappling with what precisely they should focus on. One participant kept claiming that their role was to ‘manage the (organisation’s) reputation.’ The certainty with which the view was asserted made me wonder whether she was just back from a reputation management conference where she had had some transcendental experience which had persuaded her that now she had all the answers to PR. Reputation management, and its apparent capacity for rigorous measurement, did tend to have that effect on some people

 Indeed, there was a somewhat evangelical tone to much of the reputation management stuff and some people made quite a lot of money out of it as evangelism tends to make possible. The term still gets thrown around about a bit and reputation and, just as in Golden Age Spain, does provide a useful framework for thinking about some aspects of image. But for me the key word always ought to be ‘trust’ because it is from that concept that reputation, brand and other things really flow.

Organisations which inspire trust by aspiring to authenticity and practising transparency tend to be more successful. But achieving that is about the much bigger question of culture, values and direction. PR people can help there but they don’t create or manage them.

In the meantime though, if you can’t clean up your act, you can clean up the online mess it leaves. Just call