Reputation management lessons from the pandemic

Bill Michael knows better than most that you can spend years building your reputation and see it demolished in an instant.

The KPMG chairman lost his £1.9m a year job after telling staff to stop moaning about working conditions during the pandemic and dismissing the notion of unconscious bias as “complete and utter crap”. Days after his comments to 500 staff on a Zoom call were leaked to the media, he fell on his sword and stood aside after less than four years at the helm, apologizing for the distress he had caused.

Three lessons can be learned from this episode:

First, no company boss should ever assume outspoken comments made to staff will not end up being made public.

Secondly, some views are best kept private, however sincerely held they may be.

Thirdly, a personal disaster for a company chairman does not have to be a corporate calamity.

KPMG responded to Michael’s departure by tasking two women, Mary O’Connor and Bina Metha, with the responsibility of steadying the ship – and, in doing so, sent out a clear signal that the 150-year-old firm was ready to embrace change and institute a radical overhaul of its working practices.

That lesson should resonate beyond the professional services sector – it is relevant to every part of the corporate world.

It also contains a wider truth. The pandemic has exposed fault lines in many business sectors, which have lost the trust of consumers, but that also presents an opportunity for a re-build strategy to change the narrative and recapture that lost trust.

The reputation of the insurance industry has been battered by the pandemic.

Six of the world’s largest commercial insurers – Hiscox, RSA, QBE, Argenta, Arch and MS Amlin – lost a case in the Supreme Court, over arguments that many business interruption policies did not cover the widespread disruption caused by the government lockdown in March 2020.

The ruling paved the way for estimated pay-outs of £1.2bn to businesses, but the loss of trust should be a more serious concern. Christopher Croft, CEO of insurance brokers’ association LIIBA, admitted the industry’s reputation had been damaged. “We need to think hard about how we redress that,” he said.

He is right. To businesses who took out insurance policies in good faith, only to discover that they were not covered when the pandemic force them to stop trading, that will take more than words. Insurers will need to show that they have learned lessons and made changes to the way they operate.

In times of crisis, or reputational difficulties, communications strategies and reputation management campaigns are sometimes dismissed as ‘spin’. But the best communication strategies are only as good as the substance that underpins them.

The insurance industry needs to reflect on the lessons it has learned from the crisis. If its business interruption policies are too limited, or too inflexible for many of its clients, they need to be changed. Or, if the wording of the policies was clear, but their clients simply did not understand them, then a communications campaign is needed to change that.

Either course of action requires a change strategy, not a blanket dismissal of criticism or a refusal to accept the need for change. And the communications strategy should work in tandem with the change strategy.

Reputation management is not about spinning your way out of trouble. It is about acknowledging that you have a problem and making a commitment to address it; or if you have been misunderstood, finding a way to communicate more clearly.

The two mistakes a business can make are either to operate in a silo, impervious to criticism, or to be aware of the criticism but to refuse to accept it. Reputation management experts hold up a mirror to nature; they show how your business is perceived from the outside. Giving them a seat at the table takes you out of your comfort zone and allows you to stress test your reputation.

Another sector which has been embattled during the pandemic is the travel industry. Winners and losers have emerged – but probably more losers than winners.

No one doubts that travel companies have been amongst the biggest victims of the pandemic. But hard-pressed consumers who had their flights cancelled, or who were no longer able to take holidays they had booked months earlier, could not be expected to show much sympathy.

In the early stages of the pandemic, nearly all travel companies bore the brunt of consumer criticism. But as the crisis played out, lasting much longer than anyone had thought possible, clear differences emerged.

For example, British Airways were heavily criticised for being slow to refund customers, but they learnt from the criticism and responded. They become more transparent; clearer about their customer offering; and more flexible in offering alternatives.

Well-established travel companies, such as Hayes and Jarvis or DialAFlight, burnished their reputation by honouring commitments and doing it swiftly and efficiently. In a fragmented market, with so many new entrants, that set them apart from challengers and built trust with their customers.

That gives them the platform on which to build a communications strategy: trust.

But it only works if the message rings true: “Trust us because we have been here for a while (49 years in the case of Hayes and Jarvis, 33 years for DialAFlight) and we intend to be here for a good while longer”.

When the pandemic is finally under control and we can travel again that will be a message that resonates. Price is not everything – service and reliability matters.

The pandemic has challenged businesses like never before, but there are opportunities too – and with the right communications strategy in place you can emerge with your reputation enhanced.

If you would be interested in discussing a reputation management campaign for your business, get in touch with our award-winning team today.

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