What’s Ahead for Reputation in 2015

December 29, 2014

What’s Ahead for Reputation in 2015

What’s on the docket for reputation watchers? Here are my predictions, reflections and thoughts on what’s ahead in 2015 and beyond. This was just posted today on HuffingtonPost.

The Reputation of Things. This year the term reputation was everywhere. It was no longer primarily reserved for corporations and the corporate domain. The reputation of things extended far and wide, from TV stars (Bill Cosby), universities (University of Virginia), suburbs (Ferguson), companies (Sony Pictures), food (gluten), countries (Russia), sports leagues (NFL), CEOs (Market Basket’s Arthur T. Demoulas), and on and on.  All of which leads us to one single truth: reputation is everywhere and encompasses everything. As Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, reminded his top manager All-Stars in a memo this month, their top priority is to “zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation.” He continued, “As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years, we can afford to lose money–even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation–even a shred of reputation.” Amen.

 Thought Leadership Frenzy. This year, a long dormant agenda item burst onto the reputation scene. It spilled into nearly every discussion on reputation management – “thought leadership.” Nearly overnight, every company wanted a thought leadership platform, and every CEO wanted to be a thought leader. The term’s presence on the Internet grew 65% from one year ago and a whopping 707% since 2011.  Thought leadership is not a new concept. Indeed, I devoted an entire chapter to it in my book on building CEO reputation back in 2002.  But now companies seem to have awoken from their recession slumbers and want their own versions of Smarter Planet, Ecomagination and Sustainable Living. That’s good news for the planet and society at large but not an easy or instantaneous goal to achieve. Thought leadership requires having a point of view on the future, the ability to inspire and awe, the knack for identifying business problems that cross sectors and generations, and of course, the capacity to develop a credible solution. Good thought leadership must be rooted in the company’s culture and embraced internally. As if these criteria were not hard enough to meet, thought leadership must also be simple, memorable and able to travel fast. Only in that way will it succeed in differentiating a corporate reputation from its peers. One of the reasons for this dramatic proliferation of thought leadership is the explosion in content marketing, native advertising or brand publishing (whatever you call it). Thought leadership helps satiate this ferocious appetite for meaningful content that companies need to attract customers.  No doubt about it, thought leadership has returned with a vengeance.

The CEO Citizenship Brand. The CEO as Brand comes in and out of favor every few years. There was a time when the CEO as Brand movement got tangled up with CEO as Celebrity, the big no-no of the early 2000s. Let’s be clear. CEOs have never liked being handled as brands that can be packaged and pitched as “new and improved.”  As we tilt towards 2020 and Gen Ys begin taking the reins, the CEO Brand as we know it will be redefined. We will see the emergence of the CEO Citizenship Brand where purpose and contribution to the collective good will reign supreme. CEO reputations will be shaped by the good deeds that companies do, not just by what they say and how much profit they make. The CEO Citizenship Brand will be about the collective, not the individual. When London Business School CEO wannabes were asked what they would do if they were in charge, the top answer they gave was aligning strategy and activity with purpose (43%).  Only 1% checked off maximizing return to shareholders. There you have it.

Exporting Reputation Still A Challenge.  A great reputation in one country does not necessarily translate into an equally good one in another country. It remains fairly unusual for a company to successfully export its reputation. According to research by Reputation Institute, only a handful of companies have managed to transfer their most admired status to more than a few countries. Only 10% of 100 companies made the Top 10 most reputable list in six or more of 15 markets surveyed. This is unfortunate since the demand for global brand building is only going to grow in 2015 as brands saturate their own markets and more people are connected to the Internet. One way some companies have built their transnational reputation is by creating a culture that looks and feels the same regardless of whether or not their headquarters are in Bombay, Bogota or Boston. It is not too hard to imagine that sometime in the future, multinationals will compete on their employer reputations and less so on their products and services. The CEO of a Fortune 10 company once said, “For one thing, people—rather than products—will become our brand.” That might just be the case.

Media-Tested CEOs A Must.  CEO turnover continues at a fast clip today. Depending on which study you look at, turnover rates for chief executives hover around 15%. With the recession hopefully behind us, boards are anxious to get the next generation of CEOs in place. They not only need to identify the right leaders that can succeed today but also those who will prevail five years from now. I have no doubt that in 2015 and beyond, CEO search committees will seek out candidates that can take a more public role without breaking a sweat. When times are tough (which seems to be all the time), no company can afford a media-challenged CEO. NextGen CEOs will need to ooze credibility, be fully media-vetted, comfortable with transparency and able to reduce complexity into tweet-sized statements. I know of one board that required one CEO contender to play CEO-for-the-day as a final test for the corner office. The candidate had to give a webcast presentation and get ambushed by actors dressed as television and media journalists to pass muster. The Board was not going to take any chances given our media-saturated environment with their company’s reputation.

CEO Civility Guards Could Be Next.  As the year closes, the news has been woefully unkind to Sony Pictures’ executives whose internal emails were hacked and publicly leaked. Forget about the past trend of hiring digital sherpas for CEOs. Soon we will hear about hiring civility guards for top executives. Their jobs will be to obliterate any evidence of uncivil email exchanges that might wreak havoc if disclosed. One way to sensitize executives worried about their civil reputations maybe to follow the example set by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. For his 2014 new year’s resolution, he promised to write “well-considered” thank you notes every day, whether by e-mail or hand. As taught in grade school, civility becomes a habit and practice makes CEO future-proofed and civilly-perfect.

The Instagram CEO.  The word is that Instagram is overtaking Twitter in terms of users and engagement.  According to social media analytics company SocialBakers, the average Instagram post among top brands has a higher engagement rate than Twitter.  So where do CEOs stand on this popular platform? Nowhere. According to CEO.com, a tiny 2.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs have an Instagram account and the few who do are mostly Internet CEOs and founders such as Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian and Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore.  As visual storytelling becomes the more preferred medium, increasingly more CEOs will establish footholds on Instagram. In time, serious reputation-builders will recognize the attraction of sharing visual content and its immediate authenticity. CEOs will begin snapping photos of where they’ve been, customers they’ve visited and employees they’ve spoken to. Instagram CEOs will be the new Pied Pipers.

The New X Factor in Reputation. Many of the drivers of reputation remain the same year in and year out. They are lasting and enduring and ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. Some things shouldn’t change. Drivers such as quality of products/services, management quality, innovativeness, financial performance, corporate responsibility and talent pool should all continue to create long-lasting reputation. But I do foresee an emerging new X factor — how well companies communicate and go-to-market so as to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. We all know that companies can reproduce competitive products or services overnight and sell them less expensively. What is much harder to replicate is a brilliant marketing communications campaign that touches consumers emotionally and gives them an unquestionable reason to buy their products or services.

Women are the new Digital. Everywhere I turn, there is a new newsletter, piece of content, conference or research study about women.  Women and their reputation as women have taken up as much bandwidth as digital did the past year or two. I do not know why the interest in women is sizzling hot but anything to do with the reputation of women in this world is now radioactive. Could it be the Hillary effect, the greater exposure on violence towards women or the dismal news about gender inequality the world over? Whatever it is, women are trending, and their place in the world is shifting, hopefully for the better.

On a closing note, I looked back at my previous reputation forecasts and am pleased to report that some of my predictions came true. The one that I wrote about in 2012 on reputation blackmail sadly reared its ugly head just a few weeks ago as corporate secrets and private conversations were irresponsibly revealed to create great reputational damage. Let’s hope that 2015 does not see anymore ransom “notes.”

May your 2015 be reputation-rich.

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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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