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.

Read more from the Reputation Council...

Read more from the Ipsos Corporate Reputation Team...

Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, the S of ESG is coming under greater scrutiny

Actions on E, S and G in tandem remain essential to corporate reputation

As ESG has surged up the consumer agenda, new Ipsos data shows that improving society is identified as the top priority for multinationals among consumers across the globe – perhaps not surprising given the social implications of the pandemic. While fundamental issues such as safe working conditions are seen as most important here, each company should carefully consider how to adapt its operations to improve sustainable business practice. Companies should continue to pursue actions on all three pillars of ESG though. Not just because E and G remain critical in the public’s eyes, but also as it – as we should all know now – makes good business sense to do so.

Companies’ role in creating shared value

Companies are increasingly assessed on the extent to which they bring ‘net benefits’ to society. Especially among the financial community and the media there is a focus on ESG: companies’ performance on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues that come with doing business. Not just because you ultimately shoot yourself in the foot if you run out of the natural resources you need, treat your staff unfairly, or become wound up in corruption scandals. No, also because doing the right thing has BECOME a source of value creation. Not least, this is because we – ‘the public’, consumers and employees – pay more attention to what companies do or stand for than we did a decade ago – be that their efforts to increase staff diversity & inclusion, meeting net zero goals, or paying their fair share of taxes.

In March 2021 Ipsos asked consumers across 28 markets to rank ESG priorities for multinationals. While all three aspects, ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘G’, were seen as important, improving society (S) came out as the top priority, with 41% of the votes globally. Protecting the environment (E) followed at 31%, almost on equal footing with practicing good governance (G, 28%).

In 22 out of the 28 countries surveyed, improving society received the most picks as the top priority, with a majority of the vote share in Spain (54%), Poland (52%), Japan (52%) and Korea (50%).

These findings are not surprising in the context of COVID-19. Health & safety precautions in the workplace, as well as a desire for job security amid economic uncertainty, have, for many, become necessary concerns.

How should companies engage with the ‘S’?

Given the increased focus on the role of companies to contribute socially, where should they focus their efforts on the ‘S’ pillar of ESG?

Looking at which societal issues people want multinationals to address, our survey shows that improving working conditions and worker health & safety come top. This is true across all regions, from Europe to APAC, to Middle East-Africa, to LATAM through to North America. Potentially contributing here are new COVID-related concerns about ventilation, social distancing, face masks at work etc., on top of existing issues.   

Despite ample attention across (social) media for issues around gender equality and diversity, these topics came out lower down the list. Again, this holds true when looking in detail at the answers from people across different parts of the world. 

It’s impossible to give a blank slate answer to how companies can best create shared value on ‘S’. The priorities in the eyes of consumers listed above, give an idea. But what that means for each individual business is something that needs careful consideration. That’s why it’s so important for companies to engage with their stakeholders on these issues. Employees who feel their employer looks after them, will be more willing to go the extra mile: a ‘give’ for the ‘get’. Local communities who see that companies take their interests at heart, will be more open to dialogue and working together to create mutual benefits. Etcetera.

Ipsos advises businesses on how they should address ESG challenges and helps them to define, manage and communicate their priorities. A relevant example to multinationals is our advice on how to frame “benefits” of ESG strategies to consumers. As people aren’t driven by sustainability claims alone to take action (as they often feel they are doing enough already), it is most effective to couple these to an extra incentive personal to them. So instead of saying: “switch to renewable energy to reduce your carbon footprint” position this as “switch to renewable energy will save you money AND help you reduce your footprint”.

Finally, what’s left to say is that, as I have said before, investments in ESG issues should be financially responsible and prudent in their own right, giving shareholders a return on investment. Ultimately, genuine progress on ESG will help to protect companies’ social licence to operate and bolster their reputation.

For more information please contact:

Marloes Klop
Research Director, Corporate Reputation

Marloes.Klop@ipsos.com

Technical details about the survey

These are the results of a 28-market online survey conducted by Ipsos on its Global Advisor platform. Ipsos interviewed a total of 14,000 adults aged 18-74 in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa and Turkey, and 16-74 in 23 other markets. The survey was fielded between 19 February and 5 March 2021.

The sample consists of approximately 500 individuals in each of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland), Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the US.

The samples in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the US can be taken as representative of their general adult population under the age of 75.

The samples in Brazil, Chile, mainland China, Colombia, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey are more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these markets should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of their population.

The data is weighted so that each country’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of the adult population according to the most recent census data.

Where results do not sum to 100 or the ‘difference’ appears to be +/-1 more/less than the actual, this may be due to rounding, multiple responses, or the exclusion of “don’t know” or not stated responses.

The precision of Ipsos online polls are calculated using a credibility interval with a poll of 500 accurate to +/- 4.8 percentage points. For more information on the Ipsos use of credibility intervals, please visit the Ipsos website.

The tech sector always bets that product quality will override privacy concerns

Probably the most common criticism levelled at the tech sector is the one about privacy – the sense that the tech sector, or government enabled by the tech sector, are collecting far more data on individuals than they should, and that the data is then being sold or used for unclear purposes. While the tech sector sticks closely to its cherished, and well-proven, ideology that positive user experience nearly always mitigates these concerns in practice, it is also true that the concerns of pro-privacy groups within society, and government, are getting louder and more prominent.

Stark evidence of this can be seen across two, relatively recent, product launches. Both of which have attracted major criticisms from privacy and digital rights campaigners, while at the same time being major commercial success stories.

Concerns around business and government use of personal information is high on a global scale

Let’s look at those concerns first – the 2020 Ipsos Global Trends survey[1] shows in stark detail the level of concern that exists around the world about what is being done by companies and governments using the personal data being collected from people when they go online.

A rise in private sector surveillance

So, bearing such concerns in mind, let’s examine the news coverage of Amazon’s Ring product line over the last few weeks. Ring is a video doorbell system, which seems innocuous, but with millions sold what you end up with is a potential surveillance network the size of which has never been seen before, and all in the hands of Amazon. And what has Amazon done with it? For one it initially entered into partnership with a large number of law enforcement agencies in the US that allowed them access to the videos it records without a warrant being required[2]. To quote from the Guardian, because of Ring “law enforcement are given a backdoor entry into private video recordings of people in residential and public space that would otherwise be protected under the fourth amendment”. While Amazon has recently extended its moratorium on sharing its facial recognition software with police, a ban it says that will stay in place until Congress creates the appropriate safeguards, it is puzzling why a similar approach to sharing data with law enforcement has not been adopted with Ring. Especially given the high-profile critique of the product by former Amazon software engineer Max Eliaser;

“The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back[3]

Now Amazon can certainly say that they are following the law as it exists and that the capabilities and requirements of the Ring product are all made available to the consumer at the point of sale. Amazon has acknowledged some of this controversy and has consequentially changed how police ask for video content, now requiring the police to ask for footage via the Ring Neighbors app, allowing local users to comment or assist as they judge best[4]. However, to a background of high consumer concern about how personal data is being used and with Ring cameras being described as “a threat to privacy at best and a danger to society and democracy at worst[5]”, critics may accuse Amazon of not thinking product features through a bit more carefully. That said, when they have a product that has shifted many millions of units in the US alone it is clear that, as ever, product utility quashes privacy concerns at point of purchase. A fact underlined by the 4.6 rating the Ring 3 has on Amazon.com, a rating based on 33,000+ reviews.

From surveillance to tracking

Enough with Amazon, I hear the tech fans cry, that’s just one of the major brands. Well, let's turn to Apple and its brand-new gadget - the AirTag. A device sold as the means to find things you have lost, via a Bluetooth signal that alerts sympathetic devices that are web-enabled. Perfect for finding your luggage, your car, or, as has been pointed out by a wide range of news agencies, the person you are stalking.

Apple has attempted to build in safeguards to prevent “unwanted tracking” but the slew of media coverage over the last few weeks that point out how ineffective those safeguards are in practice probably shows how little thought the designers of this product put into thinking about the downsides of this product compared to the potential upsides. The warning sound that alerts the user to unwanted tracking is easily missed, and while people with an iPhone might be able to find unwanted AirTags those with Android phones cannot (right now).

While plenty of apps, charmingly called “stalkerware”, exist to help one person track another, and there are other products similar to AirTags where the manufacturers have put far less effort into stopping them from being used for nefarious purposes than Apple has. However, part of the surprise here is that, as The Washington Post articulates well “AirTags show how even Apple, a company known for emphasizing security and privacy, can struggle to understand all the risks involved in creating tech that puts everyday things online[6]. This disconnect between a company that is often praised for its firm stance on personal privacy and the potential misuse of this product is vast and easily fixed with little effort. As Wired suggests “Apple leadership needs to give abuse survivors and experts a central place in its development process, incorporating their feedback from the start. Otherwise, the company will continue to make products that endanger people more than they help[7]”.

Responding to this wave of criticism[8] Apple has announced some changes – reducing the amount of time before an AirTag starts beeping once it is away from its owner's iPhone and promising an Android application as well. Just like Amazon with Ring its good to see Apple responding to the issue, but it again raises the question of how a product like this got to market with these issues when Apple usually takes these issues so seriously. That said, just as with Amazon’s Ring it is highly likely that this product will sell incredibly well despite any privacy concerns due to its sheer usefulness. In fact one industry analyst in Forbes[9] confidently predicts its success, and possible billion dollar revenue for Apple, due to the vast number of devices the product can connect to and the popularity of the Find My app among Apple product users.

Consumers value privacy – as well as products that make their lives easier

Ultimately the tech sector knows its customers very, very well and knows that while there are people who may not buy these products because of privacy issues there are far more people who will ignore those concerns and buy them anyway. Negative media coverage of the like described above will have very little impact on the level of individual customers. That said, increased media focus on perceived privacy issues reinforces some of the negative reputational themes that affect the tech sector and the brands within it and are currently fuelling many of the debates that are ongoing around the world among legislators thinking of new regulation. Innovative new products that skirt the edge of what is appropriate, or legal, when it comes to privacy is one thing, as long as they are profitable, but fuelling the fires of regulation is another. The tech sector may want to ponder this.

Article links

[1] Markets: Argentina, Albania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. 

Method The survey for the 2020 edition was carried out online using the Ipsos Online Panel, and face to-face interviewing in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. The results are weighted to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to the most recent country census data. Total global data has not been weighted by population size, but are simply a country average.

Fieldwork dates June-July 2019

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/18/amazon-ring-largest-civilian-surveillance-network-us

[3] https://amazonemployees4climatejustice.medium.com/amazon-employees-share-our-views-on-company-business-f5abcdea849

[4] https://www.cnet.com/home/security/rings-police-problem-didnt-go-away-it-just-got-more-transparent/

[5] https://thenextweb.com/news/amazon-engineer-ring-should-be-shut-down-immediately-and-not-brought-back

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/05/05/apple-airtags-stalking/

[7] https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-apples-air-tags-are-a-gift-to-stalkers/

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-57351554

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/timbajarin/2021/04/20/airtags-are-apples-next-billion-dollar-business/?sh=4f60c605d187

For more information please contact:

Carl Phillips
Director & Global Stakeholder Research Lead, Corporate Reputation

Carl.Phillips@ipsos.com