Ipsos Corporate Reputation

When does reputation turbulence become a full-blown crisis?

In a world of information overload, communications leaders must be able to separate the signal from the noise in order to defend their companies when it matters most.

Communications leaders need the tools to spot a potential crisis amongst the background turbulence, as well as the corporate resilience to weather the storm when it hits.
Experience, internal networks, planning, and measurement & management tools are crucial in separating turbulence from a crisis.
Council members identify two important factors in building resilience: a thorough track record of stakeholder engagement to build reputational strength, and prior planning to understand potential triggers and team roles across the business when an issue arises.

Full-blown crises pose a genuine threat to a company’s continued survival or licence to operate. By contrast, reputation turbulence is an issue, or series of issues, which impacts the impressions of stakeholders without posing a sustained threat to the company.

The number of Council members who believe that every issue must be treated as a potential crisis, until it is proven otherwise.

For the vast majority (79%) of Reputation Council members, being able to differentiate between the two is seen as very (59%) or fairly (20%) useful. The remainder don’t make this delineation. They believe that EVERY issue must be treated as a potential crisis, until it is proven otherwise. But without doubt, communicators have a limited amount of time and resources. They  need to identify and prioritise the emerging issues that matter the most to their business.

Experience, internal networks, planning, and analytics each play important roles in helping to prepare, prioritise, react and regain a state of ‘equilibrium’.

"Our philosophy is to actively manage outside of crisis situations – like engaging in diet and exercise rather than going to shock trauma. You want to know the number for emergency services, but you don’t want to live on a bench outside the hospital. Actively managing in advance means engaging with stakeholders and communities you need in case of a crisis."
IS THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN REPUTATION TURBULENCE AND CRISIS USEFUL TO COMMUNICATORS?
How do you distinguish a crisis from turbulence?

Unilever’s Paul Polman notes that “reputation has a habit of arriving on foot and departing on horseback.” Is it possible for corporate communicators, in the heat of the moment, to distinguish between an emerging crisis and something that’s just background turbulence? A cool head, in-depth knowledge of the business, and detailed data can all help:

Experience

Like much of a communicator’s job, telling the difference between day-to-day turbulence and a business-altering crisis is as much art as science, drawing on both intuition and knowledge built up through years of experience. The key is to have a process in place which ensures that each issue gets due attention and is escalated only when necessary. A common theme among Council members is that it is the role of the communications professional to be the dispassionate ‘cool head’ in the room; one goes so far as to suggest that keeping executives calm and correctly diagnosing a crisis are core competencies of the communications leader.

Understanding

The main filter for determining whether an issue is turbulence or a crisis is its likely impact on the business’s core activities, purpose and values. In order to assess this ‘salience’, Council members say it is important for the communications function to be integrated into the business. The more information it has about operations and leadership, the better it will be at judging the likely impact of an issue. Internal networks which can be leveraged in times of crisis are critical.

Measurement and monitoring

What indicators or early warning systems can communicators draw on to help them make this judgement? While social media and the digitisation of traditional media have greatly increased the volume of turbulence that Council members face on a daily basis, they have also equipped them with more sophisticated diagnostic and predictive tools.

The volume and velocity of ‘noise’ are important; if an issue gains traction over a series of hours, then it is more likely to be heading toward a crisis. But this must be understood in the context of the news cycle, as well as the credibility of the sources and commentators. As one member points out, a big ‘Trump story’ will suck up all of the oxygen that would be devoted to less prominent issues.

An issue that provokes strong stakeholder sentiment will also demand more attention than one that does not. Especially if analysis shows that these perceptions are key drivers of stakeholder behaviour.

"Research, media monitoring, social media monitoring, talking with stakeholders and engaging with them on a regular basis. Doing polling on a regular basis to understand attitudes towards particular issues. Stakeholder discussion groups. To the extent that you can get a 360 approach going, so much the better."
How do you build resilience?

If resilience is the organisational ability to withstand crises, what does it take to become resilient?

"To have resilience, a company has to have a capacity to keep cool. Many issues can be amplified within the company. When a reputational problem appears, people can take this from a very personal side, feel hurt, and subjectivity can make you see a crisis in any turbulence. So, in order to be resilient, it is really necessary to have very well-established processes, but also to count on experienced professionals who have accurate analytical capacity, so that this ‘crisis management team’, with all its expertise, can do the correct diagnostic and convey a certain tranquility."

Building reputation strength before a crisis

Across geographies, Council members agree that building a solid reputation through a track record of stakeholder engagement is the best way to build resilience. This provides a thorough understanding of what drives your reputation, which issues are important to stakeholders, and which communications and initiatives are most effective.

"Our CEO is always talking about something that Steve Jobs told him; he said he broke it down and made it very simple. What you do is either a brand deposit or a brand withdrawal, and you need to have a lot more brand deposits than brand withdrawals. And the simplicity of that is, the consumer will give you the benefit of the doubt if you have been making consistent brand deposits."

It’s often said that you can’t communicate your way out of a crisis that your behaviour created. Reputation resilience means that corporate communications must be genuinely aligned with behaviour, both within and outside the business.

Planning

The second essential requirement for resilience is prior planning. Council members are united in the belief that thorough analysis and planning can not only enable a business to weather a crisis, but also to emerge from it stronger. Members highlight several important elements of planning:

  • Triggers

    To anticipate potential crisis triggers, connectivity with business lines is key. As one communicator put it, “crises are caused by operations, not by communications.” Access to data is critical. But at the same time, members emphasise the need to communicate internally; keeping internal audiences informed can help keep pressurised situations from spilling over to external audiences. Internal and external networks will be precious if a crisis hits.

  • Teams

    In a crisis, everyone needs to understand their role. Communicators need to be able to execute the plan in a dispassionate manner.

  • Practice

    The ability to keep a cool head comes from multiple rounds of practice. All of the planning needs to be pressure-tested so that when a true crisis hits, it’s second nature.

Ultimately, the ability to weather a crisis is significantly linked to prior preparation. This preparation comes from a total business perspective of building reputation resiliency beforehand, as well as within the corporate affairs department in building networks and plans, and making sense of data. Communicators’ hard-won knowledge and experience is key here. Those who are best equipped will have the strongest chance of identifying and weathering reputational crises.

"Having plans of action against specific negative events, as well as being able to manage difficult situations with clarity of mind and rationality, are strategies for building resilience. Never overlook signals, even those that appear insignificant or negligible."

Methodology: 154 interviews conducted with Reputation Council members between 25th June and 12th November 2018.

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It’s the environment, stupid!

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS ARE NO LONGER JUST PRESSING ETHICAL ISSUES, BUT QUESTIONS OF FINANCIAL PRUDENCE. OVER HALF OF BRITISH CONSUMERS FEEL WE ARE EXPERIENCING A CLIMATE CRISIS, AND OVER ONE THIRD SAY THEY WOULD SWITCH OR BOYCOTT A FINANCIAL ORGANISATION IF ITS INVESTMENTS HAVE A DETRIMENTAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT. DESPITE BIG CONCERNS AROUND COVID-19, THE ENVIRONMENT REMAINS A PRIORITY FOR THE PUBLIC, AND BUSINESSES WILL BE EXPECTED TO CONTINUE THE TRANSITION TO A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY IN THE POST-CRISIS PERIOD.

Whilst it doesn’t roll off the tongue with as much zest, James Carville’s ‘the economy, stupid’ slogan is aptly modified for Larry Fink’s announcement earlier this year that BlackRock would base future investments with environmental sustainability as a central goal… ‘It’s the environment, stupid!’. If anyone could ‘wake up’ the market to the tipping point which has now been reached around the environment, it is the Chief Executive of the world’s largest asset management firm. “Awareness is rapidly changing” wrote Mr Fink in the company’s annual letter, “and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance”. This has been compounded more recently, with the announcement that the UK’s biggest pension fund, the government-backed National Employment Savings Trust (Nest), will begin divesting from fossil fuels, and BlackRock “launching a selection of ESG multi-asset ETFs, to provide investors with a cost-efficient, transparent and sustainable way to invest”.

Data from Ipsos’s 2020 Sustainable Business Monitor survey amongst the British public echoes these sentiments. With a majority of the public now feeling we are dealing with a climate crisis, it appears that cash may no longer be king in investments. Only 21% now claim to care more about financial returns on investments than on whether the financial provider is ethical in how it invests money. This is compared to 28% of the public who prioritise ethics over financial returns and 26% who feel they should be given equal footing. Even allowing for the possibility that consumers may not be quite so ethical when faced with this trade-off in reality, it is clear that there has been a change in the drivers of investment decision making.

The growing imperative for investors to prioritise companies with a good sustainability track record is brought into sharper focus when looking more closely at the attitudes of millennials. Findings from the Ipsos Sustainable Business Monitor show that 54% of 18-34 year olds would be concerned about investments in Oil and Gas, compared to 47% for the UK public overall. This isn’t limited to the UK either; sustainable investing interest among US millennial investors jumped from 84% in 2015 to 95% in 2019, according to Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing.

So, what does this all mean? Unsurprisingly, that Fink is right.

Over one third of those asked said that investment in projects or companies that have a detrimental environmental impact would lead them to ‘switch from’, ‘stop using’, or ‘boycott’ a financial organisation. Indeed, sustainable investing is ranked alongside executive remuneration – an issue that has a long track record of being a strong driver of negative opinion for the finance sector.

This sentiment is further reflected at a global level when looking at Ipsos data from the recent Earth Day 2020 report, highlighting that even when set against the crisis situation that COVID-19 has presented, concerns around the environment remain steadfast. Over 7 in 10 people around the world agree that climate change is as serious as the pandemic, whilst 65% agree that in the economic recovery from COVID-19, it’s important that government actions prioritise climate change.

Recognising the growing commercial opportunity facing the sector, and the long-term risk of investing in environmentally unfriendly industries, Fink notes that “as a fiduciary, our responsibility is to help clients navigate this transition [the reallocation of capital]. Our investment conviction is that sustainability and climate-integrated portfolios can provide better risk-adjusted returns to investors”.

But where does this leave industries which have been traditionally harmful to the environment, such as the oil and gas industry, for a long time the bedrock of investment portfolios and still an essential service despite growing environmental concern?

In light of BlackRock’s position, The Economist wrote: “[t]o cynics, all the climate-friendly noises amount to little in practice, since few people are ready to make carbon-cutting sacrifices that would force oil firms’ hands. But noises are sometimes followed by action. Should they be this time, the 2020s may be do-or-die for the oil industry”.

It isn’t a case of ‘adapt tomorrow or die’ for fossil fuel companies however, and Fink makes this clear, forecasting “the energy transition will still take decades”. Citing fairness and justice, “we cannot leave behind parts of society, or entire countries in developing markets, as we pursue the path to a low-carbon world”. The demand for energy will continue whilst technology works to bring cost-effective replacements to conventional fuel sources, but it is incumbent on the sector to aggressively pursue cleaner energy; not only from an ethical perspective, but also in order to remain an attractive investment. The same is also true for a number of other sectors which have for a long time been harmful to the environment, and must adapt with the new way of sustainable investing.

Companies from within the fossil fuel and investment sectors which are leading the transition to a more sustainable future are on the right path, reinforced by public support. This should not be derailed. Communicators in these sectors therefore have the opportunity to maintain messaging around this transition, but with fairness in mind, should also remain sensitive to the societies whose energy programs are not as developed as some of the leading world economies. The transition to sustainable investing will need a collective effort – innovation from industry, reallocation of risk, government support and sustained societal scrutiny, but in adopting Fink’s position, it should be worthwhile effort for investors, producers, and consumers, from both an environmental and a financial perspective.

Contact: Alex Russell - Email | LinkedIn

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