Our Views

Corporate reputation matters each time, every time, not just during tough times!

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With the changing business landscape, a company’s reputation has begun to matter more now than it has in decades.

Reputation is an indirect result of anything and everything that we do. It is the sum of all our actions, that is reflected in the way our stakeholders treat us or interact with us.

Hence, regardless of the situation, companies need to step up their reputation management efforts by trying to better the customer experience journey.

Now more than ever, it will be our action at all touchpoints, that will result in our brand reputation.

Real-time relay of user experiences a challenge

We live in a world where people have an insatiable urge to share everything on social media - what they experience and as they experience it, in real-time. The downside is, this reality has created some major challenges for corporates and their crisis management strategy.

Social media, the real-time news cycle and mobile technology have come together and transformed the landscape for crisis management.

They have presented companies with some major challenges, such as the heightened speed with which they need to respond and communicate with the outside world.

In today's age, everything is public, and this real-time cycle makes it difficult for brands to get ahead of the story before the story is already ahead of them.

Managing real-time and actual crisis

Like it or not, these are today's realities. Therefore, any successful reputation management efforts depend on the company’s ability to manage the real-time challenges that this digital age presents, while simultaneously managing the actual physical crisis in real time.

In such a situation, the sustained energies put into creating a positive perception for the brand through proactive storytelling - about its CSR initiatives, the gaps its products and services and filling and the lives it is transforming in the process - can be a real differentiating factor.

As a result of the brand initiatives taken to build trust and credibility at every single touchpoint, when crisis strikes, a positive reputation built through sustained efforts acts as a cushion that protects the company to sail through difficult times.

Communication - when, how and where is the key

Hence, to ensure that both digital and physical efforts work in tandem to produce desirable results, the organisation’s response force needs to know when to communicate, how to communicate and where to communicate during a crisis. And this ability to communicate effectively is developed and honed only if the brand adopts a proactive strategy every single day to instill trust in its various stakeholders.

When things go awry, this reputation built and nurtured over a period of time allows the company not only a little extra time to respond, but also their stakeholders are also more receptive towards their communication and eventually more forgiving towards errors, if any.

Even as reputation management takes centre stage as a key business issue in most organisations, it’s important that they adopt a focused approach to optimally use the tools at their disposal to build credentials that drive financial and societal returns.

Are we Exploiting the Weakest link?

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Recently, while coaching a senior professional on emotions management she talked about how guilty she feels when she beats her son up.

She said, “Mitu, by the time I reach home, I am very exhausted. That’s when he starts demanding my attention and annoys me so badly that I end up beating him.”

During the course of our interaction, I asked her, “How about your boss? Does he annoy you too at times.” “Obviously”, she replied.

“Hmmm…., and your husband, parents or in-laws, do they make perfect sense always or do they annoy you too? I further asked.

“There are instances when I just can’t stand some conversations with them but I simply ignore them”, was her response.

Pat came my next question, “When you can manage your emotions with your boss, husband, parents, in-laws and others, then why not with your son? Is it simply, because he is the weakest link in your life and its easy to vent out your frustration on him?”

Another instance happened almost around the same time when I was talking to a lady (the wife of a politician friend). She had filed for divorce. I was talking to her and she said that he beats her regularly. I found it hard to believe her, as he is someone I thought was a genuine person. Surviving in the political world is not easy and he not only survived it but was doing well too. He had seen many ups and downs in life, which he managed judiciously and was well respected in personal and professional circle. So I wondered why would a normally rational and mature person beat his wife, who was also quite a nice person. The same issue seemed to be cropping up again- abusing the weakest link. He used to be so tired struggling with the outside world that at home he had no patience to deal with his wife’s expectations.

That set me thinking… are we all falling in a trap? We put up a brave face in front of those who we think will not accept our weaknesses while those who accept us unconditionally, we exploit that relationship. Is that the show of our strength, resilience and bravery or a painful side effect of our pent up emotions?

Anger Management is one of the major leadership coaching areas that I cover. Some leaders say, we get angry on our teammates but then we also apologise, take the teammates out for coffee and so on. Granted, you do that. However, the apology or cover up act only work as an M-seal on the crack. The crack gets covered but it still remains. Similarly, scars of your anger remain on people who were hurt. And mostly such people are those who are the most powerless in our stakeholder chain. Is it fair?

Many people discuss anger management as an issue. I have a simple question to ask them– If anger is the issue then why does it not come out in front of all stakeholders? Why are only a select few subjected to it?

Introspection will reveal that it is actually not anger but an attitude issue. Think about it.

Tata - Mistry Saga

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A case of strategic communication moving towards crisis communication

It takes years to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it. No better thought applies more aptly to the ongoing Tata Group and Mr. Cyrus Mistry saga.

The brand Tata stands for “TRUST”. Having lived in Tatanagar I know that to a great extent the brand Tata is synonymous with trust for many. Yet, one episode of public spat and unstructured communication, has created a dent in the brand’s reputation.

Actually this is not the only episode. The earlier incident of Niira Radia case had also raised questions about the “ethics & values” that the group always projects. However, people’s memory being short, they moved on and eventually the brand regained trust. There were two key learnings from the Niira Radia episode: First, unstructured communication impacts reputation and second people forget and move on.

Looks like in the Tata Group Vs Mr. Mistry case the group remembered the second learning better ie people forget and move on. Hence even in this case despite making a critical announcement from its end, the group paid limited attention to structured communication and now appears to have inadequate control on the narrative.

No one will ever know what transpired between Mr. Tata and Mr. Mistry. But surely the involved parties were well aware that it is not a small announcement. Though the announcement was made strategically after market hours, yet we witnessed fireworks a week before Diwali.

Such an announcement was bound to cause speculations.
It was bound to cause accusations.
It was bound to cause heart burn and disappointment

Knowing these well, it is unbelievable that a brand like Tatas did not think of the repercussions of unstructured communication. This has resulted in complete loss of control on narrative from their end.

Typically, any good communication plan has three key elements: Frequency, Clarity and Engagement. Surprisingly, this incident missed all three.

Apart from the first communication, which itself was cryptic, there has not been any communication, which is a thoughtful response to the developments. For most part it is either a reaction or a set of vague statements where the “whys” are completely missing. On the contrary, for an episode like this, a regular communication from the brand could have put a lot of speculations and accusations to rest. Even if communication would have been in the form of simple updates, instead of detailed insights (which we understand cannot be divulged at this stage) that would have been reassuring to the multiple affected stakeholders.

Looking at the second element i.e. clarity. I understand the incident is too recent and only limited clarity can be presented at this stage. However, various aspects from the changing stances of involved parties, the lack of confidence projected, to the alleged compromise of ethics to sheer underperformance adds to the complexity of this whole incident. Couple that with the nebulous response to Mr. Mistry’s leaked email or allegations leaves the stakeholders completely perplexed.

Finally, a lot is at stake but limited visible effort on engaging with stakeholders is adding fuel to the fire in this situation. I am certain that the group must be already reaching out to key stakeholders like regulators, ministries, board etc. but the larger set of stakeholders is experiencing complete disconnect. Especially in this digital age where information travels in seconds, limited stakeholder engagement is a big miss.

This was too important an episode to take a chance and come across so unprepared. Somewhere it borders on the lines of being arrogant; like this is what it is – take it or leave it. Though it is just the start and the whole chapter is yet to unfold, still I believe the reputation of the brand Tata did get marred by its unstructured approach to communication.

Tata is not simply a conglomerate. Each one of us is associated with the brand in some way or the other. Many of us share an emotional bond too. Come to think of it the word “TRUST” itself is one of its strongest emotional values. With its seemingly unplanned communication approach, Tata group not only dented its credibility but also emotional ties. This is why, what should have been a case of strategic communication is now moving towards being a case of crisis communication.

The Tata brand fan that I am, still makes me believe that they will get their act together around responsible communications strategy and once again control the narrative – imperative to protect its brand reputation.

Maggie Crisis - Goes beyond numbers

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Sales may climb back but reputation will remain scarred

It takes years to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it. No better thought applies more aptly to the ongoing Tata Group and Mr. Cyrus Mistry saga.

The brand Tata stands for “TRUST”. Having lived in Tatanagar I know that to a great extent the brand Tata is synonymous with trust for many. Yet, one episode of public spat and unstructured communication, has created a dent in the brand’s reputation.

Rs 320 crore loss or 10,000 trucks required destroying 27,000 tonnes of noodles – these are staggering figures people are talking about but is Maggi crisis simply a business loss to Nestle? The answer is clearly NO.

What comes to our mind when we think of Maggi? – “Two Minutes” Right? In others words a quick snack to satiate our hunger pangs. However, Nestle’s response to the recent Maggi crisis has been far from quick, resulting into an ‘Epic PR disaster’ impacting their long-term reputation.

As reputation management professionals, we have a lot of lessons to learn from what may eventually become one of the most popular cases of crisis communications. Here are Meri Maggi Lessons –

Never underestimate a challenge, however small – During the course of our career come many situations, which could become benign once handled appropriately. However, if the same situation is left unattended, it has the potential to become a crisis, as big as the one Nestle is facing currently.  On hindsight, it appears that Nestle did not realize that one test result in Uttar Pradesh would snowball into a series of events finally resulting in the ban of a product, which ruled the segment for over thirty years.

Issue a holding statement – It is important for the stakeholders to know and know asap that the company cares and acknowledges the fact that there exists an issue. It just makes the company more humane and enhances people’s level of tolerance for it. A simple statement acknowledging the situation with a brief mention that the company is looking into the details would suffice. This has to come out within the first or the second day. Any further delay reduces its impact substantially. Staying silent is a big No No.

A good example of this is the response of ICICI Bank when Cobra post crisis hit about two years ago.

Have a crisis communication plan in place – When crisis hits, it is important for communication experts to handle the crisis instead of running from one decision maker to another, internally, for approvals. A robust crisis communication plan keeps the engine well oiled for it to start moving as soon as the start button is pressed. Nestle seemed to be caught napping here. Even the decision to roll back the product came more as a compulsion than willingness to stop consumers from consuming something that is believed to be hazardous.

Engage with stakeholders – Maggi held its first press conference over a month after the first outbreak. Too late to convince or even communicate to any stakeholder group. By then opinions are formed, statements are made and the reputational damage is done.

Also, when asked by a reporter what took them so long to even come open in public, the spokesperson responded that they were “engaging with authorities”. Certainly that’s important but stakeholder engagement need not be sequential.

Another aspect is influencer and media engagement to at least get a balanced perspective out, if not all positive.

Train the spokesperson to deal with local media – Media in each country behaves differently. Indian media is one of the most aggressive media globally. But the Nestle spokespeople did not seem to be aware of this nuance and their whole conduct in the press conference left a very tentative feeling even amongst the general audience.

Leverage brand strength – As communicators we should understand our brand strength and leverage that. For instance in case of Maggi the brand strength is the loyalty across age groups, yet instead of leveraging that, Nestle seemed to be complacent about it. Roll back came as an afterthought, or communication with public appeared as a necessary evil. A simple decision to roll back the product well in advance could have created an impression that the company cares.

Most of us have grown up eating Maggi. We are all aware from the beginning that it is not a healthy snack, yet each one of us have enjoyed it and has some memories associated with the product – be it a  “masti time meal” during college days or a friend we depend on to sail us through a lonely night or our travel partner – all of us have a story of Meri Maggi.

Hence unlike other similar crises such as Cadbury Dairy Milk or Pepsi, this crisis has gone beyond business and has touched emotional chords. Couple that with the complacent or slow approach of Nestle, the reputation risk has multiplied.

We do not know what has triggered this crisis – Is it actually a bad product or is it politically motivated or competition planted. Of course I wonder, why suddenly authorities thought of carrying out the tests for a product, which has been ruling the segment for last three decades. Whatever the trigger may be, Nestle needs to quickly launch a 360 degree campaign and tell a compelling story.
Depending on people’s short memory it could revive sales in the next 6-8 months, but the reputational scar will never heal.