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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

In a transparent world, lose the corporate reputation playbook

How brands can earn their place as reputation leaders

In a transparent world, lose the corporate reputation playbook
[Photo Source: Peera/Adobe Stock]

Many of us have connections with brands and companies that transcend their services or products (whether we acknowledge it or not). These connections bring positive feelings, slowly and surely earned. So what is the connective tissue between these positive feelings and the connections they form? Trust.

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But what is trust? To many, it is an inherent leap of faith that is incredibly challenging to bring about quickly. Trust is gained over a long period, with repeated interactions. However, societal evolutions do present opportunities for trust to be earned or furthered—both with prospective and existing consumers. COVID-19, and the changes it has ushered in, is one such societal evolution.

Even though it may not always feel like it, at some point we will be in a post-COVID world, likely without even realizing we’re there. There probably won’t be a single event or date that marks the transition for everyone, just a shared acknowledgment of a new reality. As we more confidently think about and plan for this future, companies and their brands must adopt a forward-looking perspective, rather than relying on playbooks of the past. Whether you’re focused on short- or long-term planning, ask the hard questions:

• Have you conducted meaningful post-COVID conversations with your key stakeholders?

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• Do you want to protect or advance your reputation?

• Has the pandemic changed your mission/vision/values?

• Have your offerings and purpose fundamentally changed? If yes, how have you brought that to life through your mission/vision/values?

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Thoughtful interrogation is essential to establishing a foundation for trust, but it’s only the first step.

Expectations of businesses have rapidly evolved over the past year. Having a conscience sufficed in the past, but now a plan with documented results is mandatory. And everyone (from investors and employees to consumers and advocates) is watching, ready to call out companies failing to follow through on stated commitments.

So how does reputation play in this new, post-COVID, equation? For one, start with simplicity. Corporate and brand reputations are complex constructs, but simplifying the complexity and sticking with digestible key themes allow for deeper understanding and awareness. Great leaders strip away the complexity and reveal the essence.

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In the past, your brand could simply stand behind great products and services. Now? Your brand must stand behind great values. The pandemic has challenged brand loyalty unlike anything else in recent history, so how will your brand respond?

Beyond conceptual values, remember to facilitate and coordinate communication. Forward-thinking companies, and their brands, begin to anticipate issues and start conducting focused analysis by actively listening to stakeholders. Start to peer around corners for possible issues.

In companies with strong and progressive leadership, the CEO and senior leaders understand reputation is not a single individual’s or job function’s responsibility, but rather a shared responsibility across the organization. Failure to understand and execute against this will lead to, at best, managing reputation, never advancing reputation. A common misconception is that reputation management is a narrow definition of what a corporate affairs and/or communications team should be doing within an organization. From another view, managing equates to jogging in place. Advancing is Usain Bolt. Managing is treading water. Advancing is Michael Phelps.

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When people perceive a lack of leadership from the traditional sources, they often look to the business world instead. As the economic recovery continues after a year like no other, there is a growing sense of cautious optimism among marketers. It’s a healthy sign of hope and an indicator of resilience and well-being. Perhaps this is yet another opportunity for companies and their brands. In a post-pandemic future, the brands willing to confidently leave behind the playbooks of the past and adopt a forward-thinking perspective will earn their place as reputation leaders.


Adam Warrington is the Chief Reputation Officer at Praytell, a creative exchange agency that earns attention with optimistic work.
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