What is reputation management, and why does it matter? 

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By Polly Winograd Ikonen, LCI

“There is no truth. There is only perception.” When he expressed this sentiment, 19th-century French author Gustave Flaubert could have known nothing of the quagmire of 21st-century cancel culture and truth wars. So one can only assume that perception – a.k.a. reputation – has been a human obsession for quite some time. As your mother probably said to you in middle school – reputation matters. 

What constitutes a reputation? At the most basic level, it’s what others think about you.  

And what shapes a reputation? Three main elements contribute to forming a reputation: what you say about yourself, how you act and what others say about you. 

When it comes to organizational reputations, those same three elements apply. But unfortunately, they don’t all get equal attention, and it’s the communications team’s job to make sure they do. Why is that? While reputation management typically falls under communications’ purview, it’s typically the rest of the organization that determines what the reputation actually is. If you don’t want to spend your communications career being responsible for cleaning up other people’s messes, read on. 

Most organizations focus most of their communications energy on the first element: What do we want to say? What is our key messaging, brand voice and tagline? What are we posting on social today, tomorrow or next week? How do we build engagement with catchy, sticky content? That’s what we’re good at, creating words that engage. 

Then there’s what others are saying about your organization. Most communications teams are (or should be) scanning the internet daily for brand mentions by media outlets, in social channels and other chatter sources out there. Perhaps they’re doing share-of-voice analysis and even tonal analysis. This is definitely important work, as you’ll want to pick up any glitches in the reputational matrix before things get out of hand. 

But no matter how thoughtful, strategic or timely the communications team is in scripting and monitoring, the one thing that most contributes to the public’s impression of your brand – that is to say, your reputation – is how your organization acts

In today’s world, how your organization ‘walks the walk’ definitely trumps how it ‘talks the talk.’ Any disconnect there is the quickest way to trigger a reputation meltdown. 

Your brand promises aren’t just a marketing exercise. They should be embedded in the product, sales and customer service pipelines and flow from the top of the organization. If your company policies and practices don’t quite support a “customer is always right” attitude, then don’t say that they do. Are you struggling with supply chain bottlenecks (and who isn’t these days!)? Then communicate that. Match your company’s actions to your marketing words. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  

Bottom line

Make sure your company leadership – and all employees – understand everything I’ve just laid out. That new DEI commitment? That customer service pledge? The company’s core values? Remind them that all aspects of your business practices need to deliver on those promises. If they don’t quite do that, then work to adjust either the practices or the language so that they match.   

While reputation management may officially reside with your communications team, at the end of the day, how that reputation is implemented is controlled by other teams. So it’s very much our responsibility to help ensure that our company’s actions match our words. When that happens, there’s a lot less reputation to manage. Just ask Madame Bovary. 

Recommended articles: 

How to protect your company – and reputation – from malicious disinformation Ragan’s PR 

Reputation management – top tips straight from the industry pros Post Press  

The Slander Industry The New York Times