Reputation: Hard to win and easy to lose

By Rupert Bhatia on Monday, 1 February 2021

You don’t need an MBA from Harvard Business School to realise the importance of business reputation (and how hard it is to win). However, understanding how easily reputation can be lost, and the associated consequences, is something far too few business leaders are aware of. It is this key nuance that I was keen to detail at a recent event, put on by the Institute of Directors, where I was a panellist alongside some formidable minds from both the legal and insurance worlds.

At this point it is perhaps worth noting that prior to moving into reputation management, I was a journalist for the best part of a decade. During that time, I witnessed, and on many occasions was party to, the way reputation impacts reportage. A recent example is Sainsbury’s and its 2018 proposed merger with Asda. Immediately after it was announced, the deal was reported using a fairly neutral lens – certainly by the mainstream press. However, you may remember the then CEO, Mike Coupe, doing the rounds on TV and Radio later that morning. Specifically, you might have seen a clip recorded before he went on-air with ITV News which saw Mr Coupe sing a few lines of ‘We’re In The Money.’ It was front page news the next day with headlines suggesting the Sainsbury’s boss was out of touch with Sainsbury’s workers as he looked forward to a bumper payday. Ultimately, the deal failed to complete and Mike Coupe is no longer Sainsbury’s CEO. The press went from being neutral on Sainsbury’s to being negative – reputation damaged due to an inoffensive song, sung off-air!

Today, businesses are facing significant hurdles; from HR difficulties as the end of the furlough scheme nears, to supply chain issues, to unpredictable demand. But like Sainsbury’s knows too well, a communications failure can see hard won reputation undone in a matter of moments and that’s a real risk for all businesses right now.

There are effectively two parts to a communications failure.

The first is content of the communication itself - this could be price increases, redundancies or repossessions. The second is the way that content is communicated – the language used and whether it was treated with the right degree of sensitivity.

In most cases, part one – the pure content - is unavoidable, particularly in the current climate. But businesses do have a real choice in how difficult messages are communicated.

The way a business is perceived to treat its customers and staff has always been important but now, more so than ever. To an extent, the mantra rings true it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

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