On day 3 of Spectra, a reputation management-focused online conference, author and founder of Temple Rocks Consulting, Patti Temple Rocks, addressed future challenges for businesses and reputation management in a world gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her talk on ‘If a tree falls in the forest…The ever-evolving relationship between saying and doing, and corporate reputation’ shed light on several concerns for businesses hoping to successfully navigate changed equations in a COVID-19 scenario.
Patti started her session with an interesting insight: “’If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it really fall?’ was a phrase I used more than a decade ago as VP of Corporate Reputation for Dow when addressing a conference. Today, if I was to address the same group, I would change the phrase to say, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to see it, did it really fall? And it no one tweeted, Insta-ed or Facebook-ed about that falling tree, then does anybody even care?”
She continued, “Learned reputation professionals always back their words with actions – it is most important today. The world has changed forever after COVID-19. This is the first time in generations that that entire world is sharing the same context for a crisis.” She went on to quote Winston Churchill, who famously said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’, which was a clarion call to businesses to upscale their operations in the arena of reputation management.
“I have learnt more in this past year [of COVID] than in the previous decade combined about reputation management in the times of crisis,” Patti quipped. She summarised her learnings into 4 key areas:
1. It is truly a people-first world now
A leader must protect the people he is expected to lead, feels Rocks. Typically, businesses’ responses in cataclysmic situations is to help the victims to help them rebuild their lives. But with the pandemic taking lives and livelihoods, companies are responding differently. Today, they are centred around their own employees. Companies that successfully navigated their business challenges during this stressful time were the ones that prioritised their own people, making sure they were safe and healthy. These efforts were appreciated not just by employees, but the rest of the world noticed, too.
2. I don’t trust any of you!
A remarkable feature of this era is that we have lost faith in pretty much everyone. We don’t trust scientists, the Government, we’re not sure our universities have not been bought off by wealthy donors, and we certainly do not trust the media. “Compounding this loss of trust are political, social and technological changes that have happened rapidly and shaken many of our core institutions in society. The most visible loss of trust is with the media – consumers are aware that today there are fewer reporters to report the truth, and news accuracy is questionable. They also know that media houses are focused on the bottom line, and in peddling news that sells,” she said.
How can businesses engage with media that nobody trusts? Rocks quoted a recent Edelman study on trust and COVID that reveals that most people today believe the news only if it is seen or heard from three different sources. “How many people have the motivation to validate everything they hear? So businesses are engaging directly with consumers via social media,” she said.
3. A new era for reputation
“The rules have changed for business. These changing rules have caused us to reassess the very things that are at the foundation of a strong reputation. We have literally rewritten the contract for how society judges corporations. Today, the ‘power of the people’ concept reigns supreme for businesses in the new era,” she said. Rocks believes that companies need to live their values – the value of their brand is only as good as the company’s reputation.
4. It is a ‘power of the people’ world
In the last key area, Rocks said that every person has a voice today. People care about issues, and they care passionately. For businesses to earn trust and loyalty, to need to show that they are listening to consumers. Customers need to know what businesses are doing about issues or a shift in policy, and they expect to be heard as well.
“Never before have we seen so much happen in a year: COVID happened, but in the US we had a long and heartfelt discussion on race and the most divisive presidential elections ever. In many board rooms previously, there would be discussions on laying low during contentious times. But sitting on the sidelines was simply not an option for 2020, and it won’t be in 2021 either. In the eyes of the public, silence [on important issues] is seen as an endorsement, and this can damage reputation,” she said. Consumers expecting companies to have a POV is not a passing fad – they will continue to demand action and hold businesses accountable.