Robert Schooling

Most major corporations have well-developed brands—both corporate and product—that are the result of deliberate strategy, thoughtful research and a significant investment.

However, most companies have a blind spot when it comes to how policymakers think about their corporate brand and reputation. They often think of policymakers as consumers, assuming what piques the interests of other brand audiences will do the same for them. Of course, to some degree, this is true; policymakers are also consumers, and the attributes that matter to consumers will matter to them as well. 

However, the questions that policymakers ask of companies are different than those of consumers, and frankly so are the results they seek. What most companies are seeking from policymakers is permission to operate their businesses efficiently without unduly burdensome or irrational regulation. On this playing field, the issue is less brand and more reputation.

Brand and reputation are often used interchangeably, but they are distinctly different ideas. Your brand is the sum total of who you are and what you stand for; it is reflected in your customer service, your product quality, your corporate culture and your visual identity. It helps consumers view you as relevant and differentiated from your competitors. Reputation, by contrast, is more temporal, more cognitive and more audience-specific. Let’s unpack those elements one at a time. 

Reputation reflects a snapshot in time; it can be moved substantially by events or crises. If those events are significant enough or poorly addressed, they can bleed over and have long-term effects on your brand. Reputation is more cognitive than brand; it reflects more thinking than feeling, and often discounts attributes that may be highly relevant to the brand. Reputation is a timely assessment of the company’s words and deeds against a set of factors that are relevant to the particular audience. 

Reputation is varied among audiences because different audiences have different cognitive expectations. Policymakers need to evaluate companies and industries against a set of societal expectations for behavior and contribution. They may find a company’s products highly desirable—and that can help—but it doesn’t address the key questions they are required to ask.  The more important your company is to the economy and to the social good, the more rigorous those questions are likely to be.

This dichotomy between brand and reputation can also play out with industry associations.  Industry associations have their own brands as organizations; however, when it comes to representing their industry with policymakers, what they are really representing is the reputation of the industry. They are charged with changing the cognitive assessment of the industry; they need to convince policymakers—and those who influence policymakers—that their industry meets the key expectations society holds for them.

So, what is a company or industry to do about managing its reputation among policymakers?  The first step is to be clear about what you are really trying to achieve: define your business aspirations and the legislative and regulatory environment you seek. This means aligning your long range business plan with a legislative and regulatory outlook, and then identifying the kind of political and policy environment you could realistically shape to achieve those objectives.

Next, understand your strengths and weaknesses, understand the perceptions of your company or industry, and understand the expectations of policymakers and the stakeholders who influence them. You need to realistically assess where you have unique or highly desirable assets as a company or industry; how those assets are currently understood by your audiences; and, most importantly, what your audiences expect of you. In short, what is the story you can tell convincingly and authentically that is of greatest value and relevance to policymakers?   

Finally, design a program that connects the dots between current perceptions, stakeholder needs, and your desired outcomes. The tactics will vary, but they should start with a laser focus on your audience, designing tactics in a way that will most convincingly reach and, most importantly, engage these audiences with you over an extended period of time.

Reputation can be built proactively; you don’t have to wait for a crisis. By engaging with the right ideas, partnering with relevant stakeholders, and demonstrating your unique contributions, you can move the needle.

It is worth remembering that building reputation is not only a communications exercise, it is a strategic exercise that forces organizations to clearly articulate their value proposition to a variety of stakeholders and to confront areas of misalignment before those areas become problematic. 

Warren Buffett famously said that reputation takes “twenty years to build and five minutes to ruin.” However, the time spent building that reputation, even in the face of a crisis, doesn’t go to waste. That investment of time builds strategic focus, good will for the organization, and relationships that can help organization weather crises and gain the benefit of the doubt.