Those that run businesses are arguably in the spotlight more than ever due to consumer and shareholder power. This year alone has seen executives from Aviva, William Hill and Premier Foods suffer protests from shareholders about their pay, amplified by consumer comments on social networks.
So how can a PR function help to manage the chief executive’s reputation for both large and small businesses? McDonald’s is one company that is often criticised for the mass-produced, calorific food it sells, yet its recently retired chief executive Jim Skinner comes top of a league of global CEOs in terms of his online reputation.
The league, put together using MHP Communications Online Reputation Audit to analyse the chief executives of some of the world’s biggest brands and shown exclusively to Marketing Week, shows that Skinner scores 66.9 per cent overall.
Nick Hindle, vice president of communications for McDonald’s UK and northern Europe, says there is a “focus from the top” on building and maintaining company reputation.
Hindle works closely with the leaders at the fast-food chain to work on reputational issues. He says that the top team has an important role to play in communicating externally as it “increases pride within the company and has the affect of allowing people to puff out their chests, getting behind the company and its aims”.
He adds that online search has played a “critical role” in enabling McDonald’s to get its own point of view across, in the face of criticism.
In 2006, the business launched a website called ‘Make up your own mind’ to enable people to come and find out more about the business. Hindle says: “We are a polarising brand. We take the view that conversations are going on all over the place about McDonald’s so the aim of the website was to be more transparent and allow people to search and find the information for themselves.” The website has now evolved to become the less defensively titled ‘What makes McDonald’s’.
Yet the audit, which analyses Google search results, shows that many chief executives are leaving themselves and their companies open to attack, relying on old media coverage and lacklustre LinkedIn profiles to boost their own and their businesses’ reputations.
While Muhtar Kent, president and chief executive of the Coca-Cola Company scores 52.4 per cent, putting him in second position in reputation stakes, his score is not as high as it could be because Google links assessed by MHP are not very up to date. While Kent is liked in the media, scoring 81 per cent for positive sentiment, he only scores 56 per cent on the recency of the links found via the search engine.
Indeed, the rule that McDonald’s Hindle and his team abide by is that the business makes the effort to communicate a lot – which helps Skinner’s search results be more recent. “When you’re dealing with deep-seated issues, you need to communicate more, not less. We’ve accepted that we’ve had challenges and have talked to people on our journey and I think it is important to do that.”
But it’s not just positive media coverage that sees Skinner’s profile soar above the rest, it’s the long-term view that McDonald’s has taken on reputation, according to Mark Pack, head of digital at MHP communications, who has written books on social media and politics.
Pack says successful CEOs and companies must take a much “broader view” of corporate reputation and apply a reputation strategy across the business. He says: “There’s no point in putting effort into making sure that your own website is top of Google search if the fourth link down is a tabloid story about an indiscretion by the CEO.”
Social media is an area that many industry experts believe chief executives should be putting more effort into. The concept of the social CEO has been gaining traction but the Online Reputation Audit highlights that many top chief executives are shying away from the likes of Twitter and Facebook as tools to build their reputation.
In fact, only one chief executive has an active Twitter feed that showed up in the audit. O2’s Ronan Dunne has his own Twitter account and Nicola Green, director of communications and reputation at the mobile phone brand, says Dunne and the company recognise that social media is critical to company reputation (see Nicola Green’s view in the box below).
But Rob Brown, chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ social media panel and managing director of PR agency Staniforth, believes that although the likes of O2’s Dunne can positively affect their own and company reputation by being a social CEO, “not all chief executives need to be on Twitter or have a blog”.
Brown, who recently co-ordinated the publication of CIPR’s The Social Media Handbook for PR Professionals says: “They need to get the balance right. I don’t think it looks good if a CEO is tweeting 10 times a day.”
Jane Wilson, chief executive of the CIPR, adds: “You can’t generalise when it comes to the social CEO – it depends on the type of company, the aims of the business and the personality of the CEO.
“It’s easier to be a social CEO if they are aligned to their customers. There are entrepreneurs who have embodied the company – whether real or imagined – like Steve Jobs.”
Level playing field
But for smaller firms, social media has been crucial in building a reputation online. Christian Hartmann, co-founder of Love Da Popcorn, in which Peter Jones of BBC TV’s Dragons’ Den invested £70,000 of his own cash, says that he and his two co-founders Martin McLaughlin and Tom Callard find social media makes it “much easier for us to build a profile online because it gives us a level playing field”.
“We don’t have to spend lots of money like the bigger brands. It’s about producing great content that will get us noticed.”
He adds: It’s about being ourselves and that comes across on our Facebook page, Twitter and we’ve also been using YourVine, a brand advocacy site where we set people brand challenges.”
However, that doesn’t mean that being social CEOs hasn’t presented the founders with some challenges along the way. During the riots, Love Da Popcorn, which is stocked by Waitrose and cinemas tweeted a badly timed joked using the hashtag ‘riots’. The tweet read: ‘Guys, there’s enough popcorn for everyone, you don’t need to go looting’.
A blog by social media consultant Andrew Burnett criticised this approach and said the founders “have shown just how utterly shit they are at social media”.
Nowhere to hide
Hartmann says that although they weren’t trying to get free publicity, “harsh lessons were learnt”. And despite the fact that the riots were last year, Burnett’s blog is the current second link on searching for the brand on Google. “Social media is challenging. You have to be really careful because if you make a mistake it doesn’t go away, it’s there for all to see,” says Hartmann. But, he says, as the brand grows bigger and people get to know the personalities behind it, he believes that more people will “get what they stand for”.
Peter Briffett, LivingSocial’s managing director for UK and Ireland, adds that “social is rapidly becoming the standard for brands, regardless of industry, but for the daily deals site it is “at the heart of its DNA”.
Whether a chief executive and the company embrace social media or are social media-phobic, MHP’s Pack says that company reputation goes beyond the responsibility of the chief executive and the PR team.
He says: “If there’s an issue about the prominence of a company website then IT needs to get involved. If there’s a product issue then that’s something for the product team. The entire company has to get on board.” And if they don’t, Google’s search could just go against you.
Top tips for managing corporate reputation
Pay attention to the many drivers of corporate reputation: Focus on demonstrable factors such as financial performance, the quality of products and services and commitment and follow through on corporate social responsibility
Lead from the front, creating a positive perception every day through a combination of a strong leadership and a compelling vision; communicating with a positive emotional appeal
Get to know your stakeholders in the good times so that they are ready to support you in a crisis.
Put your chief executive front and centre. Executive profiling can help put a face to a well-known product or service. In times of crisis it helps if your spokesperson is already known and trusted.
Use your CEO to communicate with stakeholders on a human level. The public needs to look into the eyes of those in charge to believe and be reassured, particularly when a corporate reputation is threatened. Constant news demands content and modern news has become a visual medium. Build trust in your leadership by letting them be seen.
The chief executives with the best managed reputations
1. Jim Skinner, recently retired chief executive, McDonald’s
Score: 66.9 per cent
Analysis: The high score is down to several positive business articles about Skinner’s retirement and how he has led the “turnaround” of the company. MHP analysts say that positive sentiment towards the retired CEO shows that he and the company have never been afraid to tackle controversial issues head on and communicate the McDonald’s point of view.
2. Muhtar Kent, president and chief executive, the Coca-Cola Company
Score: 52.4 per cent
Positive articles in quality business titles such as Forbes and the Financial Times help to contribute towards Kent’s good reputation online. But, like many chief executives analysed, much of the coverage isn’t very recent and he could do more interviews or speaker engagements to boost his profile further.
3. Guy Laurence, UK chief executive, Vodafone
Score: 45.3 per cent
Good quality corporate information sees Laurence gain a higher positive than Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive (scoring 23.2 per cent) and Google’s chief executive Larry Page (scoring 19.5 per cent). MHP analysts say this is because the company owns much of the content that people see when they search for Guy Laurence on Google.
Source: MHP’s Online Reputation Audit, analysing the top 10 global and top 10 UK companies, according to Millward Brown’s 2012 BrandZ list.
O2’s director of communications and reputation on…
…chief executive Ronan Dunne and Twitter
Ronan is very good on Twitter and fits it around what he’s doing during the day. It allows him to have a dialogue with customers. It’s the 21st century equivalent of walking the shopping floor.
When we first set him up, Ronan met with the top 20 influencers [in the mobile world?] for a drink at the pub to ask what they wanted from a chief executive.
…her social media responsibilities
I have a governing role on social media. Social media can go wrong and when it does then it can have a really damaging affect on company reputation. But I don’t believe that I should be controlling it.
…how social media was used to communicate during O2’s network outage earlier this year
We never would have been able to communicate in the way that we did if we weren’t already well established on social media. We were able to respond in a funny way because we had established that sort of tone of voice before the network outage so we could be authentic in how we responded and not be corporate in the way we communicated about the issue.
…how O2 deals with customers who tweet
Of course we do get customers who are not happy with us on Twitter. We are monitoring Twitter all the time so if a customer gets in touch with Ronan with a problem then we can step in and help.
For us, Twitter is also a customer service tool and we have a dedicated team to look after that side of things. It’s better to be on social media so you can be part of the conversation rather than not at all.
…O2’s best response to an angry tweet
Before the network outage we had someone tweet that they hated O2 and they wanted to leave. One of the team could see that the person who tweeted this had written some funny tweets beforehand and had a sense of humour, so took it upon themselves to send them a love poem asking them not to leave us. It was very funny and as poetic as you can get on Twitter!