Building and destroying reputation through words

Reputation management is becoming a multi-billion euro industry as environmental concerns raise the temperature on ethics and the Internet snoops into every cranny of a public individual or corporate's life. It's an industry in which, despite being aware of it, most politicians are failing dismally at even ascending the bottom rungs of the reputation ladder.

Political leaders from England to the US, South Africa to Zimbabwe are covered in mud but for isolated examples. The global financial meltdown is seeing yesterday's corporate heroes, topple and evaporate. As times get tougher, the pressure on reputation is only going to intensify.

Shakespeare's Richard the Third mused that “the purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation; that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay.”

Measures of reputation

The Measures of Reputation run by Forbes magazine includes corporate governance, environmental impact assessments, the Equator principles and many more.

“The only way you measure character is by reputation,” Coca-Cola's long-time chairman Robert Goizueta used to say. He should know - under his 16-year-leadership, Coke consistently ranked in the top three of corporate reputation leaders.

But reputation is fragile; today's hero often becomes tomorrow's embarrassment as politics show again and again. But even in corporate life reputation is hard to maintain: In 1972, as an example, IBM, General Motors and Sears were among the world's six most valuable companies; 20 years later they ranked 206, 268 and 300 respectively on the Forbes rating of corporate reputations. They would come to mind of very few asked to name the companies they most respect today.

Defines a company

Yet another financial magazine, Fortune, says that reputation defines a company and motivates people - everyone wants to work for the best, but too, the best often reach the top because they treat customers and staff so well.

Charles Fombrun in his book, Reputation, suggests that “to manage reputation is to insist on building closer ties between staff groups and to exploit the latent commonalities of interest that they share.” Within those commonalities, Fombrun suggests, lies the motherlode of reputational capital.

Reputational capital is intangible. One most often realises how valuable it really is once it has been lost. Fombrun suggests that reputational management has created a layer of service industries such as consulting firms, law, investment banks, hospitals and universities that provide ‘credence goods'. “Their most valuable services are intangible,” he writes.

And so too is the value of that much-abused medium, the corporate newsletter. In a world where reputation is developed, maintained and enhanced by communication, especially written information, the newsletter is an essential tool to communicate with staff, clients, shareholders and investors.

Left to a junior

Too often the company newsletter is left to a junior staff member with no skills in gathering information, nor writing, editing or layout experience, and so the company image is left in the hands of someone who may watch Survivor as an intellectual exercise.

Serious companies understand that nothing quite beats the authenticity of paper and, while an email gets scanned and deleted, the printed word lingers.

Good newsletters are those that deliver a fast read in crisp English and deliver pertinent information. They usually have high credibility because most don't carry advertising, and are targeted at a very tightly niched community, for example, the clients of a retail outlet, contractors for an underfloor heating company or insurance brokers.

E-newsletters have gained in popularity but still tend to have lower readership than printed newsletters reliant as they are on bandwidth, server speed, capacity of individuals to read, a lower capacity for graphic material and a reluctance by many individuals to read screeds of material on the web or emails. PDF files, if used, may take longer to download and be seen as an extra click nuisance by some.

Best newsletters

The best newsletters are timely, engage especially at a personal level, and carry important information, perhaps statistics or new research, which ensures people read each new edition and file them. People respond to the views of respected peers and news about people they may know; newsletters often offer a personal glimpse at an organisation or people within it.

Encourage feedback, readers like to know that their views are respected.

Transparency, being prepared to consult, engaging with criticism in a positive manner and keeping your workforce and clients abreast of new developments and challenges are key to reputation development and management and little is better to begin with than an effective newsletter.