Are You a Reputation Firefighter?

At some point in youth, many kids dream of being a firefighter. Preschool field trips go to the fire station, fire trucks visit schools, and the image of a hero that saves people gets to drive a big, bright, shiny red truck with flashing lights, and even has a fire pole to slide down. What’s not to love?

Being a real firefighter is a heroic profession, but when it comes to reputation in the corporate world, it is almost impossible to be a hero when you are a reputation firefighter.

When it comes to reputation focus, companies generally fall along a scale of five levels ranging from reputation oblivion to firefighter to architect. Where does your company land? This self-evaluation is the first step to unlocking the opportunities and benefits an excellent reputation provides a company.

To truly influence corporate reputation, companies need to elevate above reputation firefighter. Moving along the scale requires added depth and focus on communication and operational alignment toward a strategic vision of what the company desires to be known. The benefits create such value to the bottom line, brand equity, and protection that it is hard to ignore.

Level 1 – Reputation Oblivion

Companies that are in reputation oblivion are generally laser focused on selling their products and not aware of much else. All communication is in support of products, and little time (or resources) is devoted to telling a company story or creating employee engagement. When something goes wrong — a poor product review, a bad Glassdoor post, a forum rant, or a social media attack — they have their heads in the sand and they like it that way. Whether the mentality is “what we don’t know won’t hurt us,” or “if we just wait maybe it will go away,” these are the companies that are often bought in fire sales, failed start-ups, restaurants that were popular one day and gone the next, and so on.

Level 2 – Reputation Firefighters

Companies in reputation firefighter mode are reactionary to every issue. At any given time, a review on Yelp, a Twitter post, or a disgruntled employee can blow up the day, even the week. Reputation firefighters are on a continuous wheel with a fire that needs to be put out at every turn. Communications is alone to fight the fire with no alignment to operations to make structural changes that may be causing the flair ups in the first place. However, a company realistically only has one chance to say, “I’m sorry,” for it to be a valued response. So, not only is this reputation level disruptive, it is completely ineffective and erodes the brand value.

Level 3 – Reputation Defender

At this level, companies are focused on managing reputation, issues, and crisis. They have crisis plans; perhaps on shelves, but they still have them. They are looking at risks and try to prepare for them. Occasionally communications and operations align but only on big events such as launches. They have online reputation monitoring tools and use online reputation management services to clean up unwelcome online conversations. However, their relationships and conversations are still mostly about products, not the brand.

Level 4 – Reputation Manager

Reputation manager companies are talking about reputation. The CEO wants a good reputation. HR needs a good reputation to recruit. Sales enjoy customers who appreciate their products, and communicators are telling both a brand and product story. The company is spending more time being proactive than reactive – listening, planning, training, and responding. They are looking at reputational risks and smoldering crises and addressing before the company’s reputation is harmed. The company may even be focused on corporate social responsibility and be heavily involved with the community. Everything around reputation is focused on having a good one and protecting it. But what’s next? Is this the pinnacle? Is the reputation making a difference in the bottom line? Is reputation a differentiator?

Level 5 – Reputation Architect™

The future of reputation management for companies is that of a Reputation Architect. This is where the benefits of reputation become a differentiator for the company. As reputation architects, such companies are more focused on “what they are known for” rather than simply being known as “a good company.” There is an intentional effort on truly designing reputation. A Reputation Architect is focused on not only being a good company, but also being known for its brand, the promises it keeps, and the experiences it delivers to all stakeholders. It is a company that communicates from the inside out. It’s focused on reputation at the leadership level and is aligned throughout the company. At this level is where companies are implementing the reputation formula with a living brand — which means a culture that delivers on the brand promises and experiences; communication is aligned from the inside out to all stakeholders; and connections that build relationships and equity — that is insulated.

In an economy where reputation is highly valued, reputations are about more than the traditional issues management and crisis management. A company’s reputation is more than today’s social view of online reputation management, Yelp reviews, star ratings, and monitoring the social vehicle of the month. It’s not about being a protector or the cleanup crew of your reputation that matters most, anymore. Reputation management has outgrown this methodology. That’s not to say these foundational tactics aren’t still important; they just aren’t enough anymore.

In a reputation economy where reputation is a true differentiator, it must be a core business goal because long-term success of the business depends on it.