#531  Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 6          June 2001

One-Minute Corporate Reputation Management
by G.A. “Andy” Marken

Mr. Marken is President of Marken Communications, Inc. in Santa Clara, California (phone 408-986-0100; email Andy@markencom.com).

It isn’t by accident that we chose the headline for this article from Spencer Johnson’s very successful book, The One-Minute Manager. When the book was first published in the early ‘90’s, it became an instant guide for managers at all levels on how they could hone and improve their management skills.

Even as book sales soared, the business and management landscape was changing. The researchers’ and engineers’ Internet was being turned into an everyperson’s everywhere communications channel. We changed from hierarchical organizations to flat, sometimes intertwined, organizations seemingly overnight. The flat organization reached out to a new set of influences: employees, customers, suppliers, investors and communities.

Suddenly one-minute management shrunk to 10-second management.

Business in the Internet era demands quick thinking and even quicker action. Especially when a company’s reputation and possible future hang in the balance. In this new environment, managers suddenly have a new set of pro-active responsibilities.

They must protect and enhance the company’s reputation. At the same time, they must help management create new business models. Rather than simply propping up existing models, they have to contribute to the organization’s growth. They have to take an active role in helping the organization achieve radical innovation that often changes the parameters of competitive performance.

Not Your Job?

Many managers will say that their job is design products, promote the company, deliver the service, purchase the components…anything but change the company.

Wrong!

Part of your job is, or should be, to be aware of the changes around (inside and out) the organization and to interpret those changes to management. To help effect change you have to become an activist that builds coalitions and leverages the strengths of people within the organization. If you feel you’ll be walking on shaky ground you are most likely wrong. If not, you’re in the wrong company.

Most of the CEOs we consult with complain about how difficult it is to change their organization. Change from the top down is extremely difficult.

Mike Armstrong of AT&T, saw the changes that needed to be made, pushed for the transitioning but it hasn’t happened…yet. Every U.S. President vows to overhaul, streamline and make government more efficient, more effective and more responsive to the citizenry. Have you seen any improvements?

The Comfort of Status Quo

People are comfortable with the status quo to the point they don’t even question it. Despite pronouncements, elaborate plans and dictates from the top, people continue down the same path.

On the other hand, Jack Welch of GE didn’t use the chain-of-command approach in effecting change. He spent a lot of time with first and second tier employees helping them understand why a change in direction was in their best interest and ultimately the company’s best interest.
But many managers will continue to say this isn’t what they signed on for. So let’s bring the point home with a quote by Gary Hamel, author of Leading the Revolution. “Somewhere out there is a bullet with your company’s name on it,” he states. “You’re going to have to shoot first.”

And in the Internet world, that shot can come from anywhere. Usually it is aimed directly at your organization’s reputation. Suddenly the pieces fit together and it becomes “your job.” With a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse your firm’s reputation can go from good to bad, strong to weak.

Your Reputation Assets

That’s because your company’s reputation is based on a number of “assets:”

  • quality of your products services

  • ability to innovate

  • value as a long-term investment

  • financial stability

  • ability to attract, develop, retain talent

  • use of corporate assets

  • quality of management

Study the list closely. None of the company’s assets are firm or concrete. They are soft and arbitrary. Security analysts and accountants will often say that these asset assessments are too irrational to be listed as true assets. But these are the measures people use and rely on every day when making a decision on products/service to buy, companies to join, firms to invest in or corporations they want in their communities.

The reputation managers must help promote and protect has a true dollar value to your firm.

The Speed of Lost Value

Emulex’s value sank by millions of dollars in a day when upstart InternetWire published a bogus news release. Many good dotcoms were caught in the whirlpool of bad news/bad press on the failure of the on-line business community. The cell phone/brain cancer scare cost Motorola billions in valuation. Less spectacular, but no less damaging, are the customer complaints regarding a firm’s customer service and support activities in on-line discussion groups.

Fortunately, most companies build up a reservoir of goodwill in the marketplace. Often when you least expect it, you’re going to need that reservoir in your 1-Minute Corporate Reputation Management. That’s because one of your key functions is to understand the firm’s strategic positioning, develop brand and product promotion, interrelate with suppliers or channel partners, deal with employees and potential employees on a daily basis.

Many management communications efforts often fall short in this area because message development and distribution is departmentalized or compartmentalized.

Corporate Reputation Reserve

At the end of the day, if there is a core theme or set of themes to the messages, it is often an accident. Without that core nothing can be put in the corporate reputation reserve.
“Intel Inside” defines the company and its products. Coca-Cola singularly devotes itself to its dedication to delivering a quality product to the consumer. Sony focuses on providing innovative value. Against a backdrop of environmental mishaps in the 1990s, Shell has reshaped a gentler, more kind and more progressive image as a firm that is concerned about making the future better.

IBM has successfully reinvented itself and refocused its big blue army at least four different times in the past 10 years. From mainframe iron to PC friendly to software and finally to service and support. The company has tuned itself and its messages to the rapidly changing business marketplace. Despite its legal entanglements, Microsoft has made a shift to a more responsible, responsive management and Internet-based organization.

While Priceline.com continues to make missteps in establishing, promoting and protecting its reputation; expedia.com and travelocity.com have effectively established themselves as the on-line travel management leaders.

Top-Down versus Bottom-Up

As AT&T defines its multiple messages with layers of managers and semi-independent product groups, Sprint grows stronger in wireless communications, AOL and Earthlink become more dominant in the Internet connectivity arena, Exodus and a few others focus on being responsive/responsible Web hosting partners and IBM becomes the small and large business services/support provider of choice. Despite the billions of dollars of investments in so many areas, AT&T remains the long distance carrier which many are considering irrelevant.

Welch’s dynamics of change and responsiveness message bubbles from the bottom up at GE. John Chambers spreads the same level of consistency and urgency throughout Cisco (and its partners). On the other hand, Armstrong’s communications value and quality message is being misshaped and mismanaged by seemingly independent, sometimes competing internal organizations.

Global enterprises like Philips, Matsushita, Ericsson, Seimens, General Motors and others are facing similar reputation management crises.

In the early part of the last century the railroad firms said they were in the railroad business. Airline firms said they were in the transportation industry. Virgin has said we are in the customer business so they fly planes, sell records and books, provide financial services and offer you soft drinks and cell phones.

Which corporate reputation is easier to build and protect? Which is harder to attack and surpass?

Wall of Protectionism

To a greater or lesser degree, the same measurements hold true for your organization’s reputation. The Internet tore down the walls of protectionism that companies often hid behind during most of the 20th century. It flattened the organization, bringing customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders and regulators into the firm.

Managers today have to deal equally and effectively with all of these audiences. The better you communicate, the more you communicate, the better the reputation.

Broaden Vision, Drive Change

The constant challenge for management is to fight against narrowly defining the company because it limits the company’s reputation and the visions/goals of the stakeholders employees, partners, customers and shareholders.

As a result, managers at every level have to help inspire people inside the company to take ownership of change and become the advocates for radical innovation. This unbridled commitment to building a reputation as a responsive, revolutionary and responsible corporate entity ensures that, when the company encounters its 10-second reputation crisis, the management team will have a strong and deep reservoir of organizational reputation to draw from.

The best 1-Minute Corporate Reputation Managers do more than simply write positioning and policy statements. They help define and direct change. After all, it’s tough to hit and wound a fast moving, pro-active target.

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