When Rupert Soames took over as chief executive of the reputationally damaged Serco three years ago, he commissioned for himself a workman’s jacket emblazoned with a logo proclaiming “Serco and proud of it”.
The statement signalled that he would stand by the outsourcing company’s 50,000 employees. “I want my colleagues to be proud of where they work,” says Mr Soames. “We need to be seen to be accountable, be it giving evidence to a select committee of MPs or wearing a ridiculous jacket.”
The jacket was an unusual attempt to restore a reputation damaged by a series of scandals, including referral to the Serious Fraud Office for overcharging the Ministry of Justice for its electronic monitoring of prisoners.
Marshall Manson, chief executive of Ogilvy PR UK, says such moves can work for organisations in difficulty. “Standing up and being confident and saying we are going to invest in the business and go on a journey together will invite a common vision,” he says. “Hiding in the bunker invites more attacks.”
His first tip for companies seeking to restore their image is to improve performance. “Reputational problems are often rooted in bad behaviour. So rebuilding your reputation starts with changing behaviour, and then making sure that people know about it. Communications must be connected to real actions.
“Just doing the minimum invites more scrutiny,” he adds. “Mere compliance with regulation isn’t very interesting. If you say ‘actually we are going to go beyond what’s required to claw back our reputation’, then it is.”
Neal Hartman, senior lecturer in managerial communications at MIT Sloan School of Management, says the chief executive must admit to problems and talk about what is being done to correct them. He points to United Airlines and British Airways as examples of companies that waited too long to address bad headlines. United was criticised over the removal of passengers from a flight, while BA was vilified for the cancellation of hundreds of flights in May after an IT failure.
Mr Hartman says companies must identify the source of problems, which are often due to lapses in company culture. Staff who engage in fraudulent activities, falsify data or harass colleagues must be dealt with to send “a strong message . . . that these behaviours will not be tolerated”. Companies should be open about the findings of investigations and changes, including to procedures, policies, personnel and organisation.
Tone matters, adds Ogilvy PR’s Mr Manson. “People expect us to have empathy, to express some emotion and to express that there are consequences . . . Being a human face is important.” Companies should find an audience to tell their story to. “Target decision makers via [social networking site] LinkedIn, for example, with case studies and proof points.”
Problems that could lead to reputational harm need to be spotted early and dealt with. G4S, the outsourcer, for example, was pilloried during the 2012 London Olympics for not hiring enough security guards and organisers brought in the army. G4S later dropped out of the FTSE 100.
Ideally, G4S managers would have had the chance to discuss how to present the problem. “The opportunity should have been to say in a meeting ‘we are never going to get there; let’s figure out a balance that works that we can communicate together’, rather than [having to] communicate failure,” says Mr Manson.
“The old crisis [maxim] is to have friends before you need friends,” he says. “There’s a relatively small audience here — purchasers, ministers. When you have a problem you need to know you can rapidly engage the people that really matter. You need to be able to say ‘it’s under control and here are the steps we are going to take’.”
Often there is no option but to fight your way through it: “When you make a big error you are going to have to take time recovering,” he says.
Nigel Fairbrass, brought in as head of communications to restore the reputation of G4S, acknowledges the “importance of trust, integrity and transparency in the work that we do”. Despite G4S’s return to the FTSE 100, he is “acutely aware of the substantial challenge that remains”.
Mr Soames at Serco agrees that focusing on the job at hand is crucial. “This is our island, this is our patch and we have to do it well,” he says.
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