Companies vs. Individuals

In an article in Forbes last week, Tom Popomaronis discussed the reasons why Rolex, Lego and Hallmark are mainstays on the list of America’s most reputable companies. And rightly, he mentioned the way that brands are “doubling down on reputation monitoring and management as an essential component of their growth strategy,” citing the many factors that make—or break—their success.

On a day-to-day basis, managing the reputation of an individual is very different from managing the reputation of a company. That’s no secret. But in broader terms, there are themes that unite the two—especially integrity, transparency and social awareness. In some cases, the image of the business and the image of the individuals who run it are directly linked: Mark Zuckerberg is so closely associated with Facebook that his image goes a long way in defining the image of his company. Part of Tim Cook’s job since taking over from founder Steve Jobs has been to subtly—but clearly—redefine Apple in his own likeness.

Just as openness and honesty are praised at large companies—Whole Foods made headlines when it pledged to provide GMO (genetically modified organism) transparency—individuals in the public eye, from business leaders to politicians to charity heads, are expected to be candid, and respected for being candid. This is one of the reasons why social media is a vital tool for individuals looking to raise their profile: Platforms like Twitter and Instagram give the public, and therefore the customer, the chance to look behind the scenes. It allows them to see who that person is when they’re out of the office.

Related to this is the way that businesses and individuals respond to crises. I’ve written before about how to survive a crisis. The main thing is to be fast, to be polite and to be direct. With the greater feeling of intimacy between CEO and the public, between business and customer that technology has created, anything that even seems slightly misleading will have repercussions. Businesses or individuals are only as open and honest as they are when the chips and down. You can Tweet what you had for breakfast every day of the week, but if you shut up shop when disaster strikes, your target audience won’t let it slide.

This is where integrity becomes relevant. The business acumen, ambition and work ethic of Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick, for example, ultimately didn’t compensate, in the eyes of the public, for his other reported qualities, such as aggression, machismo and greed. At the company level, Walmart, one of the world’s largest and most successful companies, has been accused of exploiting its workers and providing inadequate healthcare. Some people have even boycotted the business. What this shows is that in the modern day, for both companies and individuals, a strong set of moral principles, and a willingness to uphold them, is expected.

Finally, we have social conscience. Only a few weeks ago, Larry Fink of BlackRock wrote a letter to CEOs urging them to consider the way they can benefit “all their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and the communities in which they operate.” Social entrepreneurship is on the rise, and companies large and small are expected to give back to the public. On the individual level, the days of hiding in an office are long gone. Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Alan Joyce of Qantas are just two high-profile business leaders who have become social critics. But even those not in charge of giant organizations are expected to voice their support for social causes. This is another reason why social media has become such a fundamental part of good reputation management.

When you look at these three qualities today, it’s clear that they all relate to one another. These are universal qualities that we all respect. When a company or an individual embodies them, we trust that company or that individual.

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