Actions, Not Words, Build Reputation

At the Trust and Reputation conference in London on Thursday, the focus was very much on action-led communication. To establish a reputation, you have to do stuff, not just talk about it.

In her opening remarks, conference chair (and chairman of Populus) Rita Clifton called reputation “reality with a time lag”. Communication is important, but action has to come first.

This was borne out by the experience of the speakers.

Nick Hindle, SVP UK Corporate Affairs at McDonald’s summarized the problem McDonald’s had in the wake of McJobs, McLibel and Supersize Me: “We took our eyes off the fries”. McDonald’s had seen sales dip directly in proportion to a dip in consumer trust, and knew it had to take action. The brand focused first on improving its product. It started by making changes in the food – things like sourcing meat locally, insisting on higher welfare standards from farmers, using only organic milk. Next came the big ideas: reimaging restaurants; recycling restaurant cooking oil to make biofuel for McDonald’s vehicles; offering nutrition information; offering free WiFi (McDonalds was one of the first places to do this).

Only then came communications, telling the story of change. Bold campaigns (such as the recruitment drive “Not bad for a McJob”) showed that this was a brand with renewed confidence. Consumer trust increased; and sales increased in direct proportion.

We also heard from Nationwide’s chief executive Graham Beale. Nationwide is a fascinating example of how a company can maintain its trust and reputation and remain stable, even in the face of a global banking crisis. This year, Nationwide has been shortlisted to be the most responsible business in the UK – extraordinary for a financial services company in this market.

How do you do this? Beale talked about the importance of doing the right thing by customers, of ‘never knowingly misleading’, and of putting employees at the centre of communications. They are, after all, the first point of contact for customers. They have to live and breathe your values. And they have to be proud of where they work.

Nationwide has, according to Beale, high rates of engagement and belief from employees. 95% of its team believe Nationwide makes a positive difference to customers (Nationwide campaigns on industry-wide issues such as reforming credit card charges); and 96% understand and believe in the company’s business strategy.

How did they do this? Beale listed 7 points at the heart of the business:

  1. Be true to your heritage (Nationwide is still proud to be a building society)
  2. Clear vision
  3. Strategy with a human touch
  4. Customer centric
  5. Win hearts and minds of employees
  6. Leadership of both thought and action
  7. Embed citizenship.

The overall message from the conference was clear: it is actions communicated, not communications alone, that will change reputation and build trust.

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