A common childhood retort comes to mind when contemplating the state of one's corporate reputation: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
The noble response may work on the playground, but its implications of resilience to harsh verbal criticism don't translate to reputations in today's turbulent business environment. Negative media coverage, poor public opinions or hasty investor reactions can all undermine a once-sturdy reputation. That's why, when it comes to growing and maintaining good mojo around a corporate identity, measurement can do wonders in showing communications executives where a company has been, where it is now and where it's headed.
While corporate reputation measurement can be done internally with the right number of resources, there are a number of external, specialized firms to implore for help: Research outfits can measure outputs and outcomes by polling specific populations, media analysis firms can analyze news coverage for frequency and tone, and companies that specialize in econometrics and statistical modeling can assign tangible values to intangible assets. No matter which route you take, the end result will always be a qualitative and/or quantitative understanding of corporate reputation that communications professionals can then apply to organization-wide initiatives. The following steps can serve as a roadmap to getting there.
1. Clearly define objectives: No matter which measurement route you take, setting objectives must be the first part of the journey; otherwise, the endpoint may be way off course. Objectives can be anything from an isolated event's impact on reputation to anticipating the positive/negative effects of an initiative in the works. Need another reason to keep constituents front of mind?
"The problem is that, due to evolving technology and communications channels, all these people talk to each other now," says Paul Argenti, professor at the Tuck School of Business. "Everyone knows everything, all the time, everywhere."
2. Clearly define constituents/media/metrics: If you are turning to a research firm to poll or survey a specific population, it is essential to be very specific from the starting point, as different constituents require different strategies. Constituents of interest could include customers, investors or media professionals.
If you are going the media analysis route, defining the scope of the media included will help focus the measurement. Are you interested in coverage within top-tier outlets only? Or, are niche publications more relevant to the company's visibility and favorability? If you are looking in terms of metrics or data inputs, single out specific reputation attributes, such as placement in the industry.
3. Develop clear questionnaires/clear lists of attributes: For research-based measurement, questionnaires and surveys should have clear "yes or no," "this or that" answers. Questions with too many layers can confuse respondents and complicate analysis. As John Gilfeather, vice chairman of custom research provider GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media, explains, knowledge of a company (awareness, familiarity, identity) fuels the constituents' evaluation (overall impressions, strengths/weaknesses, characteristics), which leads to their overall behavior (whether they will buy stocks or products, recommend services or believe a story).
On the media analysis side, you must define what exactly you are looking for in the media: Are you seeking placement? Tone? Frequency? Each attribute can have different implications on overall corporate reputation and must be treated accordingly.
4. Identify the right interviewers/coders: Not all interviewers are created equally, according to Gilfeather. For example, he uses different telephone polling teams depending on the target audience. "If you are going after high-level executives, you can't use just any interviewer," he says. Likewise, in terms of media analysis, the coding - a key stage in the measurement process - is dependent upon the available resources, but it's not one-size-fits-all. Artificial intelligence has progressed to the point where computer models can "read" clips and code for the specified attribute; however, in many cases, human encoding is much more adaptable to grey-area situations.
5. Analyze results/shape strategy: What do the constituents think of the company? What is the aggregated media perception, and how does it impact public perception? What are the company's biggest value drivers in terms of reputation? The analysis should answer these questions. Bottom line: After the analysis, the company should know what to do differently based on the results.
6. Report to the appropriate audience: Once the results have been tabulated - either in the form of survey results numbers being crunched, media attributes being sorted or data inputs/metrics being churned through the statistical model - and analyzed, it's the communications executive's job to, well, communicate, either to the client or the C-suite.
In some cases, the results of corporate reputation measurement studies are ... nothing, according to Gilfeather, and that problem also begs to be uncovered and solved. He says, "I've had to tell a client, 'No one likes you, no one hates you, no one knows you. Your problem is awareness.'"
7. Decide how often to track reputation: This step varies for every company. Behemoths like General Electric and American Express are constantly tracking the public's perception, while smaller companies may only require a reputation measurement study every year or two. For companies large or small going through a transition, be it a merger/acquisition or a corporate rebranding, quarterly measurement is a good bet.
The case for corporate reputation measurement has been made manifold; here the map is drawn. For those who already have a stake in the measurement game, a combination of the three paths - that is, research-based, media analysis-based and econometrics/statistics-based - is the best way to achieve the ultimate communications goal: linking corporate reputation to business value.
"This is the only thing that is going to take your company to the next level," Argenti says. "[The C-suite] doesn't speak in terms of language; they speak in terms of numbers. Their numbers need to be your numbers from now on."
A testament to this theory is Procter & Gamble's landmark research in 2005, which revealed that, in comparison to its marketing spend, PR provides a higher ROI than any marketing tool despite the fact that its budget was a fraction of the marketing function's.
So, while communications and corporate reputation measurement may still be an imperfect art, industry leaders like Argenti remind practitioners that the numbers it provides are just as good as those offered by, say, the marketing department. If communicators can get that message to CEOs, budgets will increase, reputation will soar and business value will skyrocket. And the best metaphor for this constructive competition?
Have you ever heard the story of the two guys in a tent contemplating the bear outside? As one laced up his shoes to make an escape, the other looked on in disbelief and said, "What do you think you're doing? You can't outrun a bear." The other just smiled and said, "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."
The Numbers Don't Lie
Still not a believer? The C-suite is. A handful of survey results from past years just might prompt you to take a sip from the Holy Grail of measurement.
- Executives spend 24 percent of their time on "plan measurement and monitoring," second only to "strategic thinking/planning," according to a July/August 2004 Gallup poll
- Board directors and CEOs are more likely than other professionals to say that "measurement is an integral part of PR." (Cited from a Benchmark Report from the 2004 Summit on Measurement)
- Nearly 60 percent of companies with formal measurement tools in place created them at the request of senior management, according to an industry publication.
- Only 22 percent of senior marketers consider PR effective for driving sales, according to an Advertising Age/Council of PR Firms Survey (all the more reason to get behind measurement)