Building Reputational Intelligence

Decades ago, corporate communications pioneer Harold Burson nailed it when he said: "PR cannot overcome things that shouldn't have been done." In recent months several global companies have found themselves confronting the consequences of not having recognized vulnerabilities in key operating areas. They have paid the price in reputational declines.

Leading companies now recognize the essential role that "reputational intelligence" plays in both strategic planning and daily operations. These organizations work proactively to create an authentic culture, fostering values and behaviors throughout that accurately reflect what they stand for. They follow Socrates' dictum: "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear."

To achieve this, chief executive officers should turn to the natural guardian of reputation within their organizations: the chief communications officer. At the highest level of the profession, the chief communications officer is a trusted adviser who sits at the table when business decisions are first made, pointing out disconnects between a company's policies and promises and a proposed action. The CCO advances the company's business objectives by identifying risks that may catastrophically undermine trust between it and its stakeholders, which include customers, employees, and the media.

This is not "PR firefighting"—an outmoded perception of communications rendered largely futile when the facts line up against a company. It is fire prevention: advance corrective steps that remove the fuel of misguided action before a spark ignites it.

Companies that practice this approach are not exempt from crises. When they show a record of integrity, however, they are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt. This is the opposite of "spin." It is built into a company's operations, not bolted on in an attempt to fix something that needn't have broken in the first place.

Fostering Leadership and Communication

Following are some strategies for fostering this level of thinking in your company:

While leadership in reputational intelligence needs to come from the CCO, it is the CEO who must make it a priority. The first step is to ensure that the head of communications has the opportunity to "embed" into all areas of the company and that all operational leaders understand that this is a C-suite mandate.

CEOs must demand that the company's regular risk assessments take into account reputational risk, including the identification of problems in corporate culture that can lead to bad decisions at every level of the organization. Too often reputational risk is completely overlooked, particularly as its value is not easily measured. Also, organizations sometimes confine risk management to certain traditional areas of concern. The CCO will expand thinking on risk considerations. CEOs must create a culture in which C-suite collaboration is not just an advantage, but an expectation.

To fully harness the benefits of the communications function, CEOs should spend more time directly with CCOs. Top communicators are instrumental to far more than PR strategy. Their potential to drive culture, employee engagement, and marketing strategy will naturally fuel a greater need for consistent interaction.

CEOs must demand from their CCOs the highest level of strategic understanding of the business. Top-performing CCOs are essential counselors to corporate leaders. Many companies that successfully navigate crises have at the top a strong and enduring partnership between the two roles.

Smart CEOs understand that CCOs are uniquely able to serve as advisers and ambassadors, working both within and outside the corner office to help their companies mitigate reputational risks that are sometimes inevitable.

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