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Measuring for reputation management

Reputation management is sometimes relegated to a single dimension of sentiment measurement, which is certainly relevant—it’s just not very nuanced. Measuring for reputation can have multiple aspects, and looking at reputation from more than one angle not only provides a better set of data, it also can show where PR efforts might be needed to address concerns, or either amplify the good or start to work on repairing the bad.

There are four primary aspects of corporate reputation: (1) company reputation and (2) leadership reputation for external audiences; and (3) company and (4) leadership reputation for internal audiences. There are important reasons for tracking and measuring each of these separately.

1. Company reputation – external audiences 

This is what people are usually talking about when they discuss corporate reputation. It’s how the company is perceived by those outside of the organization. Media coverage and consumer responses on social channels that track brand mentions are common ways to measure this aspect.

2. CEO/Leadership reputation – external audiences 

Measuring corporate reputation by assessing how CEOs and other members of leadership are perceived has become far more common with the rise of the “celebrity CEO.” Companies have become increasingly aware of how closely tied leadership can be to brand reputation, both positive and negative. Steve Jobs and Apple is an obvious example, and so is Elon Musk and Tesla…and Twitter. Similar to company reputation, measurement of leadership/personal reputation is also assessed by analyzing mainstream press mentions, trade and industry publications, and social media content.

3. Company reputation – internal audiences

How do employees and other internal stakeholders (such as board members) feel about the organization? This can be more work to measure since you’ll need to use methods such as employee surveys to get your answers, but it’s arguably just as important to a company’s bottom line as measuring external reputation. From high turnover to burnout, if employees have a negative view of the company they are working for, ultimately it can start to show through to external audiences as well. Online platforms that offer a degree of anonymity, such as Glassdoor, can offer feedback.

4. CEO/Leadership reputation – internal audiences

How do internal stakeholders feel about the CEO and other company leadership? Are employees willing to support and defend actions taken by the CEO and other leaders when they make tough decisions? This can be even more challenging to measure, because while employees might be willing to cautiously critique the corporation in an anonymous employee survey, they may be far more reluctant to be forthcoming when assessing individuals.

There are times when all four aspects will be on the same track—all trending positive (glowing product reviews, earnings are up, and employees are happy and getting bonuses) or all trending negative (product flop, bad earnings, overworked employees, layoffs). These are times when cause and effect are simple to identify. But, when the measurement shows mixed reactions or conflicting trendlines, that may be the time to use measurement to identify areas of interest to examine. Analysis can help you to solve small problems before they become large ones.

Does CEO popularity matter—and if yes, with whom?

What should a communicator do if the data show that employees love the CEO, but the general public think he’s an obnoxious playboy who needs to grow up? Or, on the other hand, what if you have a CEO who is loved by Wall Street and the financial press, but the employees despise?

These examples, particularly the latter one, are not uncommon. They do represent challenges for communicators—and measurement and analysis can help to determine the correct messages and themes to use with internal and external audiences in ways that can provide context.

Financial press and investors can be particularly positive when a new CEO is brought in to rescue or resuscitate a struggling company. However, given the task at hand—usually layoffs and restructuring are in the mix—it is doubtful that these CEOs are going to be warmly received by employees who likely will soon be out of a job. External reputational data (and stock prices) might be good, but internal reputational numbers (and employee morale) might be bad.

Tracking reputation and knowing where a leader’s numbers stand is information that can help a communicator develop messages with the right tone and content for each audience.

CEO personalities can steal the spotlight

Example A: Albert Dunlap

Some CEOs are known for bold moves, it’s their “brand,” so to speak. Albert J. Dunlap turned around Scott Paper when he led it in the 1990s, making the struggling company profitable and then selling it to Kimberly-Clark. There was no question that his tactics led to the turnaround, but one of his first steps was to fire 11,200 employees.

He later followed the same script when he was named CEO of Sunbeam Corporation, immediately laying off half the company’s workforce, discontinuing lines, and closing factories, earning him the nickname “Chainsaw Al.” Dunlap unapologetically embraced his role and the nickname didn’t seem to bother him either. When it was first announced that Sunbeam was bringing Dunlap on, the company’s stock soared. Outside critics took issue with his brash style, suggesting his treatment of workers was unsympathetic.

Did his reputational numbers matter? Ultimately, Dunlap was fired by Sunbeam’s board. Sunbeam is still around and is now part of Newell Brands, a Fortune 2022 – World’s Most Admired Companies.

Example B: Elon Musk

A more recent example is Elon Musk, whose purchase of Twitter was completed in October 2022. Musk’s public tenor and brash pronouncements led to individuals abandoning their Twitter accounts, and many companies made public their decisions to cease advertising on the platform. In the case of Twitter, it appears that Musk’s personality and corresponding negative reputational numbers have had an impact on consumer behavior.

Musk, rather famously, is not just in charge of Twitter. He’s also the CEO of Tesla, one of the most well-known and widely recognized electric vehicle manufacturers.

It’s one thing to give up a free Twitter account because you find him annoying, but are consumers going to stop buying Teslas? We don’t really know…yet.

A May, 2022 Inc. article titled “Tesla has an Elon Musk problem” argued that Musk’s antics and tendency to tweet things that span the range from mildly offensive to potential securities fraud is at best not helpful and could explain why, despite great earnings results, Tesla’s stock was falling. On the other hand, Barron’s posted “No, Elon Musk’s Tweets Aren’t Hurting Tesla Sales Yet” in December, 2022. That piece focused on customer orders and brand loyalty. Those are longer-term datapoints than stock valuations, which are far more reactive.

Looking at reputational analysis over time

Keeping track of company sentiment alongside CEO reputation, internally and externally, is key to learning how closely tied brand reputation and CEO reputation really is—and, how reputation is related to earnings and public opinion. What really matters is how consumers react.

Looking at both short-term data points, such as consumer sentiment on social media and stock numbers, and long-term data points, such as quarterly sales, earnings, and reputation over time, will help to provide a more balanced picture—one that will help to determine if bad reputational data is having an actual impact on consumer behavior such as sales, over time.

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