Top Guns: Reputation Management Strategies From CorpComm Elite

On May 14, 2009, pharmaceutical manufacturing giant Pfizer announced a program that would provide newly unemployed individuals and their families with free medications for up to one year. It’s a public relations coup by any standard: The announcement prompted praise from consumers and media alike, and it enhanced Pfizer’s reputation as a company that cares enough about its customers’ well-being to put the bottom line aside. But Raymond Kerins, vice president of worldwide communications for Pfizer, is hesitant to celebrate, as he is well aware of how little this effort will impact his company’s reputation in the grand scheme of things. He also acknowledges the clear disconnect between doing good work and having a good reputation; the two have proven to be, at times, mutually exclusive. “We make life-saving medicines,” he says. “How could our reputation be so bad?” It’s a question communications executives across all industries are asking with growing frequency and urgency as the number of risks to their corporate reputations proliferates. It’s also a double-edged sword of sorts: True, reputational risks have a way of backing companies into the proverbial corner, but they also introduce a means for communicators to prove their inherent value to senior management. “The value of GE’s communications function has grown dramatically,” says Gary Sheffer, executive director of corporate communications and public affairs at GE. “We are a much more strategic function today.” Carl Folta, executive vice president of corporate communications for Viacom, has had a similar experience. “When stuff hits the fan is when we [communications executives] get the most face time,” he says. “But we need to be able to separate what is going on around us from what we can actually handle.” Folta’s statement gets to the root of what separates those organizations that excel in a crisis-laden business climate from those that barely survive. The heads of communications at corporate giants like MasterCard, Swiss Re and GE—all profoundly vulnerable to modern reputational risks in their own ways—know as well as anyone given their high-risk industries, which makes their best practices for weathering today’s storm more valuable than ever. â–¶ Be aware of the big picture, but focus on the small stuff. Taking stock of every single global crisis that could potentially destroy you or your business will do more harm than good, as it will distract your focus from the manageable challenges. “We can’t control the global economy,” says Michael McDougall, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Bausch & Lomb. “Instead [of trying], we need to keep our eye on the ball and speak to the issues we can control.” Granted, control is a tricky word since it seems all but impossible to exert in the modern communications environment, especially for organizational leaders who must answer to institutions much larger than themselves—namely, regulators. Stephen Dishart, managing director of communications and human resources for Swiss Re, agrees that his greatest challenge is managing the heightened regulatory environment. He also notes that the problems we face today aren’t the result of lax regulation, but of the lax enforcement of regulation—an important distinguishing factor. Given this reality, it is essential to develop more collaborative relationships with government regulators, but also to address crises and challenges in the context of your entire universe of stakeholders. “Our focus is keeping people informed, especially employees and clients,” Dishart says. “We also need to maintain perspective, because there are a lot of things that are working. That’s what we need to educate stakeholders about.” â–¶ Make credibility and consistency your top priorities. Without these two things on your side, the road to recovery will be impossible to traverse. “Always worry about credibility,” Folta says. “Once you’ve lost that, it’s difficult to recover.” The credibility crisis stems from a deficit of trust among all stakeholders, and regaining this trust is as critical as it is difficult to accomplish. “The erosion of trust stems from one simple question: Who should I believe?” McDougall says. “We have a global information network like we’ve never seen before, which [forces] transparency. But that level of transparency will drive reputation for those who deserve it.” This global information network doesn’t only challenge organizations’ credibility, but also executives’ need to maintain consistency—a need that has increased exponentially with the emergence of social media, which gives all stakeholders a vehicle for comparing notes. “Since we are in a highly regulated industry, we have to be very consistent with what we say to all stakeholders,” Pfizer’s Kerins says. “The challenge is when they start talking back.” â–¶ Talk back to the back-talkers. Kerins’ mention of challenges presented by stakeholders’ ability to talk back is central to the current assortment of reputational risks. Kerins himself has begun to incorporate digital channels into Pfizer’s communications mix, but he admits it is something he has done tentatively because once the company starts engaging online, it “cannot walk away from the conversation.” Social media certainly presents its fair share of reputational risks, but it also offers immense rewards. “We are finding that online platforms have helped us manage our reputation,” says Barbara Pierce, public relations director of worldwide brand marketing and communications for Kodak. “We listen a lot to identify risks and issues before they come up. But it’s important to understand what you are seeing when monitoring social media.” Indeed, listening is key, as that is what gives you an intimate understanding of stakeholders’ needs and wants. This understanding, in turn, can help shape new opportunities. “We needed a communications reset at the company,” Sheffer says. “We are making an effort to humanize GE.” Their approach: Blogging initiatives, engaging in personal communications with retirees for the first time and even hiring journalists to bring a new perspective to the company’s outreach efforts. With regards to the blogging component, the communications team has established specific guidelines for employees to follow. Then, Sheffer says, “The blog acts as a news channel to give people a window into GE that they wouldn’t otherwise have.” â–¶ Understand the difference between a means and an end. Social media is definitely here to stay, but understanding where it fits into your overall communications strategy and business model is essential. “One mistake some companies make is to regard social media as a strategic objective,” says Harvey Greisman, senior vice president and group executive of worldwide communications for MasterCard. “I see it as a very important tactic, depending on what your objectives are.” â–¶ Surrender in the fight for control. Ultimately, conversations about reputation, social media and the current business environment always return to the issue of control, but by now it’s a moot point. “There is no control. You have to give it up,” Folta says. “Help [your company] expand its ecosystem of influencers who are on your side. The more advocates who can join in the conversation, the better chance you have to shape the conversation.” PRN CONTACTS: Barbara Pierce,; Michael McDougall,; Gary Sheffer,; Stephen Dishard,; Harvey Greisman,; Carl Folta,

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