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Public relations needs to think more like doctors than accountants

Matt Battersby, MD of H+K SMARTER, blogs for Influence on how parallels between health and reputation mean public relations could learn a thing or two from the medical profession.

When it comes to our health, we know that we cannot balance out bad habits with good ones. If you drink too much alcohol then you may get liver disease, no matter how often you go to the gym.

Eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is great, but you will still get fat if you also eat pizza and chips every night.

With our finances it is different. If I overspend on nights out with friends this month then I might cut back the amount I was going to spend on new clothes. At the end of the month my bank balance will be the same no matter how I split my spending. This is because money is what’s known as ‘fungible’ – the pound coin I have in my hand is the same as the one in my bank account and I can replace one with the other with my wealth staying the same.

So which is your reputation most like – your health or your wealth? And what does this mean for building and maintaining a positive reputation?

The language commonly used to talk about reputation would certainly suggest it is seen as more akin to wealth. How many times have we heard or said the phrase “a company’s reputation is its most valuable asset”? An ‘asset’ can simply mean something ‘useful or valuable’ but can also be something that someone ‘owns or controls’. It is the latter definition which is used by accountants when looking at the value of a company. This leads to the notion of reputation ‘capital’. Reputation is something that can be quantified and valued.

Thinking of reputation in these terms certainly helps convince people of its importance. Adopting the language of the accountant and the economist has undoubtedly help PR professionals put reputation management on the boardroom agenda over the years. But is the downside that it creates a misunderstanding of how reputations are really formed and can be used?

The danger is that people start to think of their reputation as a series of bank accounts. It doesn’t matter if my reputation goes down in one area as I can just top it up in another and have the same total result. My company may be taking a reputational hit for perceived aggressive tax planning but if I invest in a bit of CSR and improve my reputation for being environmentally conscious then my overall reputation should be the same, right?

Unfortunately this is not how reputations work. Just as in health, good behaviours do not necessarily cancel out bad ones. Your company’s overall reputation can be as strong and healthy as you like but that won’t stop something bad from making it very ill indeed. We need to think of reputation less as something you ‘own’ and more as something you ‘are’.

So how can we start using the language of health rather than accountancy to think about how we maintain and build reputations? Just as there are three main ways for a person to keep healthy, we can use the same approach to be reputationally healthy.

  1. Keep fit

The best way to be healthy is to keep physically and mentally fit. And just as eating well and exercising regularly are steps everyone should take to keep fit, there are steps that all companies should take to keep reputationally fit. Treating employees and customers fairly, paying taxes on time and communicating regularly with investors are just some examples of behaviours companies should be doing all the time and can be tracked and measured.

  1. Vaccinate

No one knows when they’re going to get ill but we can predict what might make us so. Every year the NHS creates a flu jab to prevent against what it believes are likely to be the most prevalent and dangerous flu strains that winter. Before going on holiday you can get vaccinations for diseases common in that country.

The same approach applies to reputation where there are predictable issues that could affect a company’s reputation. These may change regularly but can be foreseen and therefore pre-emptive actions taken to mitigate any danger. For example, all companies should be aware that data protection is an increasingly important issue and can vaccinate themselves against reputational damage by reviewing their data security, having a crisis plan in place and also starting to tell positive stories now about how they manage data. Similarly, all large companies should be aware of the scrutiny they may come under from the media when data about how quickly they pay suppliers is first published in April 2016.

  1. Medicate

Unfortunately, no matter how fit you are and how many vaccinations you have, you can still get ill and that illness can be fatal. The only way to fight this is to identify an illness early and to medicate it. For a company, this is where issues and crisis management comes in. Reputational illnesses need to be identified and treated quickly before they develop into something much worse that can damage the health of the whole company. These illnesses cannot be predicted but a company can have a plan in place for how it will assess and treat them when they occur.

Matt Battersby completed an Executive MSc in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics before becoming MD of H+K SMARTER, Hill + Knowlton’s behavioural insights and strategies team

Image courtesy of wikimedia

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