How do you manage the reputation of your business - large or small? Here a few examples of how to to do it. And how not to…

“I want my life back”. I have no doubt that these words will haunt BP’s former chief executive, Tony Hayward, for a long time. At that moment it became apparent that BP didn’t understand how badly they were damaging their reputation following the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster in April 2010, and how seemingly out-of-touch Mr Hayward was personally with the worsening situation.

PR and reputation management are a misunderstood but vital part of any business. It’s fairly easy to highlight poor practice since by definition this becomes what a person or organisation is remembered for. It’s a little harder to understand how to do things well. So let’s look at how an organisation should manage its reputation by considering both the good and the bad.

The first big mistake is in not understanding your audience

The first big mistake is in not understanding your audience. If you’re building something contentious like an industrial facility, look at it from the local community’s perspective. How can you help make the project understandable and its benefits clear? Perhaps you could develop a plan which gets the local community involved. Not just talking at them via a consultation exercise but actually getting the community involved. For example, on the New Islington housing project in Manchester, the developers Urban Splash encouraged local residents to take part in a competition to design aspects of their new estate.
Of course, it may be a bit more difficult if you are trying to sell the benefits of a burying low-level nuclear waste (Augean and their Northamptonshire facility). However, that doesn’t detract from the fact that it makes good business sense to understand and involve your audience.

PR and reputation management must form part of the overall strategic planning. Afterall the affect of a PR disaster can seriously hit your financial health (think BP with Deepwater Horizon and Toyota with faulty accelerators, as recent examples).

What are the key aspects of your business? You should already know the biggest operational risks to your organisation. Ask the question, “What if …?”
For example, What if our water source becomes contaminated with benzene (Perrier, 1990)? What if one of our wells explodes (BP, 2010)? What if our components fail (Toyota, 2010)? What if our shiny new building doesn’t work (Terminal 5 Heathrow, 2008)? What if we mess up the financial system and need to be bailed out by the public purse (plenty of banks, 2006-present)? The list goes on.

Aside from having a contingency plan for not being able to produce your goods and services, you need to prepare for how an interruption in your business will be perceived by customers and the wider general public. Share the plan and risk with your marketing and PR team, and ask them to develop responses in terms of potential reputation damage for each highlighted risk. Perhaps you could run a practice day where you implement a scenario for a particular risk.
Get expert opinion. You don’t necessarily need to employ a PR agency full time, but asking for advice from time-to-time can be useful so that if you do have a situation to respond to then you can easily pick up the phone and have professional support quickly at hand.

Attending a yachting race may not be the best idea when you can’t plug a hole which is leaking 60,000 gallons per hour of oil

Other factors include not reacting quickly enough to circumstances such as Sony’s recent delay in announcing that its Playstation network had been hacked, and not showing empathy with the situation, particularly where people have been injured or killed. For example, attending a yachting race (Tony Hayward again) may not be the best idea when you can’t plug a hole which is leaking 60,000 gallons per hour of oil, following an explosion which killed 11 of your workers.

Consider also the influence of organisational culture. Do you have an organisation which is sufficiently able to challenge the norm and highlight potential problems?

As you can see, reputation management requires an integrated approach to your business from your marketing team and is not simply about producing puff pieces for the press or press releases which state how well you are handling the situation. When you consider PR and reputation management as part of your overall business strategy, then it becomes second nature.

Afterall, do you want to become the next Tony Hayward or Fred Goodwin? Thought not.

David Mycock is the Head of Marketing for Shepherd Gilmour, an international engineering consultancy based in Manchester and a committee member of CIMCIG, the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Construction Industry Group. For further details visit .