Trends in Reputation: Looking Ahead in 2018

January 01, 2018

Trends in Reputation: Looking Ahead in 2018

2017 was a year like no other for soul-searching issues such as worldwide movements toward populism, concerns over sexual harassment in the workplace, starving polar bears and bots spreading fake news — to name just a few. From the looks of it, most of these issues have yet to be resolved and will continue to be challenges in the year ahead. Add to them whatever new issues will inevitably arise and 2018 should be even more of a heart-stopper. All of this means that during the next 12 months, reputations will continue to be more important — and more at risk — throughout the world.

Here are six reputation trends for 2018 and one personal gripe.

The CEO Resistance Movement. Axios recently wrote: “This is one of the year’s huge business trends: CEOs and corporations — prodded by shareholders, millennial customers and their own workforces — are increasingly vocal on political issues.”

Many CEOs are finding that they can no longer be bystanders and are compelled to stand up when their values and the rights of employees, customers, partners, vendors and others are in harm’s way. Weber Shandwick’s 2017 tracking of how businesses responded to five hot-button issues have shown that CEOs are increasingly willing to speak out on social issues, and our annual research on CEO activism shows support for it. We began investigating this newly discovered trend in mid-2016.

More CEOs seem in favor of this trend than opposed. A Fortune 500 CEO poll reports that 58% of CEOs agree that “it’s important to take a stand on some public issues” compared to 42% who says “it’s better to focus on issues that directly affect the bottom line and to avoid controversial public issues.” Consumers are similarly in favor of CEO activism. According to our recent research with KRC Research, consumers are more likely to buy products/services from companies when they agree with the CEO’s position on an issue (38%). Millennials are particularly more likely to do so (51%).

Such outspokenness should not be interpreted as though speaking out is without risks. There are in fact many. But more and more CEOs are nevertheless deciding that to remain silent either comes with its own risk of appearing to be complicit or too strongly violating their own personal values.

There’s no turning back in 2018. Such activism is becoming global. Although this phenomenon is more common in the United States right now, other regional CEOs are not far behind. CEO activism has increased over recent years and with such broad support from CEOs and consumers, there is no reason to believe that it will not continue to accelerate.

Company Self-Hijacking. The business of business is no longer just business. As in the case of individual CEOs speaking from the heart, entire enterprises are now about speaking out as well on the most contentious issues of the day. For the most part, enterprises that have waded into controversy have done so cautiously, adopting moderate and humble tones as if to justify their corporate stands. They have used moderating justifications such as defending their core values, commitment to diversity and inclusion, employee safety and well-being, and environmental stewardship.

A few, however, have taken more blatant approaches when opposing national policies of the past year. Patagonia, which calls itself an activist company, is one such corporation. The outdoor retailer unabashedly roared its opposition when President Trump slashed the size of two federally protected national monuments in Utah. Patagonia publicly announced that it would sue the administration to block the reductions. To further emphasize the depth of its opposition, the company dramatically altered its website and social media platforms exhibiting a dark, somber, even funereal display, with a “no holds barred” condemnation inscribed in sharply contrasting lettering: “THE PRESIDENT STOLE YOUR LAND.”

Yes, for years, Patagonia has practiced a quiet strain of non-violent civil disobedience — even offering free civil disobedience training for employees. This recent call-to-action, however, is markedly distinguishable for its audacity and aggressiveness.

Such overt activism may well be its own form of brand hijacking. Reebok, for example, did not hesitate to sneer at the U.S. President’s remark that France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron, was in “such good shape…beautiful.” In a mocking tweet, Reebok’s tweet featured a flow chart explaining when one should remark on someone else’s looks — just about never. The flow chart went viral and made headlines around the world.

These two non-violent criticisms demonstrate how companies are responding in ways that were unimaginable years ago. 2018 should test more companies to move toward overt, in-your-face activism.

America Continues to Lose Reputation as a Civilized Nation. The word incivility is derived from the Latin incivilis, meaning “not of a citizen.” To be uncivil therefore means not acting like a citizen. In other words, an uncivil person does not abide by his or her community’s laws or norms. So when we at Weber Shandwick were asking about America’s status as a civil nation in our seventh annual poll in December of 2016, we were also asking how America squares with the norms common to the community of nations of which it is a part.

It didn’t do so well. Nearly three quarters of Americans (73%) said that the U.S. was losing stature around the world as a civil nation. This figure was basically the same as it was one year earlier, although 75% of Americans – a significant lift from one year ago – reported that we have hit crisis levels of incivility.

Some Americans may still say that the U.S. is becoming great again, but a fairly sizeable segment of the world at large sees no evidence of greatness. A survey in June 2017 by non-partisan Pew Research found that positive views of the U.S. experienced double-digit drops in more than half of 37 nations surveyed. The U.S. Department of Commerce also reports that international travel to the U.S. dropped 4.2% in the first quarter of this year, costing us a hefty $2.7 billion in consumer spending. The ongoing culture wars and widening political divide have tarnished the American Brand almost beyond recognition. When a person reads Emma Lazurus’s words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” we want to be sure he or she is thinking of the United States.

Maybe hope is ahead. The good news is that in 2017, we received more calls from people and organizations about making America civil again – from faith-based coalitions to high school principals to individuals just plain fed up with the status quo.

Employees Aren’t Buying The Whole Employer Brand Thing. Attracting, recruiting and retaining talent has always been a top corporate priority. Even though companies spend billions trying to market themselves — in 2015 alone, U.S. companies spent more than $247 billion on recruitment! — these expenditures don’t seem to be very effective. In Weber Shandwick’s recent survey on employer branding, only 19% of global employees said that they perceive a strong match between what their own employer says about itself and their experience working there. Furthermore, only 12% of global employees say they trust what most employers say about their companies being a good place to work. This mismatch highlights a credibility gap that exposes employers to reputation risk.

Closing the gap allows employers to more successfully drive recruitment, employee engagement and retention. An authentic employer brand is particularly critical in an age of extreme transparency where job candidates make reputational assessments with ease based on what an organization’s employees say online or through word of mouth. A new job for many employees is just a link away so it is time to be all you say you are.

I predict that in the year ahead, the reputation of a company as an employer will become an even stronger driver of overall corporate reputation than ever before. This connection between reputation and the employer brand will only tighten as economic prosperity continues, unemployment remains low and more Boomers retire from the workforce.

Techlash Deepens. The reputation of technologists and social media continues to worsen. To name just a few reputation-draining stories of 2017: social media’s purported role in enabling fake news and uncivil discourse, media’s blame for rising incivility, technorati’s impact on rising housing costs in San Francisco, anti-diversity manifestos and statements such as Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk’s that AI-engineered robots are going to destroy humanity. The technology industry will need to begin triage soon to counter these fast-moving events and reputation assaults. Some are already moving in the right direction. With surprising transparency, Facebook’s research scientists recently reported on the upsides and downsides of social media and its impact on people’s lives. But much more will need to be done to repair the technology/social media industry’s reputation than the one now being told.

The Reputation of Men Takes a Big Hit. Expectations are that sexual harassment charges against powerful men have just begun with similar charges likely to spread to every sector of society, private and public. Women are coming forward in droves to recount their experiences as the #MeToo movement surges forward. The sad truth is that the reputation of all men has taken a catastrophic hit.

Q: Is it fair to say that the one or two bad apples spoil the whole barrel and that men by their very nature are plain bad dudes? A: No, not fair. But it is also true that we are witnessing an epidemic, not just a few isolated events. And we probably have many more disclosures to go. All men are not bad. But too many when in power seem to be rotten apples.

It is therefore not surprising then that my women friends are all plain disgusted. Nor is alarm limited to women, it has spread to children. My granddaughter asked me, for example, what “consensual” means. When girls too are inquiring into what are appropriate gender norms, then a true shift is afoot.

Personally, a readjustment of what is expected between the sexes is probably long overdue. At the very least, it is not just women who are questioning Brand Men, but men are doing the same. My adult son texted me when news of Harvey Weinstein broke that he was no longer confident about how to act on dates. My husband reasonably wonders how men find so much time to harass women at work and still get their jobs done. I’ve also spoken to many male friends who are not sure how to treat their female colleagues during work meetings and in conversation.

Men’s reputation is at an all time low, and it will take time to recover. In 2018, a re-examination of behavior between the genders in the workplace will continue. Hopefully a new more balanced relationship will result, and Brand Men will evolve in the right direction.

My Gripe: Taylor Swift Ruined It for Me. Every year I have included in my reputation roundups a stat on how “reputation” was soaring. It always brought a smile to my face. How did I measure this increase in reputation interest? Easy. I would measure the increase of the word “reputation” on Google year over year. No longer. Taylor Swift released a new album entitled “reputation” in November 2017 making my yearly comparisons next to impossible. For example, just one year ago, we saw a yearly 53% increase from 2015 to 2016 in reputation mentions. In the past year alone (2016 to 2017), and presumably due in part to Taylor Swift’s new album, we saw a year over year increase of 120%. A huge, unprecedented jump. Even the hashtag #reputation that I have been using for at least a decade now had a “rep” tag attached to it for weeks using Swift’s cover font of Engraver’s Old English. Swift has now usurped my territory. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so maybe 2018 won’t be so bad after all.

On to 2018.


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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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