Authentic Corporate Reputations: The Real PR Challenge

by cv harquail on May 27, 2011

To craft a corporate reputation that seems authentic, claims about the organization’s character must be anchored in real features of the organization.

It’s the organization’s job to demonstrate a link between reputation claims and real features, and it’s the PR professional’s job to explain a link between claims and real features.

(This post is drawn from recent conversation with students in the class, “Introduction to PR Strategies & Tactics”, part of the Integrated Marketing Communications Program at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.)

Any PR professional knows that his or her #1 job is to craft a strong, positive reputation for the organization. A strong, positive reputation creates value for all stakeholders, including the organization, its partners, clients, investors, employees, and customers.

The challenge for Public Relations professionals seems to be all about coordinating the efforts of different influencers — all the stakeholders that make claims about an organization.

The corporate entity and its divisions, individual members, product related marketing activities, and the chatter of the larger interested community (formerly known as ‘audiences’) all have something to say about “who” the organization is. It often seems that the focus for a PR professional is to coordinate and organize all these messages from all these influencers so that the sum total conveys the desired image of the organization.

The Real Challenge of the Public Relations Professional

The real challenge of a PR professional is something different. The real challenge is literally to explain how the reputation is real.

Why? Any organization’s stakeholders all know that the PR department is out there intentionally trying to make the organization look good. Stakeholders know that the PR professional’s job is to promote desirable images of an organization. And, they know that these desirable images are not necessary real.

Thus, the more important job of a PR professional is helping to craft an organizational reputation that is real — a reputation that is coherent, coordinated, and positive, yes, and also — a reputation that directly reflects who the organization really is.

Authentic reputations come from actual organizational features.


For anyone to believe that an organization’s reputation is authentic, stakeholders need to understand how each claim about the organization is the consequence or outcome of the organization’s central and enduring features.

Stakeholders need to believe that claims about the organization come not from the mind of some clever spinmeister (aka you, the PR professional), but instead from the organization itself.

So, the PR professional’s effort should focus on explaining how the organization’s reputation is anchored in the organization’s features.

Cause-effect explanations anchor reputation claims in ‘reality’

To anchor a reputation claim, the PR professional need to explain and share a cause & effect relationship between the claim and its organizational source.

Reputation claims can be anchored in features like:

  1. the organization’s culture & history,
  2. and the behavior & comportment of key organizational members (e.g., CEOs , brandividuals),
  3. the organization’s capabilities,
  4. the organization’s practices,
  5. the performance and quality of the organization’s product, and most importantly
  6. the organization’s actions and interactions with stockholders.

For example:

  • Claims to be an “honest” organization can be anchored in organizational practices of disclosure and transparency.
  • Claims to “put the customer first” can be anchored in policies about product returns and refunds ‘no questions asked’.
  • Claims to be “minimalist, functional, and modern” can be anchored in the CEOs uniform of black turtlenecks and jeans.

Cause – Effect explanations should address questions like:

  • Where does this characteristic come from?
  • Why did this action happen?
  • (Where) Have we seen this feature before?
  • Why can we expect to see this characteristic over and over?

PR professionals should explain how each of these questions is answered by something central, meaningful, and enduring about the organization itself.

When a reputation can be traced back to the organization’s actual features, stakeholders have a reason to believe that the reputation is real.

{ 1 comment }

Linda Locke May 31, 2011 at 8:04 am

IMHO you don’t actually “craft” a reputation – you can only understand and try to influence it. What we craft are reputation platforms that translate business decisions into authentic messages. That being said, this is a great post to help comms people understand authenticity and how to unearth the policies and practices that translate into reputation. Nice and very helpful post.

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