Reputation and public relations

Is public relations really about reputation?  I ask as a result of a couple of thought provokers.  Clive Thompson (link picked up from blog) is researching three ideas (I’ve edited the first two and left the last in full in Clive’s words):

Secrecy Is Dead:  the results of an excess of information meaning rarity no longer adds value, new media devices making it almost impossible to hide anything, and public derision if “secrets” are found out.

Tap The Hivemind: that sharing gets better results as more people help improve on ideas, and also are necessary if we are to make sense of information overload.

Reputation Is Everything: Google isn’t a search engine. Google is a reputation-management system. What do we search for, anyway? Mostly people, products, ideas — and what we want to know are, what do other people think about this stuff? All this blogging, Flickring, MySpacing, journaling — and, most of all, linking — has transformed the Internet into a world where it’s incredibly easy to figure out what the world thinks about you, your neighbor, the company you work for, or the stuff you were blabbing about four years ago. It might seem paradoxical, but in a situation like that, it’s better to be an active participant in the ongoing conversation than to stand off and refuse to participate. Because, okay, let’s say you don’t want to blog, or to Flickr, or to participate in online discussion threads. That means the next time someone Googles you they’ll find … everything that everyone else has said about you, rather than the stuff you’ve said yourself. (Again — just ask Sony about this one.) The only way to improve and buff your reputation is to dive in and participate. Be open. Be generous. Throw stuff out there — your thoughts, your ideas, your personality. Trust comes from transparency.

Reputation matters to public relations – since the definition states PR is “about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.  Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation…” 

But can reputation be “managed” – and if so, are PR practitioners able to do this?  My second thought provoker was a discussion yesterday with one of my fourth year dissertation students at Bournemouth University.  We were discussing a paper by Yungwook Kim entitled Measuring the Economic Value of Public Relations.   

This paper presents a model that proposes expenditure on PR has a positive impact on reputation, which in turn has a positive impact on bottom line profits.  Our concern with this research was firstly in relation to whether the variables of reputation considered (taken from the ) were all within the remit of PR – although as the research is basically an opinion poll, it tends to recognise companies that have a higher profile, which could be the result of PR actions (although not exclusively).

Secondly, does increased spending on PR correlate to a better reputation?  We had some ethical concerns here – do journalists and other influencers really rate companies better because of bigger budgets? 

Thirdly, is it a causal fact that companies with better reputation are more profitable?  Or is being more profitable one of the factors that improves a company’s reputation?

If PR does claim “ownership” of reputation management, then it needs to be working at the strategic level and ensuring relationships with key stakeholders and publics are effectively managed.  It needs to understand the drivers of reputation and ensure these are understood and protected as key corporate values. 

If one of the new drivers of reputation is performance in search engines such as Google and comment in online social media, what is PR doing to ensure this is taken seriously within organisations? 

Reputation management is not simply equated with getting better press coverage or creating a positive image (especially if reality is different – see point on secrets above).  It presents a real challenge to public relations and we need more discussion in the profession around the reality of the CIPR definition.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

6 thoughts on “Reputation and public relations”

  1. If PR does claim “ownership” of reputation management, then it needs …

    Perhaps reputation management is the province of the quality of the product in the first place and PR’s place is just to inform the greatest number of it at the beginning. Thereafter, the product looks after itself.

  2. James – if only life were that simple. From a marketing/PR perspective, products don’t look after themselves, not least because of new competition, need to update/refresh and remind people that your product is there, manage potential and real crisis situations, etc. Increasingly products and companies are challenged by issues (eg obesity, environment), etc. As such a company’s reputation is much more than about producing a good product – PR needs to help management understand the impact of emerging issues and trends and ensure its reputation remains positive. There are also reputational issues away from decisions about purchasing a product – PR works with financial stakeholders to secure investments, with HR on employment matters (especially attracting employees), local politicians and stakeholders regarding citizenship issues, and politicians who may legislate in its favour/against it and/or introduce taxes that impact on it.

    PR – and reputation – are much more than simply making a good product and believing customers will just buy it.

  3. Can’t the ethical debate on bigger PR budgets be negated by being open and transparent?

    If companies put more in the pot for PR then PR could be a truely funcional operation that can help them build, and maintain their reputation. And if that is done in a two-way, open communication effort that’s actively being seen to change behaviour if the climate calls for it then I don’t see ethical concerns with bigger PR budgets.

    And, if some companies don’t give high enough budgets to the PR function and more to marketing say then, they are, to me, saying that they are more concerned with the monetary profits from selling new products than how they are perceived by the stakeholders. Profits can be whipped away in a heartbeat if a bad reputation gets a hold and people stop buying. And if PR doesn’t get a bigger share of the budget, and be taken seriously by management, then what’s to stop marketing getting more of a foothold in our territory?

  4. Jill – I think you are right that transparency is important. I would certainly not question bigger budgets for public relations in terms of ethical practices. The issue my student and I were discussing in particular related to companies where budget is used to impress journalists and other influencers (such as politicians). For example, if a company gave iPods as presents, does this influence the media’s opinion of it – if not, then why do it? If it does, then there are questions over the ethics.

    I’m not sure PR should be fighting marketing for % splits of budget – organisations ought to allocate a certain budget to achieve their marketing objectives (which may include PR to that end), and also to develop and manage their reputation (which may include corporate advertising).

    The challenge for PR, which is this student’s dissertation, is understanding how the value of a PR department can be best assessed – and therefore budget decisions can be made on the basis of understanding PR’s achievements.

  5. There is an interesting piece in the latest Drum magazine about where the laptops are going once they’ve been used by the bloggers testing the new vista software. I can relate this to your student’s discussion.

    But, I was staggered to see that the Drum didn’t mention the bloggers identities, the angle was centred round who gets what at the end of the day.

  6. That one has backfired a bit on Microsoft in terms of it not being communicated in the best way to avoid the computers being seen as a “bung”. Other people were, as you indicate, challenging those who received and reported to be open about this and what they have done with the computer as that removes any concerns about bribery.

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