Time to explain yourself again

Bowen Craggs will be publishing a new Explain Yourself Index in the New Year. David Bowen says it will mirror a shift in high profile companies’ approach to reputation management.

Here are alternative approaches to company information on websites. Facebook, which has put up a 10-minute film explaining how it is trying to get to grips with fake news, with employees pondering questions such as ‘what is truth’. Or General Electric, which has recently deleted its About Us and Sustainability sections.

Which one is the future? Well, look at the share prices and read the papers. GE always found it difficult to explain itself, because it is so complicated; now it seems to have given up trying. Facebook is doing more and more to face up to criticism, increasingly using its website and (of course) its social media channels.

Amazon, now a trillion dollar company, is also using the web to explain itself. It didn’t used to at all. There was no ‘About’ section to speak of, and it let its share price do the talking. But, as Ashley Brown, its head of digital comms, told us, ‘these days you need a corporate website to have a social licence to operate: you can’t be a successful company and not talk about the environment and things’. Its ‘About Amazon’ site and ‘Day One’ blogs are busy busy places.

Twenty years ago ExxonMobil defied a growing consensus with vigorous scepticism about climate change, and reportedly did its best to undermine the Kyoto protocol. Now, the corporate home page is headed by a banner saying ‘ExxonMobil joins the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative’. The site is packed with features on its initiatives and views, all saying ‘we are now on the side of the angels’.

Moves by some of the world’s most high-profile companies to explain themselves and come across as the good guys are really significant to communications managers, and so to the channels they use. For several reasons:

Companies are increasingly realizing that they cannot simply sit back and say ‘watch our share price’, which is what they tended to do in the past. Their behaviour, and the reputation that follows it, will sooner or later lead through to sales, and so to the share price.

It is of course significant that the companies that are under most attack are also those that are getting most firmly to grips with this message. In Europe, where corporate websites are more developed, much-criticised Nestlé has its well-established Ask Nestlé section to tackle issues as they come up. But it is not just hate magnets that think like this. Unilever puts huge emphasis on its sustainability messaging because it is convinced that good reputation feeds through to good sales.

In the US, there is a particular need to communicate with politicians. For example Amazon used its blog to accuse Senator Bernie Sanders of making ‘inaccurate and misleading accusations’, though it also responded more substantively by raising its minimum wage. Sanders used his Twitter feed to praise and then query this move. So much of this happened online: a sign of the times.

Handling these messages is the job of corporate comms folk, rather than marketing; and when it is online (as it always is), the digital team will be in charge. They are no longer pushing out marginal ‘aren’t we nice’ messages that do nothing for the bottom line; they are pushing out critical ‘this is what we’re doing’ messages that could make a huge difference in the medium or long term. We have previously suggested that corporate communications could be renamed ‘enterprise level marketing’ (or in non-US terminology ‘group level marketing’). Now surely is the time to push that idea, and get it into the heads of the folk on the top floor.

What of poor old General Electric? Well, we have a concept call ‘web phrenology’. Phrenology was a pseudo-science that claimed you could tell people’s characters by examining the shape of their heads. Web phrenology is much more credible – you really can tell a lot about a company by looking at its website. GE’s website is appallingly incoherent and, as we have said, lacking a basic sense of identity. The company, I fear, may be similar.

I have used the word ‘explain’ a lot, because this column is by way of an introduction to our second Explain Yourself Index.

This Explain Yourself Index (to be published in January 2019) will have an expanded methodology, and will focus on the US - though it will also include non-US companies that are well-known in the States. The aim is to find the companies that explain themselves in four ways: first, defending their reputation; second, saying what they do; third, judging how well they report their ESG (or CSR) data; and finally, how well they explain their political contributions and involvement. The last two are new for this year.

Explain Yourself is a sibling of our flagship Index of Online Excellence, which remains global, and will go out in May 2019.

You could say that the current moves by Facebook and the like are kickstarting ‘Reputation 2.0’. Reputation 1.0 was carried out largely offline, with discreet consultants briefing chairmen on how to talk to the press. Reputation 2.0 is out in the open. Companies need to talk directly to customers, potential employees and the general public. ‘Are we explaining ourselves properly?’ should be a question for every boardroom and C-suite. From that, the step to ‘Are we explaining ourselves properly online?’ is a short and natural one.

The next Explain Yourself Index will be published in January 2019. See this page for the previous one. The next global Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence will be out in May 2019.

First published 10 October, 2018
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