Last week I attended the Reputation Matters conference in Manchester to hear from top-notch industry professionals on what reputation management means in a modern day communications environment. Organised by Prolific North and Don’t Panic the conference included speakers from a cross-section of the PR, communications and digital industry and provided senior level insight into some of the challenges faced by brands in recent years.
The formidable and well-respected producer and presenter Rob McLoughlin chaired the conference. Rob shared with us his experience of working on the World in Action show in the 80’s, and the results of how dramatically things can go wrong when you lose control of your reputation. I particularly enjoyed his case study of the demise of Dan Air when it was uncovered that the company was flying an aircraft that had previously been written off by insurers!
A key take away for me from Rob’s talk was that ‘someone must have known’. Speaking from his journalistic experience Rob commented on the recent scandal that has rocked The Co-Operative following the revelations about its former Chairman Paul Flowers. Rob pointed out that, in a large organisation where scandal is known to be happening behind closed doors it points to the failing of senior management if (when) said scandal comes to light, there isn’t a crisis PR plan in place. Rob remarked that where such situations have been happening, sometimes for years and left to go un-challenged, there is a fault with the culture of an organisation, because ultimately ‘someone must have known… and presumably should have done something about it.’
Following Rob’s session we heard from Mark Manley, MD of Manleys Solicitors who specialise in media management and commercial reputation litigation. I was looking forward to hearing from Mark, particularly with the recent ‘Right to be Forgotten’ ruling affecting Google, effectively allowing people to request for information about them no longer in the public interest to be removed from the search engine.
Mark spoke at length about how preventative reputation management is key to successful reputation management. He also disclosed a surge in business at Manleys in 2014, with 45% of their media work now being related to social media in some way. I found this particularly interesting as it points to a significant shift (some may say maturing) in the way in which people use social media to publicly broadcast or discuss certain issues.
Certainly we are now seeing more and more legal cases being brought, and won, against those who use social media to commit libel, slander or spread malicious falsehood. Perhaps a lesson also to be learnt in keeping tight lipped and remembering that, whether you are speaking loudly about confidential matters in a public place or committing it to ‘virtual’ ink, you are still subject to the legal parameters surrounding this kind of conversation.
The afternoon of the conference saw some well-known brands take to the stage to discuss their approaches to the issue of reputation management. Francis Thomas gave a great case study about his strategy for turning around the beleaguered London Midland Railway, focussing on rebuilding trust in the railway, listening and acting on feedback and, (most importantly for me), owning up to mistakes that were made and communicating credibly with how they will be remedied.
There were two talks at the conference that I was particularly looking forward to, the first being from Sam Ward and Dom Dwight from Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate and the second from Jacqui Gay on her work as the Head of Communications for the UK City of Culture bid for Hull.Sam and Dom took us through a great presentation on how Betty’s and Taylors manages their brand reputation, the key insight here being that they have very strong, clear brand values that they stick to as an ethical trader. Dom made a strong point about the shift away from brands operating in a communications sphere of deliverance of brand messages (advertising) into a new age of brand reference (dialogue), where your brand truths and brand story must connect and hold true for your audience, otherwise you risk a reputation management crisis.
There was some discussion over why there isn’t Bettys outside of Yorkshire from the audience, when there is clearly an appetite for one. The answer was obviously because it’s ours here in Yorkshire and you can’t have one Manchester!… Joking aside, this was answered really well as the truth is that all of the Bettys tearooms are supplied by a central bakery fresh each morning. I thought it was great that the brand integrity stretches even this far, not wanting to compromise on product quality and brand ethos just to cash in on potential profits.
My talk of the day had to be from the wonderful Jacqui Gay who spoke about the journey she took as Head of Communications for the Hull UK City of Culture bid. Now it’s time for me to disclose… I am from Hull, so I had a vested interest in this talk. Jacqui spoke at length about how her and her team had the seemingly insurmountable task of turning round both national and local perceptions of Hull, with 65% of the local population saying they didn’t even think they could win the bid at the start of the project. It was very interesting hearing how she implemented a successful communications strategy, which saw Hull winning the bid to become the UK City of Culture in 2017.
Jacqui described how working with local media partners and a wide range of ground level and celebrity stakeholders was key to turning sentiment about the city around and winning the bid. She particularly referenced how important and dramatic the part of social media played in the bid in terms of spreading the message and changing people’s perceptions. On the day Hull was named as the City of Culture for 2017 the hashtag #Hullyes trended on Twitter and the promotional video created to support the bid has now been viewed over 100 thousand times on YouTube.
In conclusion I thought that Reputation Matters was a very well put together conference and offered some great insight. As a digital person it was good to hear from mainly ‘offline’ senior communications speakers on how they address their various communications challenges and the strategies they use for reputation management.
My top 5 conference takeaways would be:
- Plan for crisis – if your organisation has a process in place for managing crisis communications before an event happens you are more likely to handle a situation with credibility
- Plan for the end of a crisis – this was a great point made by Alicia Custis from Stockport NHS Trust, a crisis requires an end strategy as well and a handling strategy in order to navigate a successful future outcome
- Stay true to your organisations brand values – Dom Dwight demonstrated this very well with his quote from Peter Drucker ‘Culture eats strategy for lunch’
- Be visible in a crisis – strong leadership here is key, hiding from the media in a crisis isn’t going to help your organisation move forward
- Don’t be afraid of a challenge – this one is from Jacqui and her team at Hull Council for doing a sterling job of shifting perceptions to lead Hull to a successful bid to become the UK City of Culture 2017