We’ve all seen reputational disasters play out before. Crisis comms kick in, and leadership is forced to make tough decisions about the future. But, what about when a company reputation isn’t totally obliterated, but it takes a knock?

Tackling a PR setback

England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) has a partnership with British Airways. British Airways has leveraged this partnership in its comms activity, with various marketing actions including sharing pictures of the England men’s rugby team flying first class to their matches. So, when the sporting world found out that the RFU and British Airways declined to fly the England women’s rugby team first class to their World Cup matches late last year, both organisations experienced a PR issue.

Ever since this information became public, debate has ensued about whether the two organisations made the right or wrong decision. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision, we can all agree that this situation is about reputational impact.

Character vs capability reputation

Company reputation is split between character reputation and capability reputation. Capability reputation is the organisation’s ability to deliver a product or a service, in this case, the RFU and British Airways’ capability to transport the team from A to B.

Capability reputation is always balanced with character reputation, which is all about how a product or service is being delivered. In this example, both organisations were perceived as capable of getting England’s women and men alike to the pitches. But, in a context in which sexism in sport remains prevalent, the organisations’ decision to offer superior treatment to the men’s team was always going to result in a character reputation setback.

Building a consistently winning character reputation strategy

Shaping a company reputation is a lot like playing a game of rugby. Organisations hype themselves up, formulate a winning strategy, and then start to make moves. But it’s important that leaders don’t let their gameplan slip.

  • Think long-term: The best sports’ teams never give up. The same goes for the best reputational strategies – it’s about future gazing. Companies should avoid contradictory campaigns by building reputational strategies that have longevity.
  • Consider individual moves: No one can play a game of rugby alone. Equally, no company can build a reputation based upon one action alone. Reputation shaping is most effective when each daily action is considered carefully and adds up to the long-term goal.
  • Keep going for gold: It can take time for a message to hit home, just like it can take time to push the ball over the line to score. Consistency helps a message stick, so companies need to be prepared to repeat messaging – and have the actions to match what they say – to really build an effective reputation.

Consistency is Queen, as proved by the Red Roses breaking the world record for most consecutive wins in International Rugby Union. Similarly, a company reputation is formed over years, and every action counts. Above all, leaders must avoid reputational blunders by building out a long-term strategy that avoids contradiction and always remains consistent.

The current global economic backdrop is not a pretty sight and many businesses have had to make cuts of various kinds. Whether it’s a restructure, layoffs, or re-evaluating big expenditure like office spaces, the pressure following a drop in consumer demand continues to mount.

There are glimmers of light, though. There was surprise growth in the UK economy in November 2022, and France and Germany are currently set to narrowly avoid recession. Plus, we’ve got to remember that we’ve been through the turmoil of COVID-19 – and we made it to the other side.

So, as leaders in PR and marketing, what did we learn then, that’s relevant now?

Showing deep business understanding: If the board is focused on profitability, show you can do more for less by being resourceful and demonstrating how to be more effective. If the board wants growth, show that you’re focused on lead generation, customer engagement etc. Proving that your marketing focus aligns completely to the priorities of the organisation means you’re less likely to have your resources cut.

Create connections: If you’re not already, get out of the marketing bubble and make stronger connections internally. Is there a way you can get closer to finance? And if not finance, the people that influence finance, for example the senior team in sales or other C-level executives. You want others to support your case to retain your budget – you need to make them realise ‘I cannot be successful without marketing’.

Visibility and promotion: A way to get closer to board members or others in leadership is to build their profile externally, showing the value directly. You’re probably already doing this by positioning experts and leadership as the faces of the company, but also look at your board and ask yourself: who could be more visible? Like the above, you’re creating more allies internally. 

Don’t think you can hide: All costs are on the P&L and a discussion about your budget will happen if it hasn’t yet. Be proactive and think of solutions that work for both you and the business. In this current environment, the finance team will currently be focused on cashflow so maybe there are ways to create an impact now and pay later. For example, working with a PR agency, the payment terms can be 30-60 days, meaning results today, payment the following month. Not many organisations have cut their way to survival, rather it’s more about keeping costs down within acceptable limits.

More for less: Ensure you are doing the majority right and fast and don’t let perfection slow you down. Timelines have shrunk meaning the time for change is today, this week –- forget about plans looking eight weeks down the line. And repurpose, repurpose, repurpose. Be as resourceful as you can.

It may feel gloomy right now, but this is the time for marketing, because once we’re on the up, growth will come fast again. Being prepared will mean you can go after every opportunity and look back at this time as just another blip!

You step outside your house into a mild November morning. Walking down the road you see something out of the corner of your eye – something red, round and suspiciously Santa-shaped. Surely not, it’s only November. You shake yourself. You’re just seeing things! That email your Mum sent you about which dates you’re coming home has spooked you. You’re playing tricks on yourself. It’s too early.

You pop into the local off licence for a paper. As you’re browsing, the song playing on the radio drifts into your consciousness. The blood drains from your face. You hurry from the shop, paperless. It can’t be, you mutter, as you pass a man in his sixties hanging lights on his roof, the ladder beneath him shaking violently. It’s too early.

Fighting the urge to look behind you, you arrive at your local station. But something catches your eye. You freeze. A group of church-going, festive-jumper-wearing carol singers stands opposite you. As you watch in horror, they are counted in by a woman wearing antlers. You fall to your knees.

“But it…it can’t be! It’s too early!

But your screams are drowned out by the sounds of 12 voices belting out Good King Wenceslas – all at different times, all in completely different keys.

***

Nowadays, it seems to be universally accepted that the moment the Halloween pumpkins are chucked onto the compost, it’s Christmas time. That’s nearly two months of Christmas jingles, adverts, music, window displays and carol singers. The Christmas build up is all-encompassing, even for those who don’t celebrate it. By the time it actually rolls around, a lot of us are fatigued.

As PRs, we can learn something from this. Especially when it comes to pitching in news.

Raise your hand if you’ve considered pre-pitching news weeks before it goes live, and sometimes even before all the details are ironed out? That’s probably most of us.  

Of course, a heads up that the news is coming, followed by updates as and when they are required, is a strong strategic approach. However, attempting to sell-in news too far in advance, and too aggressively, can quickly become grating to journalists. Imagine seeing the same news with the same embargo date appearing in your inbox, every few days, for weeks. And if details aren’t completely ironed out, you can run the risk of the incorrect information being published.

That said, pre-pitching is a tactic that can work and that some journalists appreciate, but it really depends on the strength of the news. It shouldn’t be an approach with every piece of news, but with the ones that make the most sense, for example, a significant company announcement where a journalist will have questions or may want to do an interview, or a piece of news that ties to a moment in time like an event.

As PRs we need to be tactful in how we approach pitching. Journalists’ inboxes are growing increasingly crowded by the day, and we should not be adding to the noise until it is the right time for what we have to say. Just as with Christmas, not everyone is going to care about, or like, our news. There is usually a good window to inform in advance, but not so far in advance that it’s forgotten by ‘go live’ day or that they feel fatigued talking about it.   

So, don’t be like the Christmas pushers. It’s important to take a smart, respectful, and efficient approach. And when there is news to share, always ask yourself, is it too early?  

Have you heard of the ‘Corn kid’ trend on TikTok at the moment? Yeh, neither have I. My background is in corporate video and that’s more my bag.

But whatever type of video we’re talking about, our world is becoming dominated by it. Smart phones and social media have transformed the way we ingest our media, and as a society we are increasingly looking to video to keep us informed and entertained – the average person watches 100 minutes of video every day. The corporate communications world is no exception, with 86% of businesses using video as a marketing tool.

Be aware of optics

This focus on video content may lead to firms attempting to utilise it at every opportunity, constantly looking for ways to get spokespeople on film, whether it be informal interviews, or formal pieces to camera. However, it is crucial to always take a step back and ask, is a video appropriate here? In the wake of Prince Andrew’s car crash of an interview with Emily Maitlis in 2019, I can imagine there being a certain amount of regret from his entourage as to the path they chose to take.

Often, putting someone in front of the camera to discuss a sensitive topic, such as one that could negatively impact a firm or a person’s reputation, opens you up to many things that you may not be able to control and as a result can be extremely damaging.

Different circumstances, different needs

The key is to be very clear about what you are trying to achieve. When a message needs to be delivered to provide reassurance, confidence or even hope, a connection with the audience is critical to its success. Think of that fateful day back in March 2020 – if Boris had sent everyone an email telling us to stay in our homes, I’m not sure it would have had the desired effect. In this instance it is imperative to be prepared, confident and to the point. This is where a carefully crafted script and lots of practice comes in, as well as ensuring that whoever is delivering the piece, especially if tools like autocue are being used, is adequately media trained and charismatic enough to deliver the message effectively.

However, other instances, such as a video to raise a business expert or company profile, call for another approach. For example, this may work as a sit-down interview where often the mistake that is made, counter intuitive as it may be, is to be too prepared. Everyone reacts differently on camera – sometimes the most confident and polished people do not transmit that same aura when being filmed. The key is authenticity and audiences are increasingly adept at noticing a rehearsed line or a lack of passion.

These few tips will help keep your spokespeople confident and engaging, regardless of their experience:

  • Keep the interview conversational. A strict Q&A can feel like an interrogation, putting the interviewee on edge, and not able to open up
  • Beforehand, send prompts and broad topics, not a set list of questions. Your spokespeople are experts at what they do, and if given the chance to speak openly, will bring insight in an accessible and informative way. If strict questions are sent, the tendency is for people to overprepare, meaning their answers can come across as wooden and uninspiring
  • Make sure to warm up. You wouldn’t dive straight into a strenuous workout without giving your body prep. An interview is no different. The trick is to ease into it
  • Think about setting. If you are wanting the audience to connect with your spokesperson, consider filming them in their home, or in a place that resonates with them, in order to create that bond

Every day we see videos of all forms done well and done badly. I won’t be giving you advice on the latest TikTok trends, but to produce inspiring video content, always be sure of who you are dealing with, the audience involved and what you are trying to achieve.

A cyberattack occurs every 44 seconds. These attacks target businesses as much as individuals –almost one in three businesses (31%) are now threatened by hackers at least once a week. Such threats can cause reputational damage, but business leaders need not be alarmed. Implementing rapid reactive customer communications can allow organisations to circumvent potentially severe reputational damage in the immediate aftermath of a breach.

As cyberattacks increase in frequency, businesses must mitigate accordingly

Cyberattacks are an almost inevitable part of operations for tech-driven organisations. Evidently, security precautions are implemented to mitigate the impact of these attacks, but hackers are smart. Sometimes even the strongest of environments can be breached, and leaders need to be prepared.

For example, in 2021 one of the most notorious cyberattacks in history occurred. A vulnerability was exposed in Apache Log4j, a Java-based logging utility used ubiquitously within businesses. Hackers used the logger to control victims’ computers remotely, for purposes such as sending spam, cryptocurrency mining, and ransomware attacks. Once the vulnerability was exposed, more than 100 attacks were occurring per minute.

Some of the biggest names in tech were affected by the Log4j vulnerability. Microsoft released extensive customer communications on the topic, with others such as Amazon and Google Cloud following suit.

Top tips for customer communications during a crisis

In the event of a cyberattack, the last thing businesses want to be doing is scrambling to create a reactive comms plan. Leaders should therefore ensure that a robust communications strategy is already in place and can be executed seamlessly, should an attack occur.

Firefly’s top tips for customer communications during a crisis include:

  1. Implementing honest and simple communication. Language should be kept as clear as possible and remain consistent with the business’ existing house style.
  2. Reassuring customers that the attack is under control. Messaging should include coherent steps on how the business intends to proceed, ensuring that customers feel that their data is still in safe hands.
  3. Balancing an appropriate cadence of customer communications. Customers should be updated regularly enough that they feel supported, but not so regularly that they begin to panic.

If a cyberattack is well handled, it can be an opportunity to shape a business’ reputation as resilient in the face of a crisis. Leaders who prepare and execute effective customer communications during such times are those who will retain a loyal customer base, despite a cyber threat.

When we think of sport we think of athletes. Athletes that are at the top of their physical game, with abilities that simply defy the laws of gravity. Basketball fans have long admired Michael Jordan’s hang time, and the game of football has never been able to understand Cristiano Ronaldo’s headers which seem to stop time entirely. As we witness various industries digitally transform, the world of sport has not been left behind.

There has been a huge shift in technological advancement which has made it easier for athletes to optimise their performance and improve the experience for spectators at sporting events. Looking 10 years ahead, we can only imagine where the world of technology will take us in sport, but for now, we can marvel at the newest innovations of today which continue to change the pace of the game.

Team Jumbo Visma tearing up Tour de France – 2022

This year, Team Jumbo-Visma led the way, charging ahead of their components for the majority of the races. Jonas Vingegaard won the men’s race, and Marianne Vos claimed the green jersey for most points. Both riders were among the favourites for their respective titles, but one stark difference was the men’s team adopted the use of simulation to fully capitalise on the talent of Vingegaard, and winning the La Grande Boucle.

How does simulation play into this you ask? Fighting air resistance represents up to 90% of the energy spent by the athletes. Team Jumbo-Visma works with some of the best athletic aerodynamics experts in the world, using digital simulation to optimise performance through better aerodynamics. It consisted of solving vast, complex systems of equations with millions of unknowns to improve their performance. Simulation proved to be a pivotal cog in the winning machine!

Data driving football analysis and spectator engagement

Major Spanish football league, LaLiga has looked to its data architecture to better understand its players performance and importantly create a better more personalised experience for its fans. This is all being done through a lakehouse data architecture.

By combining the best attributes of a data lake and a data warehouse, the lakehouse is able to deliver better data management and performance through low-cost, flexible object stores. LaLiga has created a world where data informs almost every aspect of how sports are played and experienced. The data team at LaLiga uses data and AI for match statistics and in-play analysis, based on data from cameras in each club’s stadium. It allows data scientists at the clubs to perform pre- and post-match analysis and predict player injuries before they occur.

The future of technology in sport

There are many more advancements in tech which are changing the world of sport, but the best is likely yet to come. We’re on the cusp of a sports technology revolution with the global sports technology market being currently valued at US $17.9 billion and expectations to reach US $40.2 billion by 2026. However, some avid football fans would agree that VAR technology needs some work – depending on which side of a team you’re on!

The last couple of years have brought what has felt like near non-stop economic turbulence. Brexit, Covid-19, the outbreak of war in Ukraine and now the spiralling cost of living and energy prices have all created shockwaves to global economies. At a time where the pinch is being felt by businesses and consumers alike, communications – both internal and external – must be approached delicately.

Communicating how a product or service can genuinely help customers during this period – whether it’s through cutting back IT costs, speeding up internal processes, reskilling talent quickly, and so on – is important, yes. But it is also important to recognise that this may not be the time to apply huge amounts of pressure to existing and prospective customers. Consumers and businesses alike are being cautious with their spending. There are nerves, fear even, about what’s to come. An aggressive sales and communication strategy might seem the way to go, but it’s certainly not the most empathetic.

At times like this, the art of communication becomes more nuanced than ever. It’s vital to show your customers that you see them, that you understand the challenges they’re facing as well as their fears and reservations. It’s important you don’t adopt a blanket approach but instead understand how the economic downturn might be affecting each of your key target industries differently, and what the different needs are. Businesses can show this understanding and expertise through website content like blogs and whitepapers, email marketing, and social media that adds value – sharing relevant insights and advice. Thought leadership pieces from a company’s experts and executives is another great way of communicating value and advice. A renewed focus on customer advocacy could also earn you more loyalty as it allows existing or potential customers to see the value of your product or service through the eyes and experiences of others.

Of course, communicating with customers or external stakeholders is only one side of the coin. Internal communications during an economic downturn are also crucial. Staff must be made to feel safe and valued in their roles. And, if redundancies do need to happen, your internal communication plan needs to ensure that transparency, empathy and consistency are incorporated. The manner in which layoffs are carried out can truly make or break a company’s reputation, as demonstrated by SnapChat’s CEO saying layoffs were a way to weed out the company’s ‘haters’.

Having communications partners by your side to share their expertise and help guide you and your business through these coming months – or even years – is hugely valuable. Brands and reputations don’t stop in an economic downturn. In fact, these are the very moments in time when they are moulded.

As Monday rolls around, another episode of House of the Dragon is ready for me to watch. I hit play. But oh, the c-word is used again by one of the main characters. It’s really becoming annoying.

The c-word has always been very divisive, some people can easily say it, some just can’t. But the overuse of such a strong swear word is beginning to cheapen the script, in my opinion. Whilst dropping it in occasionally may make things a bit spicy, saying it so regularly loses its shock value and begins to grate.

Why am I talking about this? Comms professionals are the masters of words – how, when, where we use them, as well as what we want to hammer home. It’s important to use big powerful words so people sit up and take notice, but it requires careful balance to make an impact.

Getting the messaging on point

It’s important to spend time on messaging because it’ll give you the exact words to sum up what your company does, concisely, as well as create consistency when it comes to the company tone and characteristics. And the smart use of these words is the difference between your audience tuning in, versus switching off, or worse, actively disliking you (nobody wants that!).

For any company, your starting point is analysing your competitors and the words you’re currently using. Ask yourself:

  • Are you standing out?
  • Are you consistent across your digital channels?
  • Are your employees consistent in how they describe the company?
  • Does the style and tone of the words work with the type of company you are?
  • When a customer says something nice about you, what do you love?

Breaking it down

The messaging I’m talking about here is for communications, not ads. Remember that you’re not creating a strapline, you’re creating clear and concise ways of describing your company. The best way to write this initially is three sentences – what the company does (and for who), why it’s different and what the benefits are to the customer. Those three lines are your messaging anchors so it’s worth spending time on these, very carefully choosing the words and structure of the sentences.

Remember to:

  • Avoid jargon (or use it very carefully if it’s a word that your customers heavily use)
  • Be believable and true to your organisation
  • Have proof points and the ability to back up anything you’re saying
  • Make it relatable to your primary audience’s needs

Tailoring

These three anchor sentences are your framework. Once you have these you need to consider your audiences – i.e. how do you tweak these for current customers versus new customers? How about employees and future hires? Again, look at proof points, making sure you have ways of backing everything you say.

And now the balancing act

You’ve now got a framework, you have your proof points, you have the tailored versions, now you’ve got to make sure it’s all being used in a way that makes an impact. The first step is to bring consistency across all your communication channels – digital and physical. The second, is knowing your ‘shock value’ words (and I advise not to use the c-word!) and making sure that’s used at the right moments. Shock value words could be for securing someone’s attention in the first instance, or when you want to highlight a certain point. Just be smarter than the script writers of House of the Dragon when it comes to the reaction from your audience!

The current economic outlook is not what we’ve hoped for. With inflation rising to its highest level in 40 years, many businesses are rightly concerned about the future. Even some of the biggest tech companies are struggling with the current economic headwinds. Meta are slashing their hiring plans, while others are being forced to trim their current workforce.

While tough times lie ahead, managing the reputation of your company is a business imperative. After all, brand loyalty driven by a good reputation will keep your stakeholders in your corner, even when the going gets tough.  

Businesses that have made it through pandemics and economic downturns have all had one thing in common – they’ve placed prominence on their company reputation, internally and externally.  

Here are some key actions to consider when looking to create a recession proof reputation:

Stakeholder engagement

Embed reputation management into your company culture, so that your entire organisation is onboard with its importance. After all, the reputation of your organisation doesn’t just exist in the C-suite, it cuts across the entire organisation. For IT, it’s about protecting a company’s assets, no consumer wants their data leaked by a company. Whereas for HR, it’s important to be viewed as a good employer.

Stand out from the crowd

Not every company can be a Tesla or a Meta, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out. Most organisations have something worth shouting about. Find what that uniqueness is and leverage  it and use it to connect with your employees and customers. Having a reputation for innovation, resilience, and agility will help engage your stakeholders and create a ‘halo effect’ with shareholders.

Reputation in the round

As well as engaging internal stakeholders, you should think carefully about your reputation in the round, by considering every avenue of your reputation. Your executives, press coverage, share of conversation, among other things, can have an impact on your reputation. There are multiple touchpoints, and you should be addressing each one.

‘Ensurance’ is the best policy Investing in your employees, suppliers, customers, and third parties is crucial and will pay dividends in the long run. Additionally, you should regularly audit internal policies, as well as those of your partners. While this is a laboursome process, it will ensure you’re covering all your bases. Above all, actions speak louder than words, so don’t be afraid to replace out of date policies or end relationships that no longer align with the values of your company or could be seen as harmful to your reputation.

The world has changed quite a bit recently and, arguably, this difference is most prominent in the working world. Although the amount of people working from home had been rising steadily for some time, homeworking has more than doubled over the past two years compared to pre-pandemic levels. 42% of UK workers now work a mixture of at home and in the office. Clearly, this meteoric shift in such a short space of time has profound implications for working life in general, but especially for the way that organisations communicate.

Maintaining robust internal communications

Internal communication has always been vital to the overall strategy of any firm. Multi-year Gallup research found that employee disengagement costs the UK economy £52-£70 billion per year. In this new working world of ours, with the significant shift towards remote/flexible working, serious questions have arisen as to how to communicate effectively within your team, in multiple locations, via the myriad technological platforms we now have at our disposal.

Critical to this venture is being aware of what personalities you have within your organisation, and subsequently knowing the most effective way to keep them happy, informed and engaged. With people being in the office a lot less, knowing and understanding your colleagues has become a much more complicated task. Video conferencing technology is an incredible tool and without it the last couple of years would have been very rocky indeed, but it can also be stunted. As we lack reading non-verbal cues and body language as well as simply not being around people for extended periods of time, it can be difficult to get a true impression of who someone is. This is particularly challenging for new members of staff who may have joined during periods of lockdown, in many cases not meeting their colleagues in-person for months.

Know thyself

There are many ways we can learn a bit more about each other. The Myers-Briggs® Type Indicator is a great tool to be able to gain this perspective and give valuable insight into the types of people that are working in your team and what makes them tick. It’s like your star sign with a bit of science behind it. There are 16 personalities, split between introvert and extrovert, each with different traits. It is not to say that these are by any means locked in, but more an indicator of the way someone is likely to react to a given circumstance.

Its questions give indications as to whether you sense or use intuition to gather information; whether you make decisions more by feeling or thinking; and whether you judge or perceive the outside world. All of these traits, none of them necessarily good or bad, have an enormous impact on how you communicate and how you like to be communicated with. The awareness that knowing the makeup of your staff gives you when devising internal communication strategies is critical. It allows you to choose the best channels and tone of voice depending on your audience. It can also point out those members of the team that may benefit from a slightly tweaked strategy or a particular focus in order to fully engage them.

Not only will you learn about your team, but very likely you will learn something about yourself. The introspection that comes from your result and the nuances in your personality that are revealed will allow you to tweak and improve your own communication style when dealing with other team members or managers.

It can also be a great team bonding exercise as shouts of, ‘that is scarily accurate’ bound around the room. When my wife saw my results, the cry of ‘that’s what I’ve been saying!’ was deafening.

Being in the office 9 to 5 streamlined communications. People had no choice but to be involved in conversation, managers had many different face-to-face tools to keep everybody on the same page, and the informal chats at the coffee machine or on lunch breaks allowed strong emotional bonds to be formed. Now that we are often miles apart in our own little worlds, more effort must be made to understand each other and stay connected. Only with this can we maintain robust and meaningful communications that contribute to our organisations’ success.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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