Everyone has one. Shakespeare wrote about it in Othello. Taylor Swift named an album after it. And people all over the world invest heavily in it. It’s elusive and yet undeniable, difficult to quantify but easily destroyed. Reputation. It’s comprised of, but not limited to what others feel and think about you, what they’ve heard, rumour, facts and everything else in between.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing restrictions in society that it imposed across the world, had a peculiar effect on people when it came to our reptuations. There have been lots of disagreements about the correct way to adhere to guidelines. Some consider family members in their gardens to be safe, others believe it to be an egregious error in judgment that could cause society to break down. Yet others believe that what was strictly forbidden on April Sunday 11th is fine on Monday April 12th, regardless of the actual medical realities. What is at stake if you stand directly on the mark laid out as a visual guide to queuing outside your local coffee shop, or slightly behind it, or in front of it? Certainly not passing on or catching the virus from those in front of you or behind you, who are still an acceptable social distance away. What is at stake is your reputation. Put simply, are you being good?
Typically many public relations companies will discuss reputation in the context of crisis comms. As if reputation is only something to be considered or strategised for in the event of a crisis. And of course, it goes without saying (almost) that it is wise to have a crisis comms strategy in place to deal with the worst should it arise. But in truth, public relations IS reputation. Everything a company does, from CSR, to consumer activations, to corporate comms, is in aid of the ultimate goal of conveying a “good” reputation. The other big piece of public relations is letting people know that a person, product or service exists, but that awareness-raising still carries the communication of the message of good reputation. Reputation, you see, is “everything” as one of the Kardashians might say.
Let’s just say though, that without the goods to back it up, it’s hard to come by a good reputation. Think of the story of the Fyre Festival. For the uninitiated amongst you, this was a tale of a young man called Billy McFarland who, in 2016, set out to create the best music festival EVER. IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC. Forget Woodstock, Glastonbury, Coachella, Electric Picnic, this was going to be IT. And as promoted by Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Hailey Baldwin Bieber, and situated on a small but fictitious Bahamian island called Fyre Cay, what could go wrong? Suffice to say that 26 year old McFarland is now serving a six year sentence in a federal prison for fraud crimes. A $2million class action settlement taken against him by 277 ticket holders is close to final approval in favour of the ticket holders as of last Tuesday (April 13th).
No amount of beautiful models and sun soaked islands, the dernier cri amongst the beau monde, (or possibly everyone) could actually cut the Dijon unless it existed. The person, company, product, or service, need to do or be able to achieve the promise made. Thankfully, despite the simplicity and beauty that social media likes to portray about peoples’ lives, we still live in a world in which someone will shout about the fact that the emperor is in a state of deshabille, as was played out in the Fyre Island debacle when event attendees started demanding a refund.
But the reason that reputation is so often considered in proximity to crises, is that once a good reputation is built, a crisis can destroy it very quickly and the crisis plan is an aim to claw it back as quickly as possible. But a disastrous occurrence isn’t the only reason that a company might need to improve its reputation. If a sector is getting a bad rep – think banks in 2008 and onwards – it is incumbent upon an organisation to dissociate themselves from that negative content as quickly as possible and to set themselves apart from the dominant narrative. This can be done in a few ways. Good search engine optimisation using the right key words and anticipating the psychological impulses of the masses can work to improve the reputation of an individual company within a challenged sector.
The drip, drip, of positive, interesting stories in mainstream, well respected, relevant media outlets can unfurl a hitherto tightly wound ball of dubious opinion. And events, that create a sense of wellbeing, previously unknown information, or some other form of value that can be given to an audience, also do well to bolster reputation. And there are other practical tactics that can be executed to change or enhance the sense of what a company, person, or product is or might be.
In essence though, it is the feeling of people – call them audiences, target markets – that must align with the stories being told in order for the reputation to become established in the first place, or to change in the second. And the elusive feeling can only be achieved through public relations in three ways; careful planning; an understanding of the emotional narrative value of the story to be told; and a knack for dealing with the media. Because in reality, trying to manufacture a feeling, the holy grail of brand developers, and the stock in trade of artists, requires skill and delicate manoeuvring. Billy McFarland had that bit down – he understood the emotional heartbeat of the story that needed to be told to lure people to the best musical festival ever – he was just missing everything else.