Uncommon Sense: How Do You Measure Reputation?

Uncommon Sense: How Do You Measure Reputation?

In a climate in which true product differentiation is difficult, the regulatory landscape challenging, global partner ecosystems vulnerable, and the pressure to hire high-potential talent intense, a company’s reputation is increasingly recognized as a business asset central to maintaining and increasing business value.

Despite this recognition, however, corporate competencies in reputation measurement often lag. Even executives with sophisticated and smart market research portfolios find themselves asking, “How do you measure corporate reputation?” From our work helping clients understand and manage their reputational equity and risk, our reputation management team has identified a number of best practices in reputation measurement.

Driving Business. Like any asset, reputation should be measured and understood in the context of your company’s business goals. Long term, reputation measurement and management are most effective when reputational equity and risk are clearly linked to the business outcomes of business-relevant stakeholders and their own specific, measurable business-supportive behaviors. In these organizations, the stakes are recognized as too high simply to measure reputation to work toward a higher rank or score. Scores provide good rallying cries, but carry real gravitas when they are clearly linked to where the company is going. This means that any measurement instrument (and potentially the research design overall) will necessarily evolve, as refreshed business plans require the company to understand reputation in new ways, and as there is a change in the answer to what a company needs its reputation to do for it in the coming year.

Companies with the most effective reputation measurement programs avoid simply trending last year’s metric nostalgically and instead allow the metric to evolve to match their goals. Linking reputational equity and risk to current business plans activates the C-suite and creates powerful relevance across global operating teams. We understand the human desire for a score, but the most successful reputation managers compel their organizations to drive their number based on its clear ability to impact their own shared success metrics.

Broad Stakeholder View. Most market research has a clear stakeholder in mind, and clear questions like: “How can we convert non-customers?” or “How can we improve our relationship with distributors?” Reputation measurement, however, requires a company to consider—even if only briefly—all the stakeholders across its reputational landscape.

There are many stakeholders with the ability to impact a company’s license to operate. From a practical perspective of reputation measurement, there are often too many. With company goals as a backdrop, early measurement design discussions should work to prioritize stakeholders to identify the most important subset to include in the research.

When it comes to stakeholder selection, there are many practical considerations worth discussing with a seasoned measurement partner—one fluent both in conducting research among hard to reach stakeholders and in common pitfalls companies face. A collaborative discussion can identify a design that brings together what the business needs (goals, current stakeholder relationships, etc.), what the business can handle (real assets in place for implementation, real appetite for data, stakeholder owner engagement internally, etc.), and what makes sense (feasibility, timeline relative to planning cycles, cost, etc.). When it comes to stakeholder selection, organizations with best-in-class measurement programs determine what is ideally measured with reference to what makes sense for their internal assets and climate.

When the core challenge its reputation must support is intensifying permit-related restrictions in key communities, for example, a company cannot afford only to measure its reputation among the general public. It would need to understand reputational equity and risk among community “influentials” if the findings are to inform the business’s core growth challenges.

Their Lens, Not Yours. Reputation measurement must take into account the truism that each stakeholder evaluates your company’s reputation through the lens of what matters to them. Likely, there are things you take pride in about your company, but it is also likely (very likely, in fact) that these are not the things that drive your reputation in the eyes of your stakeholders. A regulator’s lens is different from that of an investor or of prospective future talent, and all are different from your own. This means that the measurement program must be designed with enough breadth to accommodate the yardsticks by which important stakeholders evaluate you.

So, although it may be tempting simply to do a deep-dive study on whether your company is seen as innovative, for example (if this is what your company and its employees actively strive for each and every day), a better reputation measurement plan is to understand the impact of a broad range of dimensions that could drive your reputation, just one of which is innovation.

The same can be said of ethics, which are, of course, important to a company’s reputation. However, while ethics are increasingly a driver of reputation (particularly in emerging markets, where how a company engages with society is highly important—even more so, often, than how it performs and delivers), framing the analysis to include a broader set of dimensions is essential to allowing various stakeholders’ lenses to be reflected.

We have seen specific instances where, in one world area, ethics was primarily about transparency, while in another, it was dominated by ideas related to community engagement. For yet other stakeholders, it would not be a key driver at all. For them, reputation could most productively impact business relationships if framed in terms of thought leadership or a strong executive team, for example.

So a range of reputation dimensions must be included in a measurement program, but how each is brought to life in the research instrument will (and should) vary significantly by industry and by stakeholder, and should reflect a company’s own unique history. The framework of reputation dimensions offered here is based on years of reputation measurement, but there is surely no one-size-fits-all list. Best-in-class reputation measurement programs take into account a broad range of reputational dimensions that are relevant to the necessary stakeholders, and thus deliver true, contextually-sensitive actionability.

Setting Priorities. Reputation measurement analytics should give the gift of focus to reputation managers. By delivering a concise and actionable view of what drives your reputation – in terms of real business plans and necessary behaviors for any given stakeholder– reputation research should shine a bright light on where resources should be allocated and how existing programs and initiatives should be refined to lead most effectively to successful stakeholder relationships.

Smart analytics that identify areas with the greatest potential to amplify reputational positives and neutralize negatives should be a key outcome of all reputation measurement. Without the focus this affords, the broad range of issues measured often becomes a laundry list at best, and paralyzing at worst. Weak performance on any one dimension of reputation, for example, should only become a priority if improvement along that dimension is a significant trigger for a stronger reputation. For effective companies with a mature reputation management competency, the results of reputation measurement are socialized and internalized, becoming far more than a messaging platform. They become a filter for business decisions about resource allocation, communication planning, operational investments, training, and so forth.

Organizational Readiness. Optimally, measuring a company’s reputation requires extensive engagement across the corporation. Although often it is Corporate Communications or a similar team that spearheads activities, work like this can’t be done effectively in a silo. This holds true at the front end (reputation measurement) and at the back end (reputation management).

There are many reasons why this is the case. Reputation is the responsibility of a wide variety of individuals and functions across any corporation, including the Board of Directors and a variety of senior executives whose daily focus is on stakeholder relationships (investor relations, government affairs, supply chain leadership, etc.). Executing action plans requires engagement from communicators and operational teams around the world, and, often, a cast of agency partners makes valuable contributions to this process. Add into the mix the benefit of leveraging research from disparate parts of the organization (customer loyalty, media/social metrics, HR surveys, syndicated studies, and so on), and the need to work beyond traditional silos becomes clear.

This is a tall order for many organizations, and rarely is collaborative nirvana probable. That’s just fine – a reality the vast majority of companies must work with.  However, a few patterns are evident in the corporate environments that are the most effective for reputation measurement and management, and these provide a few useful guides and guardrails:

  • There must be an executive sponsor. The most challenging context for these activities is when there is a lack of real, visible engagement by the C-suite. Reputation management must be endorsed from the top.
  • Some organizations move quickly, digesting information, developing strategies, and implementing plans. Others take longer to move through this cycle, with consensus sought at various points. The right cadence and timing of measurement must match a company’s real appetite for it, but still be timed inform key planning calendars.
  • The efficacy and impact of reputation measurement greatly benefits from the input of a cross-functional team. Reputation Advisory Councils or the like—entities that can be efficiently tapped at defined points during research and action planning—work well in many environments. These venues give broad teams a voice in the measurement process, often organically resulting in members becoming ongoing advocates for the company’s reputation management efforts within the context of their own diverse roles and activities.

Measuring corporate reputation effectively shows actionable strategies to corporations that allow them to manage one of their most important assets and points of risk proactively. Research-based decisions inform what can otherwise be an amorphous or historically “program-driven” discipline. This is a productive and pivotal time for the practice of reputation measurement, as companies around the world seek to align their research insights portfolio with the recognized importance of reputation in maintaining and driving business growth.

This article originally appeared in the Q3 2014 issue of Ethisphere.