HETRICK: You say you want a reputation? Don’t do it this way

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In my undergraduate public relations class at IUPUI, I’m introducing the concept of reputation management.

Indianapolis-based Walker Information defines this notion as, “The reflection of an organization over time as seen through the eyes of its stakeholders and expressed through their thoughts, words and actions.”

This isn’t a new idea. In the first century B.C, Roman writer Publilius Syrius said, “A good reputation is more valuable than money.”

What’s new is that we can now measure the dollar value of a good reputation. Walker found that people who think well of an organization are more likely to:

• Purchase its products or services,

• Purchase more of its products or services,

• Recommend its products or services,

• Invest in the organization,

• Recommend an investment in the organization,

• Doubt negative information about the organization.

There are human resources benefits, too. Employees in firms with strong reputations are more likely to:

• Continue working for the company,

• Help the company be successful,

• Feel highly motivated to do work well.

Over the years, as I’ve taught reputation management to various audiences, I’ve emphasized that every interaction—from policy decisions to parking transactions, from voice-mail loops to Facebook posts—can either strengthen relationships by adding value or weaken relationships by reducing value.

If you don’t believe me, ask the folks who run Obamacare.

Which brings us to the reputation of entities near and dear to our hearts: the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis, whose reputations rise and fall like other organizations, with every interaction adding or reducing value.

The difference: More than ever, that value is what we need to compete for jobs, higher incomes and skilled workers.

Walker says, “A company’s reputation comes from its activities—large or small, planned or unplanned, controlled or not—that touch different stakeholder groups. …Public actions and private dealings alike shape your reputation whether you want them to or not.”

Let’s say, for example, our city wants to host a Super Bowl in 2018. A big stakeholder concern is winter weather. The polar vortex and 30-plus inches of snow is a reputational blow we can’t control.

But knowing the National Football League is watching (not to mention local citizens), we could bolster our reputation by clearing the stuff off the streets and sidewalks quickly and efficiently, rather than botching the job, suffering a traditional- and social-media onslaught, and having to play public-relations defense.

Let’s say we want to attract new companies and grow the ones we have. Having talked with business leaders and site-selection consultants, we know they’re concerned about employee health and safety, and the associated cost of health insurance.

In a state that’s among the most obese in the nation, a state where 25 percent of the population still smokes and one with a capital city with a murder rate that’s higher than New York and other major cities, would you bolster your reputation by axing tobacco-prevention funding, underfunding nutrition programs, struggling to put more cops on the streets, and proposing legislation that would add more guns in more workplaces, including schools and universities?

And let’s say prospective employers want to compare apples to apples with other states when it comes to worker qualifications. Would you bolster your reputation by refusing to participate in national education standards and insisting on your own—which, of course, can’t be compared to others’?

And let’s say you want to build your state’s reputation in health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, state-of-the-arts logistics and higher education.

To pull that off, you need to stem the brain drain and discourage your educated young folks from running off to New York, California, London or Hong Kong.

What’s more, your major employers need to attract bright, so-called “knowledge workers” and “creative-class” professionals from throughout the nation and world.

Having seen research showing that these types of folks value such notions as inclusiveness, cultural diversity, marriage equality, animal welfare, mass transit, the environment and transparency in all things, would you bolster your reputation by ramming through civil-rights-denying language in your state’s rights-granting Constitution, allowing some of the nation’s filthiest air, criminalizing whistle-blowing at factory farms, or blocking even a vote on self-imposed, mass-transit funding?

And would you try to enhance government’s already-tarnished reputation by doing much of the above via legislative gamesmanship, sneaky procedural moves and middle-of-the-night, closed-door shenanigans?

Our elected officials keep telling us they’re all about jobs and education. That’s what they’d like their and Indiana’s reputation to be. But so many interactions keep telling us that’s a ruse.

The risks are obvious. As Shakespeare said in Othello: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”•


Hetrick is a writer, public relations consultant and visiting professor of public relations for the IU School of Journalism at IUPUI. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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