The reputational landscape is in flux. According to WE Communications' annual Brands in Motion (BiM) study, scepticism is rising, with fewer than half of brands globally perceived to be delivering on their commitments. 

Meanwhile, many of the 15,000 global respondents to the study suspect that brands that do act are doing so in order to sell them things. The employee experience, furthermore, has become an increasingly public aspect of corporate reputation — with 92% of respondents believing that how a brand treats its employees is an essential part of its corporate character.

With costs rising, climate change impact being felt more keenly and new conflicts emerging, citizens are expecting companies to address social issues in a tangible manner. All of which adds up to a complex set of challenges for corporate communicators, particularly in a region that has typically shied away from grandstanding and virtue signalling.

To explore these issues in further detail, PRovoke Media partnered with WE Communications in Singapore last week, presenting findings from the BiM study and convening a provocative panel to discuss some of the key insights in front of a packed audience of senior in-house communicators. 

The conversation began with insights from WE Communications regional executive MD Nitin Mantri, who outlined a backdrop that includes an unstable global economy, rising inflation, the extreme effects of climate change, and an uncertain AI future. "To put it simply, our modern survival instincts are kicking in," explained Mantri.

"The onset of these emerging and enduring existential threats is putting pressure on brands to figure out being a part of the solution," added Mantri. "But many brands remain focused solely on bigger picture, longer-term commitments when most people's anxiety is urgent and personal."

In such a vulnerable environment, traditional approaches to corporate reputation probably need to evolve. "People say that brands that don't get it right are tone-deaf, that companies need to be in tune with immediate needs and concerns or they risk losing customers and employees."

Indeed, the proportion of respondents that WE identifies as 'cynics' increased 3% year-on-year, with concerns about purpose-washing leading the way. Even so, more than half of respondents want to hear more from brands during times of uncertainty, and three in four agreed that brands should be transparent in communicating to the public about what they do in response to current and emerging issues in society. 

"It is no longer enough to operate ethically and responsibly to perform well and take purpose-led action," said Mantri. "Brands must embrace greater transparency than we've ever seen in the form of hard data, employee testimonials, leadership admission of shortcomings and much more."

Those findings set the backdrop for the ensuing conversation among communications leaders from a diverse group of companies. The transcript of this compelling discussion has been edited for length and clarity. 


  • Shruti Bose, head of communications & public affairs, Roche Diagnostics

  • Lauren Myers-Cavanagh, senior director of communications, Microsoft Asia

  • Daryl Ho, MD, WE Communications Singapore 

  • Simon Pangrazio, MD, Watatawa

  • Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media (moderator)

The new rules of reputation

"It is a really hard environment for brands to succeed"

In response to the research, WE has drawn up four 'rules' of reputation that it believes brands must embrace if they are serious about building and protecting their reputations. The first is to prioritize personal issues such as cost of living and employee pay, while the second calls on companies to push their boundaries on transparency. The third concludes that employer reputation is now synonymous with corporate reputation, and the fourth states that companies cannot opt out of the governance and ethics issues raised by the rise of AI. 

Shruti Bose (SB): I'm going to start by making a confession. As I found from reading the Brands in Motion study, I am a cynic. The reason I say that is one of the data points speaks about how 50% of the respondents felt that when brands take a stand they are, in fact, just trying to peddle or sell more. And it is a really hard environment for brands to succeed because you do or you don't and neither is an easy choice. And it isn't just that this is the consumers' relationship with brands because ultimately, we operate in a wider ecosystem. How many of us have been through situations where governments change in your country or market and it doesn't matter who's in power, because nothing changes from a cost of living standpoint or any of these issues that the common man faces?

I can speak to the healthcare industry and say that there is a lot of work that needs to be done as an industry. But having said that, none of the challenges that are ahead of us are easy by any means.

Lauren Myers Cavanagh (LMC): If you're a cynic, I'm in your camp. I'm probably also a little bit of a realist so I'll start by confessing that nothing surprised me in the study. I think there's been some expectation reset since probably Covid and I think the hangover of Covid has been longer than we expected. I think it's about prioritizing the personal and the local because things are all interconnected — if you miss out on the local you're not going to stand a chance on the world stage having any credibility on any of your other commitments.

The second one around transparency is I fundamentally take issue with the word. I think words matter and my question is, is transparency a desirable and indeed correct goal for businesses? And I would argue probably not and it's certainly not an attainable one. So I would put in place of the word transparency, openness because I think that is much more pragmatic and honest goal for businesses. And I think if you lead with openness you can start to unpack some of the stuff in a much more honest way.

The question I have around the employee compensation benefits and all the pieces around cost of living is I've not seen data before that indicates that speaking about this and kind of building reputation around it leads to employee advocacy. I think it leads to greater intent to stay, greater company loyalty. I don't know what the leap is there and I'm not seeing it. So if others are, let's talk about that.

Simon Pangrazio (SP): I think perhaps we're a panel of cynics because I'm in that camp too. I think for a lot of people in this room, that's an important part of our jobs because we're kind of a proxy for how something's going to land and if we're not sceptical about it, the results can often be blindsiding for the organisation. So I'm actually a big fan of a cynical kind of approach. I'm also not surprised that things that impact everyone like cost of living have risen up the agenda, but I think that's probably cyclical. And it doesn't mean necessarily that people stop caring or care less about other issues as well.

The last bit that I find interesting is this increasing demand for openness or transparency, which I think is important. But if you link that to the finding about what people find credible when you are transparent — 76% of people put facts, figures, proof, evidence number one is quite telling because it means that it's not effective to just go out with a great set of spin and key messages. People actually nowadays are going straight to why should I believe that? And so the two have to go together whenever you are transparent. 

Daryl Ho (DH): I think there's always a challenge internally, what can you be clear about? What can you not be clear about? Because we know that nothing confuses people more than mixed messaging. And I think maybe it's more transparency and, to take it down one notch, we should have practised at some point. Are you still doing stuff based on awareness, desire, interest stuff? Are you still basing your framework and your content around those areas because we need to get more human with it, more personal.

A right to silence?

"There's an expectation that companies now have a foreign policy. When did that happen?" 

Our panellists may have flagged the importance of being more open, more credible and more human — but that can collide with the realities of a very volatile world. The BiM research reveals an expectation for companies to take personal and local issues more seriously. Which, in turn, sees them being asked to comment, to take a stance, to even take to specific actions on a range of issues, whether it might be cost of living, Black Lives Matter, or the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, to name just three.

At the same time, there has been considerable backlash against companies for taking a stance on issues, best exemplified by the anti-woke movement, and the polarizing nature of current events among employees and other stakeholder groups. In light of these concerns, can companies be forgiven for concluding that it's safer to opt out and not participate at all?

LMC: I'm not surprised with some of the data and we heard about cynicism as a result of purpose washing — which is probably terminology that needs to be more in the ecosystem than it has been. And one of the reasons I think that's the case is people have wised up. It's something that everybody in the room knows — perhaps your own brand took a position [on a social issue]. Ask yourself what it cost your company to back that? Probably not very much. And I think people have wised up to that. One of the reasons why you're seeing this emphasis around personal, local, greater openness is people are kind of saying, "Well, so what? What's in it for me?" So I think we got ourselves into a slightly dangerous place over the last couple of years with heightened expectations around openness and speed of response.

There's an expectation that companies now have a foreign policy. When did that happen? So, is it safer or simpler to just step out? I don't think that companies really have an option in this climate and on the big ticket items.

SB: The two points that I will add are, one, the perspective of when you need to take a stance, and [two], what's happening in the external environment at that point. We know that in many companies, around social issues especially, employees have really loud voices. On the flip side where the economy is not doing well, and jobs aren't aligned, many of these same employees will toe the line because they need to be safe and secure. At that point, they're thinking about, "Can I speak up for something that my company may or may not have publicly voiced an opinion on?"

If by default, you're an American company, there's going to be an expectation that your policy or at least what you say externally is going to be in line with the US government.

So I guess oftentimes, where you might find you have a leeway is not whether you speak or don't, it's how long do you have until you need to formulate and have a point of view.

So I guess the answer ultimately to your question is, we have to be fully mindful that no matter what we say and state publicly as a company, the pieces of that puzzle may shift down the road. And I think that's what we have to be okay with and we have to have strategies from a crisis and reputation standpoint in place to mitigate those.

DH: To not say anything, technically is seen as you being complicit, right? A little more than probably a week ago, a guy called me and said, "Hey, I got a couple of hundred employees in Singapore, but I've got one that's on social media and on a daily basis is posting stuff about the Israel-Hamas conflict. How do I deal with this?" It's a very real situation. But you need to have a plan because you can let it sit for a while, but you need a plan for when it's time for you to say something because then the application is more than a single employee. 

Maybe it's not so much about having a solution, it's about being able to manage it well. Some of you deal with companies that are massive, you've got 5,000, 10,000 employees, you've got twenty-five stakeholders. You can't do that in 24 hours. You can't pop up a message in a week. You've got to start now. And I think that's an important point. 

Arun Sudhaman (AS)
: There are easier issues and more difficult issues. Black Lives Matter is a good example — in general, corporates all took the same stance. When it comes to more difficult issues, and I suspect we would put Gaza under that, do you think that enough corporates do have plan?

SP: It's important that you arrive at that based on a really deep understanding of the issues and the stakeholders and what's really going on. I would say usually, the first question you've got to ask is, what right do we have to express an opinion for this? Do we have a legitimate position and influence and impact? Or, are we wanting to say something because the expectation is that every company's going to come out and say something? That'd be the first thing in my mind.

The second thing I think, linked to all the findings in the report about employee relations equals corporate reputation — before you come out and take a position on a global issue or a social issue, I think you've got to be very sure that you've addressed it and got it right in your own backyard. Because where companies come undone, in whatever position they take, if you're a really sprawling global organization — chances are if someone who's negative and wants to look hard enough, they'll find an example in your own business or with your own stakeholders where you're contradicting it in your action, what you're saying on a very public issue.

I would just say you've got to kind of go through all those steps before deciding whether you tackle a really tough one or not. And to Lauren's point, what's it going to cost you? I'm not saying that should be the decision-making factor on whether you say anything, but I think you should understand that before you do.

Employee reputation = corporate reputation

"The word transparency is scary when you talk about this topic"

According to the Brands in Motion study, most employees feel that their companies are not talking enough about employee compensation and benefits. This poses significant challenges for corporates that may prefer a degree of reticence around such issues. Transparency in theory might sound appealing, but in practice it can create more problems than it was intended to solve. Even so, it seems clear that corporates are having to take considerations such as these far more seriously when it comes to employee engagement and advocacy. 

SB: I guess we are dumbing down employee advocacy to say that it's limited to fair compensation. When you talk about advocacy, that is really the next level where there has to be an alignment on more things than just salary. Things like values. If I'm someone that thrives in an environment that encourages creativity and ideas, does my company back me on that? It might be a really deep sense of the community and so they want to have more opportunities for CSR on behalf of the company. I think these are some of the levers around employee advocacy. 

Where things are a little bit of a struggle of late is around cost of living. Your job is one part of your life. Just using Singapore as an example, I don't think at the rate of inflation that our salaries are going to be able to catch up. So are there other ways in which companies can alleviate the pressures that I'm going through? For instance, an added discount or some percentage that can be paid towards kids education or childcare. Things that you can't 100% fix but could be added on top of someone's compensation, I think might be something worth considering.

DH: The word transparency is scary when you talk about this topic. The last 18 months as an agency...we struggle with one thing. We realize that the Gen Zs have a knack for sharing salaries among each other. How many of you have heard that before? That's a bit of a taboo thing, right?  I think clarity is important. We maybe start to evolve the people, the culture, with proper communication training, I think we need to be able to change the way we look at personal benefits. 

LMC: I may have a completely differing view here. I think the tech sector has certainly not done everything well, but one thing I think they have done remarkably well is pay their employees a fair wage and then some. For those in the room who don't know my career prior to Microsoft, I worked for Twitter, so I'll spare you the details of all that, how it ended. But they did something fairly radical in 2021, which was salary transparency. What that meant was everybody in the company all of a sudden had access to a virtual platform that said, "Here's your level, here's where you are in the range. Here's your longterm ratio, and here's your roadmap."

And the message that it sent to the employees was, "We have nothing to hide. We're more than open to discuss this with your colleagues, but why do you need to because they know everything you need to know. And I think it has this incredible clarifying effect in the company. The question that so often comes up when employees are sharing their strategies and money to negotiate, it comes from a position of not trusting. So I'm not proposing that every company does things the Twitter way because I'll be honest, that level of transparency is deeply uncomfortable and it also means you're sometimes sort of flying the plane while building the engine.

SP: I guess I'm contrarian to the contrarian, maybe, but how many people in this room would like to stand up right now and tell us what your salary is and tell everyone in the room? Anyone? I just think as much as you might like the principle of that, human nature is to look at the person next to you and look at the person over there, no matter what systems are in place and say, "Why is he getting more than me? Why is she getting less than him?" To a level in the company, like board of director remuneration, CEO remuneration, C-suite, that's a publicly relevant topic. But for a whole organization, I don't know.

Companies cannot opt out of AI

"It's slightly terrifying for jobs like mine"

Another key finding from the BiM study relates to the rise of artificial intelligence. Specifically, 64% of respondents said that the responsible use of technology — including AI and customer data — will become a more crucial factor in reputation over the next two to three years. 

LMC: No surprise there. What people are concerned about isn't necessarily to do with company strategy, but it's about safety. I think that's where that data point is coming from. And these are all expectations. Most companies are figuring this out in real time and there are not many that have been able to manage it. We're kind of all in this together. I think we live a little bit in the future which is quite an exciting thing. And it's not just because we live 16 hours ahead [of Pacific Time] but we do genuinely live in the future. We're constantly, as Simon said earlier, looking around corners, seeing a horizon line and thinking 10 steps ahead of our stakeholders whether it's clients or colleagues.

It's slightly terrifying for jobs like mine because, on the one hand, you have to unpack what AI means to the world and be able to explain that with evidence and lean into myriad concerns. At the same time, grappling with what is AI going to mean for the craft of communications at work. And we're currently doing those two things, not just as scientists but as community leaders. 

And what I really commend the Microsoft team for — rather than jumping in at the deep end, saying, "These are all the tools at our disposal, let's just run after everything and try them all," they did a bit of a pause where they said, "Let's do some soul-searching. Let's kind of recenter around our mission, ask ourselves, "Is this still true today? And if so, how do we pivot?" So my advice is, ask the tough questions and don't be shy to dive in and experiment once you've done that hard work of the soul-searching.

Regulation and the elusive nature of alignment

"If you wait for perfect alignment, you'll wait forever"

On a separate note, meanwhile, the issues raised by expectations of heightened transparency in highly-regulated sectors was also addressed, along with whether alignment between different stakeholder groups is a realistic, or even necessary goal. 

AS: We've talked about an expectation of greater transparency. But how does that work when you're operating in a highly regulated sector?

SB: I think it works just fine because what we saw during Covid was an extreme in transparency. And I'll give you some examples that many of us will remember. When Covid first hit, there was a lot of confusion around which vaccine to take, the efficacy, the protection. And the reason for that was because there was so much information that was being provided. So that was transparency or openness at an extreme. Not everyone is health literate, so you might share this information but you're leaving it up to people to interpret. So that's one example.

There will always be exceptions to the case, but I don't think that we need to start doing something super crazy. This is also why most companies, they are publishing a lot more data, because they feel like they want to inform and educate community groups. And this can be found in our annual reports, in updates that are sent to investors and things like that. I just wonder if we need to do any more than that and my answer to that would be not necessarily.

SP: Regulation is getting more confusing than ever. There's new frameworks, there's new regulation coming out of every market in every region, so it's really tough. I think it goes back to transparency and context. So when you need to be transparent because of regulations, it needs to be not just about the good things, but explaining the bad things as well, why you can reach certain targets, why you haven't adopted certain targets, what regulation is relevant and what isn't? 

AS: How difficult is it to get alignment within the company itself because you have people at the C-suite level who have their own views, and those views are extremely influential in terms of how a company is perceived and in terms of what that company's stance is on a particular issue. Then, of course, you have the employee base who aren't homogeneous, and who have many different views. And then you have various other stakeholder groups whether it's customers or regulators and so on. Is alignment even a realistic goal?

LMC: No. And quite frankly, we all work in private sector and I don't think based on the discussions we had today that that's practical at the moment. That's sort of the cost of doing business. I've seen this now in the past couple years from two very different vantage points, one where the employees wielded an enormous amount of power in helping determine the direction. And my current employer which runs a much tighter ship. So, no, I don't think it's necessary. 

SP: And I kind of have to agree with that. I think in some cases, if you wait for perfect alignment, you'll wait forever before you do something. I do think that the findings out of this report and one that we did earlier around sustainability are interesting, though. Quite often, you look at the C-suite who'll say, "Absolutely we're going to do that and absolutely, we'll get there." But when you get perspectives of employees, they're actually the biggest cynics or sceptics about their own company. So I think you don't necessarily have to have alignment, but you do have to understand if people are willing to come along on the journey with you.