Reputation risk, repair and strategy

[from October 6th and somehow I lost it so replacing here now]

It has been a crazy few weeks -- traveling to Berlin, San Francisco and Istanbul. But I am back in the USA. So here are a few observations about things I've read and learned that I wanted to share:

1. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu just issued a new report on reputation risk. Reputation risk was the top strategic risk among 300 global C-suite executives surveyed. The survey found 40% of respondents listed reputation as their top risk concern today, with their business model second at 32% and economic trends/competition third at 27%. In 2010, reputation risk was at 26% so we can see that it has moved to the very top of the C-suite agenda. The meta of all risks!

2. In Istanbul, I spoke about Reputation Warfare, the theme of my Harvard Business Review article. The occasion was the 2nd International Reputation Management Conference at Kadir Has University. It was very impressive because there are not many reputation management conferences in this world (Reputation Institute holds one annual one each year). Henry Ristuccia, global leader of governance, risk and compliance at Deloitte had this to say (love this quote): “Reputation risk is going to always be the meta of all risks…how you manage the underlying factors that could affect the organization’s reputation or brand…how resilient are the people, the culture?”) and here I was in Istanbul. Very forward-looking of the university. The summer protests in Turkey at Gezi Park was an interesting backdrop to my discussion on using social media as an opportunity to defend one's reputation in addition to the risk. Additionally, there was discussion about how the protests had affected the reputation of the country. Tourism took a hit in July but from the looks of it, it was pretty healthy this week. I am going to keep a watch out for how Turkey repairs its reputation and what types of reputation recovery strategies are employed. All very interesting and doable. I also experienced some of the Turkish hospitality that they are so well-known for.

3. Just this past week, I read two articles on how Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan are repairing their reputations. All in one week. Clearly this is a topic that has grown exponentially and particularly in the financial sector. The Economist article on Goldman Sachs was fascinating because it described the scenario setting that is being used to train vice presidents to better understand their responsibilities to the firm when faced with ambiguous and complex challenges to doing business today. The case study is preceded by a film that is described this way: " emotive documentary on the history of Goldman Sachs, filled with interviews of luminaries and former executives, each hammering home the virtues that supposedly make the firm distinctive—teamwork, personal accountability and the legendary exhortation by Gus Levy, a former leader of the firm, to be 'long-term greedy', by which he meant it should forgo short-term profits if they came at the expense of client relationships." I mentioned in a previous post how Goldman Sachs is super-engaging in training which included their CEO from the start. In addition, incentives have been revamped and tied more to collaboration and teamwork. The WSJ article on JPMorgan's CEO Jamie Dimon focuses on how he is conveying "business as usual" as he faces an imminent federal lawsuit, another revealing reputation recovery strategy. He has been touring midsize cities such as Cleveland, Oklahoma City and St. Louis meeting with local businesses and community leaders that are supported by JPMorgan's philanthropy. According to the article, Dimon's messages are fine-tuned, upbeat and focused on the customer.


Reputation damaging close calls

Always good practice to learn from crises or disasters. If they have to happen and tragedy occurs, at least we can try to apply lessons from them going forward. Crises, disasters or issues are sure to come to companies or organizations at one time or another. No one is immune -- every company faces their 15 minutes of shame, not just their 15 minutes of fame. The derailment of Metro-North Railroad in the Bronx one week ago today that killed four people and injured many is rightfully capturing a lot of attention on how to make trains safer.

I was reading this article about the derailment on my subway trip home Friday night and at its close, I came across this important best practice. "The railroad administration instructed the authority to adopt a confidential system to report 'close call' incidents." Many companies could do a better job of understanding their close calls. Close calls are similar to "near misses" which are defined this way according to the National Safety Council:

A Near Miss is an unplanned event that did not result in injury, illness, or damage – but had the potential to do so. Only a fortunate break in the chain of events prevented an injury, fatality or damage; in other words, a miss that was nonetheless very near.

A faulty process or management system invariably is the root cause for the increased risk that leads to the near miss and should be the focus of improvement. Other familiar terms for these events are a “close call,” a “narrow escape,” or in the case of moving objects, “near collision” or a “near hit.”

If companies could include "close call" discussions on their internal monthly or quarterly calls, they'd be in far better shape to deal with disasters that do arise. Management could do better by discussing how they might handle near misses, how to make sure they do not happen, who else should be included in the discussion to prevent them and how to prepare should they actually happen. It could be an informal or formal hearing or process. A more formal best practice is sponsored by the American College of Physicians and the New York Chapter of the American College of Physicians -- The Near Miss Registry. The online registry collects medical near misses before they actually occur with patients. The registry allows healthcare workers to voluntarily report medical "near miss" events” using a web based tool located at  and hosted by NYACP.

Unfortunately the tendency is to bury the near misses in the hopes that they do not reach top management. However, that's exactly the point. If top management does not know how close a call they missed, they won't be able to prevent them.

I think it is a good step that Metro-North is adopting this process.


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.




Reputation Resilience


Reputation resilience is a topic I often think about because it should be on all leaders' minds. How can I build the most resilient culture so that we can withstand a crisis that risks our hard fought for reputation? A new report from Schillings in the U.K. examined UK FTSE 350 and leading private companies about reputation risk and resilience. Respondents were Communications, Legal and Risk executives. Here are some of the findings:

  • All executives surveyed are spending more time on reputation risk management than they did two years ago -- 80% say more time (among risk managers), 68% (among communications heads), and 53% (among legal executives). No one said less time.
  • Only 17% say that there is formal reporting to the board of directors on reputation risk. Clearly, not good enough.
  • The top five threats to their company's reputation are (in rank order): business underperformance, information risk, operational risk, health and safety incidents, and employee behavior. Social media comes in at 6th place.
  • When asked what was the biggest obstacle to making reputation risk management top of mind at the company they work for, 37% of respondents said "CEO/Board removed from reputation risk: lack of focus without a crisis and too much reporting." That is unfortunate.  Companies should not need a real crisis to get them to pay attention to risk management.
  • Fortunately, communciations and legal executives are onto it. They know that their jobs require them to take charge of their company's reputation and any associated risks. A full 72% of communications executives said they feel directly responsible and 63% of legal executives are responsible for their company's reputation.
  • How resilient are companies to facing challenges to their reputation? There is a surprising (to me) fair amount of confidence. 55% are "confident enough," 29% are "very or extremely confident" and 16% are "not at all confident or unsure." Although this bodes well for many companies, I would be wary -- essentially 84% of top executives are confident.  If you ask me, they are not worrying enough about all the possibilities that could befall their reputations. Risks to reputation seem to be coming from all directions today and being over-confident is the wrong stance.

Another interesting aspect of this newly issued report is that Schillings is a law firm. They have rebranded themselves to be all about managing reputation risk. Their tag line is "Law at the speed of reputation." Serious business. What would compell a law firm to switch to focusing on reputation? Here is what they say about their transformation: "To continue to lead at a time of such extensive change, we’ve fundamentally changed our own offering. By combining our unrivalled expertise in reputation law with new risk consulting and IT security expertise, we have been able to create an integrated offer that continues to safeguard the successful businesses and individuals we represent whilst living up to the promise that underpinned our business from day one." It would be hard to name many law firms that have done the same. Reputation is changing the face of organizations all across the globe and some firms see the opportunity ahead. Maybe Schillings sees the risks down the road for them as a law firm and are taking their risk by the horns. Interesting approach.

Risky business for CEOs


A new McKinsey survey among board members reports that members acknowledge knowing little about risk. Nearly three in ten (29%) say their boards have limited or no understanding of the risks their companies face. Even more compelling, members say their boards spend just 12% of their time on risk management, an even smaller share of time than two years ago. Not sure about you, but I'd say that the business environment has become more complex and risky, not less complex and risk-free.

This is not good news for executive teams. When it comes to risk management, reputation is high on the list of vulnerabilities that can damage a company's good name. This has me thinking that if board members are not focusing enough on risk, executive teams are going to be held even more responsible for any misdoings and misdeeds. They had better been attuned to crises and risks that are lurking around the corner. CEOs and their direct reports should make reputational issues an A-1 priority on their management agendas.

I received an email about two weeks ago asking if I had information on whose most to blame when crisis strikes. Years ago, I asked that question of executives and if I recall right, CEOs received most of the blame, regardless of whether they knew about the problem or not. The McKinsey research is hinting at the same blame chain. The CEO takes all the credit when things go right and all the blame when things go wrong. The board is looking in all the wrong places. CEOs, beware.

Reputation fake outs!

Faking reputation. Hard to believe! YELP knows so. The review site says that 20% of reviews never see the light of day. They are considered either suspect or fraudalent.  Some businesses even try to commission people to write reviews or bribe product users to write something positive.  You can solicit these reivewers-for-hire people on craigslist. What gets me, however, is that there is an entire cottage industry of reviewers-for-hire who will write bad reviews that knock a business's competition. An article in Ad Age last week presented a slew of facts that makes me wonder where this will all end -- a Gartner study reported that fake reviews would grow to to nearly 15% in the next two years.  They even forecast that the FTC will be taking a few Fortune 500 companies to court for faking reviews within the next few years. These reputation fake outs will weaken credibility of review sites when they've never been so important. Starting this past week, YELP is going to shame businesses that pay for fake reviews to shine up their reputations. Read this article to learn more. By setting up a sting operation (the stuff of spy novels), YELP is said to be exposing eight companies by placing the following consumer alert on their profiles:  “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.” (See above picture for the real deal) Potential customers will see the incriminating e-mails trying to hire a reviewer. And don't expect these alerts to go away soon. Definitely a red-faced moment if caught.

This all makes me think again about how important reputation is in this information age where everything is accessible and disclosable. Reviews that lead to positive and negative reputation are their own form of currency and wealth. The lengths to which businesses will go to protect or heighten their reputations are endless (and sometimes deviant). 

I can't say I am surprised. Recent research we did on corporate reputation found that online reviews were nearly as important as word of mouth and recommendations from friends and family.  I think that weeding out the fake outs is going to be a big business itself to maintain the credibility of reviewers.

The High Cost of Reputation Loss

I was pleased to be alerted to a copy of Reputation Review 2012 by Rory Knight, chairman of Oxford Metrica. Years ago I used some of their research in my book on CEOs and particularly on how CEOs can build their reputation or kill it when crisis strikes.  Knight just completed his annual reputation review for AON, the global risk management, insurance and reinsurance company, and as I expected, the report has insightful and timely information for those seeking to better understand the impact of crisis on a company and its bottom line.


Knight reviews the top crises of 2011 such as TEPCO, Dexia, Olympus, Research in Motion, Sony, UBS and News Corp, among others.  His company looks at the recovery of shareholder value following crisis. Among 10 crisis-ridden companies in 2011, only News Corp found itself in positive terrain afterwards. In fact, what they found was that 7 of the top 10 lost more than one third of their value. Two companies lost nearly 90% of their value. These companies clearly had to put big restoration processes in place afterwards and I would suspect paid good dollars to firms to restore their good names and overlooked other everyday business to move forward.  Oxford Metrica says: “Managing the restoration and rebuilding of reputation equity is an essential part of the value recovery process following a crisis. Reputation equity is a significant source of value for many companies and a coherent reputation strategy can be the difference between recovery and failure.”


The big takeaway from the report, or at least what seems to resonant with me, is that there is an “80% chance of a company losing at least 20% of its value (over and above the market) in any single month, in a given five-year period.” Those odds are not good and as Knight says, screams for having a careful and well thought out reputation strategy in place before a minor event turns into a raging crisis and monopolizes headlines, offline and online.  A solid reputation strategy will also help guide the reputation recovery process which is often too hurried.  This is the kind of advice that I write about in my book on reputation recovery and underscores having a strategy so you do not find yourself in this situation in the first place. Additionally, Weber Shandwick’s stumble rate of 43% for the world’s most admired companies tracks with Knight’s high rate of expectant reputational downfalls. It is not good at either rate.


The report outlines a process for managing a company’s reputational equity. They are 1) Measure your reputation through benchmarking and vis a vis your peers; 2) Identify the drivers of your company’s reputation in order to allocate resources properly; 3) Prepare a strategy for recovering your company’s reputation; and 4) monitor your reputational equity often and respond accordingly when risk emerges.

The report analyzes the reputational losses of Olympus and Research in Motion after their reputation-damaging events. It is worth reviewing.  It also takes a look at the financial results from TEPCO after the tsunami hit Japan. Apparently, 90% of TEPCO’s value was lost, over $US37 billion.  Oxford Metrica estimates that events associated with mass fatalities have double the impact on shareholder value than do reputation crises in general.  I believe they are right. BP’s Gulf of Mexico tragedy which involved over two dozen deaths wiped off substantial shareholder value off their books.


Where I wholeheartedly agree with Knight is when he talks in the report about the impact of senior management on crisis and the need for that management to lead with transparency and openness.


“For mass fatality events particularly, the sensitivity and compassion with which the Chief Executive responds to victims’ families, and the logistical care and efficiency with which response teams carry out their work, become paramount. Irrespective of the cause of a mass fatality event, a sensitive managerial response is critical to the maintenance and creation of shareholder value.” One of the takeaways from the report is that winners and losers, reputationally, can be determined by how the CEO responds to the crisis.


The report contains an article by Spencer Livermore, Director of Strategy, at Blue Rubicon, a reputation consultancy. He quotes a stat that is dear to my heart, “Oxford Metrica’s analysis shows that companies which open up more following a crisis and tell a richer, deeper story are valued more highly, increasing share price by 10 per cent on average over a year.” He calls it the communications dividend which comes from investing in communications. Years ago I wrote an article for Ernst & Young’s Center for Business Innovation called Communications Capital and the idea was similar – the right communications can increase market value and strengthen reputation.  As Livermore says, “We can make communications worth hundreds of millions more simply by making them better understood.” Having the right compelling narrative built on a well thought out reputation strategy is worth its weight in gold today.

Being Rich presents Reputation Risk

Totally fascinating to me that China releases a list of its wealthiest citizens, similar to the Forbes 400. The list, Hurun Report, had some amazing facts worth sharing and which I learned about reading The Economist. The leading source of wealth came from individuals making their living off of manufacturing and not real estate as it was one year ago.  There were also interesting correlations between wealth and zodiac signs with those born in the year of the Rabbit outranking those born in the year of the Snake (2nd) and year of the Dragon (3rd). At the bottom of China’s wealthiest 1000 individuals are those born in the year of the Ox. The reputation of the Ox is in danger. But most interesting was the downfall of some of those who make the Hurun or the Forbes Wealthiest people list. There is greater scrutiny from tax collectors, regulators and the public. There is even a book titled “The Curse of Forbes” which describes the problems that surface when being lauded as one of the nation’s richest.  In a report that the article cites, researchers found that those companies headed by entrepreneurs who make the list find that their market value declines sharply three years afterwards.  Clearly, being on a rich list in China brings the bad with the good and puts reputations in jeopardy.  The Economist title was “To Get Rich Is Not Always Glorious.” An apt headline.