A Nielsen Rep Talks Reputation Management, The Harris Poll and More

By Shawn Paul Wood Comment

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Polls are fascinating fodder for reporters. And we already know readers love a list. One such organization proudly offering listicles is The Harris Poll.

In the 2016 version of its annual corporate rankings, there are some interesting findings: Amazon.com has a better reputation than Apple or Disney, USAA and Kellogg have risen to the top 10, and that little car company caught in a global emissions scandal has plummeted to the very bottom of the list.

PRNewser was able to discuss the results with Sarah Simmons, senior reputation consultant at Nielsen (owner of The Harris Poll).

1. In the world of PR, reputation management and image building rarely find their way to the top of a client’s to-do list. Noting what has happened to Volkswagen, do you think that should be re-prioritized? 

You are right, for some companies, managing reputation has taken a back seat to sales, quarterly earnings and sometimes more “urgent” aspects of running their business day to day – but as a practice we are seeing an increased attention to and active planning around reputation management.

We know this to be especially true of companies that are highly regulated or doing work in industries that court more risk (heavy industrial, energy, healthcare and lately an increased focus from consumer packaged goods).

Increasingly, our clients see that their reputational equity can do one of two things: First, if it is positive, it can pave the way for their business objectives. Second, if it presents challenges or is negative, it can put obstacles in the way of their plan and inhibit their ability to execute. In the end, this drives profitability and sales and overall success of their business.

It’s not necessarily about “selling” your product – it’s often more about having an audience who is willing to listen to your point of view, give your business perspective the benefit of the doubt or encourage growth in their community. When you consider various stakeholders, reputation is the key to finding investors, supporters and certainly ties to the ability to sell products or be profitable – ultimately, it’s about selling your company to the broader audience.

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2. Customer service is notable at Amazon, but some of the actions of its CEO Jeff Bezos and PR Chief Jay Carney haven’t been so popular. With Amazon as No. 1 on your poll, can the actions of the many overcome the lapses of a few? 

On the contrary, I think what Amazon’s RQ rating reveals is that they have consistently been high performers across all the reputation related categories and, in a moment of hot and negative media attention, they drew on their equity to recover quickly from something damaging.

I would argue they have actively performed on products and services, by having a vision for their business and being emotionally appealing. Despite not making huge profits, they’ve managed expectations on their financial performance – because of this foundation, they were able to weather the storm. In fact, they were very effective at getting their side of the story into the media and I think were given the benefit of the doubt by their stakeholders.

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3. From Wegman’s last year to Publix this year, what is it about grocers that make them so endearing to the public?

Regional and independent grocers are a very interesting case – they often hover on the edge of our most visible list.  We know that they are very active in their communities and community members spend a lot of time in their stores.  Because of this role in their communities, they generally perform well on corporate social responsibility metrics and high on emotional appeal.  In a study like this, among consumers, we see the connection between these metrics and their overall visibility and reputation.

Additionally – the smaller format and more localized feel of regional and independent stores opens the door for lots of opportunities to really showcase locally grown, organic, ethnic and specialty offering. These things really create a connectedness to the consumer and drive a higher satisfaction and reputation for these types of stores.

4. Looking at Harris’ RQ scores since 2007, the companies falling are all big oil, big money, and big scandal. Is reputation that intrinsically attached to the news cycle? If not, what about social media? 

It may be short-sighted to lump reputation management into simple management of the news cycle. Companies who manage their reputation well have shown us again and again that messaging has to be consistent with action – so having a narrative that does not align with your company’s values is almost always found out by your stakeholders – and the data from this study supports that: We found that those who influence opinion most, Opinion Elites (those who follow the news more closely, participate in civic life, and are leaders of organizations in their community) are following what companies do more closely than the general public.

Nearly three-fourths of Opinion Elites investigate corporate behavior before buying and almost 60 percent decided to not do business with a company because of something they learned about how the company conducts itself. And, much of this investigating and information is happening on social media.

So, of course, if you are faced with a crisis, the news cycle is going to impact your reputation. But, for companies who have built equity – the road back is often much less rocky.

5. Based on these findings, what should PR agencies share with their clients? 

Given the stakes involved, companies are increasingly focused on proactively understanding their reputation, what people think about them, what they say and do, and how that translates into market value for their business. As a PR professional, you need to take the long view on working with clients to manage their reputation – this is not a one shot quick turn press hit. Reputation management is a sustained approach to highlighting business practices that show your stakeholders you understand what they care about.

At the core of helping your clients manage their reputation is understanding what their business objectives are – and who or what might stand in the way of those.  How do you help your clients prioritize what they demonstrate to each stakeholder audience that might matter – whether that is with investors, with the media, with regulators or with their talent pool.

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