ST. LOUIS and CHICAGO—One of the problems with the majority of reputation measurement programs is that they tend to treat reputation as a monolithic entity, assuming that the same stakeholder groups—even the same attributes—are equally important to every company in every company. But consumers may not be as important to a chemical company as they are to a retailer, and innovation may not be as important to a bank as it is to a technology company.
That’s a conclusion at least two major global public relations firms have come to, independently and simultaneously. This week, Fleishman-Hillard of St. Louis and Chicago’s and Golin/Harris both introduced new reputation assessment and measurement tools designed to address precisely the same gaps in the evaluation market.
Fleishman’s new offering is called READ (Reputation Equity Assessment and Direction) and is designed, in the words of reputation management practice leader Tim Beecher, “to put the ‘management’ back in reputation management.”
According to Dave Senay, senior partner, “A couple of years ago several reputation matrices hit the market, but when we analyzed them we felt that while there was a place in the world for that kind of single measurement index we thought there also needed to be a system that took into account the unique needs of every company.”
Golin/Harris, meanwhile, has introduced TrustWorks, a tool that emphasizes trust—a theme Al Golin first sounded 30 years ago, when he urged client McDonald’s to invest in what he christened “the trust bank.”
Says Ellen Ryan Mardiks, the firm’s worldwide director of marketing and brand strategy, “Unlike other standards that appear to rate and rank companies against other companies based on a generic list of attributes, TrustWorks recognizes that the drivers of trust may vary significantly from one firm to another. We don’t believe all companies are the same across different industries, and we don’t believe you can measure a company’s reputation based on a list of arbitrary criteria someone somewhere came up with to measure reputation in an entirely different industry.”
In addition to their adaptability, the two systems have several similarities.
Fleishman-Hillard spent 12 months developing READ, a program Senay says he wants to be “the underpinning of our approach to reputation management. We wanted to come up with something that was measurable and that was prescriptive in terms of the kind of behavior it would take to drive improved reputation.”
The development process was a collaborative one, bringing together executives from the firm’s reputation management practice and its research staff. Bob Pearce, an executive in the reputation group, explains that “although there may be 10 components of reputation, the emphasis is very different from industry to industry,” while Lisa Richter, who heads the research group at F-H, adds that “in some cases, only two are three audiences are going to change the way a company is perceived.”
When companies come to F-H, Senay says, they don’t ask vague questions like “what’s our reputation?” Rather, they want help with a specific situation. A manufacturing company, for example, may want assistance in gaining community approval for the construction of a new plant.
“The first thing we do is sit down and talk about defining the audiences,” says Senay. “We might go to the communities in which they already have installations and determine what their reputation is in those communities, looking at their reputation in some very specific areas: do we trust this company when it comes to the environment; will they cause traffic congestion?
“Using this approach, we can come up with six points around which a communications program can be built. We’re not interested in an overall reputation score. We are interested in the most important messages for the company to communicate, the approach it can take to help it win with the audiences that matter most.”
Depending on the number and size of audiences involved, Senay says, the READ program can cost anywhere from $35,000 to $100,000.
“Trust is essential in any business relationship,” says Golin/Harris CEO Rich Jernstedt. “For our clients to be successful today, they need more than just good reputations. People admire companies with good reputations, but they’re loyal to companies they trust. That’s a critical difference. TrustWorks was designed to help our clients develop and protect strong, trust-based relationships by finding out exactly what builds trust with their audiences.”
The first step in that process is a Trust Assessment. Ellen Ryan Mardiks explains that agency personnel sit down for “long, long conversations” with the client about what he or she hopes to accomplish, probing to find out what problems the client faces and what programs he or she has in place. That’s followed by research focused on the target audience, which could be employees, consumers, investors, or local communities.”
The firm then works with its sister company, NFO, to crunch the numbers and develop maps that show what needs to be done in order to establish trust, and which messages are likely to be most effective. Says Mardiks, “We take the input and we show the client what specific attributes people need to see from them, but we also show them the kind of programs that are likely to be most effective in communicating those attributes.”
The process does that by measuring not only whether a program is effective at getting the message out, but also whether it works in terms of communicating what the company needs to communicate, using a system the firm calls Trust Mapping. So a program can fall into one of four quadrants:
  • some may effective in communicating their message but irrelevant; Mardiks calls these “nice to know.”
  • some may be relevant to the audience, but the message being communicated might be ineffective in building trust; they may even be “trust inhibitors”—managers may think it’s impressive that their company is the biggest in the market, for example, but customers may believe big companies are inherently suspect;
  • some may be both ineffective and irrelevant;
  • but the best—trust builders—are both effective and relevant.
The result is a Trust Brief, a strategic plan that addresses areas of weakness and maximizes strong existing program, followed by an ongoing process called Trust Monitor, which measures improvements in trust over time, continuing to identify programs that need improvement.
Mardiks says there has been a high level of interest in the product from clients. “In tough economic times, clients are looking to make sure every dollar they spend is effective,” she says.