Reputation Actions That Absolve

In a recent post, I talked about new research that demonstrates how companies can repair their reputations by communicating their good deeds and what actions they intend to take to remedy their failure to (represent their numbers accurately, i.e. restatements). In the research report from Stanford and Emory University, there is an appendix of examples that companies took to improve corporate governance post-crisis and absolve themselves as well as regain financial value. I thought they were worth listing here as a reminder of the goodwill actions that get companies on the way to reputation rejuvenation:

Board of Director Actions

  1. Appointing new independent directors
  2. Require that board members obtain permission to serve on other boards
  3. Continuing education for board members
  4. Shortened board tenures
  5. Increased number of votes required for new board members
  6. Shareholders allowed to call special meetings via two-thirds vote
  7. Eliminating anti-takeover provisions
  8. Minimum stock ownership guidelines
  9. Technology/software for board members to access board materials remotely

Incentive/Internal Control System Actions

  1. Hire Chief Compliance and Business Ethics Officer reporting directly to BOD
  2. Remediation plans to address internal control deficiencies
  3. A different tone with respect to internal communications regarding application of GAAP
  4. Hire Chief Risk Officer 
  5. Hire Chief Regulatory Officer 
  6. New Statement of Principles and strengthened Code of Conduct


  1. A strategic refocusing
  2. New operating structures to align and clarify accountability

Customer Actions

  1. New worldwide re-branding
  2. New 10 day warranty on products, warranty extensions
  3. Announcement of various industry awards

Employee Actions

  1. New employee policies to cultivate a culture of compliance
  2. Announcing high ratings in best place to work surveys

Community Actions

  1. Announcement of charitable programs 
  2. Announcement of contributions to a grant program 



License to Commit Ill

A new study is out that shows that companies that engage in socially responsible behavior are also more likely to engage in socially irresponsible behavior. And the research found this to be fairly common among Fortune 500 company CEOs who work hard at setting a highly moral image and identity. How could that be? The paper, “License to Ill: The Effects of Corporate Social Responsibility and CEO Moral Identity on Corporate Irresponsibility,” was co-written by professors at London Business School and University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration.  The author-researchers found that for approximately every five positive actions that a firm takes, it gives them license to commit one negative action. As one of the co-authors says, “These findings show that CEOs should be aware of this tendency so that they can prevent their companies from slipping into this pattern. Additionally, corporate boards can’t allow CEOs to rest on their laurels. They need to be vigilant in monitoring CEOs.” Good advice. They held up BP and Enron as examples of companies that proclaimed high corporate social responsibility (i.e., beyond petroleum and all the philanthropy engaged in by Enron’s Ken Lay) and yet transgressed. You might be scratching your head. It is hard to understand how this could be. The research which is pretty impressive found that leaders who direct their company’s CSR strategy end up with “moral credits.” These moral credits blind them to irresponsible behavior and being less vigilant about how they manage stakeholder needs. And this goes for employees too who also tend to internalize the prior ethical CSR image of their employers and feel that they too are untouchable when committing unethical behavior.

The best part of the article or at least one of the many best parts is how they use the term CSiR for corporate social irresponsibility. It's a new term to me and one I will use again and again.




Vulnerability as a CEO Asset

Someone recently said something to me that had me thinking. They were describing a CEO and said that they were amazed how willing he was to show his vulnerabilities. Leadership humility is very attractive these days because so many CEOs and leaders are being cut down to size as events careen out of control around them. A recent article in the Guardian echoed this same sentiment although the writer, Lynnette McIntire, referred to this trait as “humanity,” not humility. She says:  “But the most persuasive CEOs are those who show how their personalities, histories, values and feelings are aligned with company culture. I have been charmed and disarmed when CEOs talk about what they've learned from their children, how a mentor changed their lives, how a hard lesson from life knocked them into gear or how a frank comment by an employee reset a decision.” McIntire struck a chord with the examples she gave. One was about Tom’s Shoes which has a business model of “buy one, give one” whereby a free pair is given to children in need when a customer buys a pair. She pointed out how the CEO, Blake Mycoskie, spoke about how unprepared he was for the criticism the company received about providing free shoes. People were criticizing how this policy was hurting local shoe producers. Tom’s Shoes is now committing to having a proportion of these giving shoes made in Haiti. She also wrote: “Now, Tom's giveaway programs have a shoe replacement component, dispelling the in-and-out charitable giving image. For many children having black shoes – a school uniform requirement – means their education is not interrupted when their feet grow.” All very interesting to me because I did not realize that Tom’s Shoes’ reputation was being bruised by these criticisms. But also how the CEO listened, learned and began reshaping policy. And how the entire lesson made the CEO appear more human,vulnerable and teachable. [I should add that I also was pleased that they quoted our research on CEO reputation.]

Paying it forward.....

401-drive-thru-open-right-arrow It is turning into a red hot trend and helping to chip away at that uncivil reputation about America. And it is happening right here now. A colleague at work even told me how a total stranger ahead of her on line paid for her cup of coffee the other day and how touched she was. Then I saw this article on the concept of paying it forward. When cars are waiting on line to order a burger or chicken sandwich or milkshake at their local drive thru, they pay for the person behind them -- no strings attached. And it just starts a wave of others doing the same. "We really don’t know why it’s happening but if I had to guess, I’d say there is just a lot of stuff going on in the country that people find discouraging,” said Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality at Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A. “Paying it forward is a way to counteract that.” Some of these drive-thru operators are saying that this happens several times a day now. Because I dont drive often, I have experienced it less frequently here in New York City. However, it's a great idea for enhancing our reputation as a nation of kind human beings that have the capacity to speak in civil tongues (unlike the shenanigans in DC). For more on Civility in America, read here. Happy halloween!

reputation of America at a low point

star When I travel to speak in different countries , I spend a good deal of time investigating the reputation of the country I am traveling to and any recent reputational problems they are experiencing. I always want to know what the biggest business scandal, best example of a reputation recovery and what were the most widely covered social media assaults on a business. I usually get asked to comment on these types of questions one way or another during a media interview or in a Q&A session and I like to be prepared.

On my last trip, I was all prepared to talk about Turkey's issues with the protests in Gezi Park. But everywhere I turned, I was also asked what I thought about the reputation of the United States in light of the government shutdown? Did I think its reputation was being harmed? I have to say that I was somewhat startled by the question because I am always so focused on the country that I am visiting that I forget that it goes both ways. But this time, I realized without any doubt that the reputation of America was being seriously damaged abroad by the incivility and absurdity of the standoff. It felt awful.

This week, we saw something I have posted about companies are increasingly becoming involved in political issues, sometimes against their own will. And this week we saw first hand another form of Starbucks Diplomacy. The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, posted a note on his company website deploring the shutdown -- "Please join me in pleading for civility and a respectful, honest discourse among politicians to bring a solution to the current stalemate."  And today, another note about Americans coming together for the collective good and signing a petition demanding that Congress put an end to the shutdown. Since I really want to get our reputation back on track, I'm all for this.

Politicizing reputation





One of the trends I talk about when it comes to reputation is how politics is no longer a strange bedfellow to companies.  Companies and their leaders now find themselves taking sides on climate change, same-sex marriage, immigration, gun control and a host of other issues. Company reputation is far more politicized that it used to be. Years ago when I first got into public relations, it was made very clear to me that companies did not air their political leanings or take sides on political issues. Today, political issues are now the business of business.

That is why I was particularly interested in an article about a Starbucks in Newton Connecticut.  I copied and pasted the newspaper photograph into a powerpoint slide for safekeeping. I'll want to be able to remind myself when I need a good example of how politicized reputation has become and how tricky it is to walk a fine line.

Nothing is ever simple these days when companies live in glass houses. There's always two sides to every coin. Here's a snapshot of what happened. Two days ago, gunowners declared Friday "Starbucks Appreciation Day." Unfortunately, this nationwide Appreciation Day was also being celebrated at a Starbucks in Newton, Connecticut, home to the mass killing of some two dozen children and teachers. Why appreciation day for Starbucks? Reason is that Starbucks has publically supported the Second Amendment in states where it is allowed and which grants people the right to keep and bear arms whether those guns are carried in public spaces such as the ubiquitous coffee chain or not.  However, because of the glaring sensitivities surrounding the hideous Sandy Hook killings, Starbucks found themselves at ground zero for pro- and anti-gun supporters even though gun carrying is allowed in Connecticut.

What did they do? At the Newton Starbucks, they closed the store five hours early and put up this sign:

Dear Customers,

At Starbucks we are proud that our stores serve as gathering places for thousands of communities across the country and we appreciate that our customers share diverse points of view on issues that matter to them. We also believe in being sensitive to each community we serve.

Today, advocacy groups from different sides of the open carry debate announced plans to visit our Newtown, Connecticut store to bring attention to their points of view. We recognize that there is significant and genuine passion surrounding this topic, however out of respect for Newtown and everything the community has been through we decided to close our store early before the event started. Starbucks did not endorse or sponsor the event. We continue to encourage customers and advocacy groups from all sides of the debate to contact their elected officials, who make the open carry laws that our company follows. Our long-standing approach to this topic has been to comply with local laws and statutes in the communities we serve.

Thank you for your understanding and respect for the Newtown community.


Chris Carr

executive vice president, U.S. Retail

For Starbucks, there's no winning on this issue but I respect the fact that they behaved according to their conscience and in line with their corporate character . I also was impressed that the EVP of US Retail signed his name to the letter. There was no darting the issues. However, I think it is important to recognize that company reputations will find themselves regularly tangling with political issues and they need to shape their reputations with that in mind.

CSR through the eyes of CFOs

iFi9LQtu_uFAI often get asked how entrenched CSR/corporate social responsibility is in America. Afterall, CSR activities and behavior are an important driver of reputation. From my travels, I used to think that CSR was more deeply embedded in European company thinking but over the past few years, I've come to think that CSR has taken a greater hold in U.S. companies. Therefore I was particularly interested in hearing how CFOs regard the importance of CSR, the ones who have to sign the checks for embarking on this critical reputation-building initiative. With CSR, once companies start the process, there is no turning back. We gladly saw during the financial collapse of the past few years, that companies did not abandon their CSR efforts. They may not have grown their efforts but they certainly held steady. This speaks to the power of the commitment from the top, including CFOs. A survey by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and CFO Magazine Global Business among senior finance executives across six continents recently reported that U.S. CFOs regard the importance of CSR to a lesser extent than their global peers. Nearly half rate CSR/sustainability (51%) as important in their business strategies compared to their counterparts in Europe (63%), Asia (67%), LatAm (76%) and Africa (83%). When asked why they engage in CSR activities, the top reasons according to the sample of  U.S. chief financial officers are:

  1. It's the right thing to do (66%)
  2. To improve external reputation, brand or image (61%)
  3. To improve internal good will, employee morale, employee hiring/retention (49%)
  4. In response to legal/regulatory requirements 27%)
  5. To improve cost efficiencies (14%)
  6. It increases customer demand (13%)
  7. Helps drive innovation (11%)
  8. To improve the bottom line (10%)

Interestingly, doing well by doing good and corporate reputation are at the top. CFOs in the U.S. are surely getting CSR religion. They are finally seeing that helping the world is the right thing to do and improves company reputation and also helps drive the best talent your way. I was a bit surprised that CFOs did not realize the growing relationship between what customers are now demanding from companies in the way of sustainable behavior and their own CSR initiatives. As we have repeatedly pointed out at Weber Shandwick, the link between customer expectations of responsible companies and their willingness to buy those companies' products and services is stronger than ever. I am confident, however, that the  interdependence between corporate responsibility and customer purchase decision-making will only grow in the years ahead.

The ongoing Duke University research provides good fodder for realizing that U.S. CFOs have a ways to go in realizing the importance of CSR and how it positively improves the bottom line. That's where the BIG divide exists.