You can improve organisational reputation – it all starts with a plan

By David Donaldson

Monday February 15, 2021

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Reputation can’t be left to the comms team, argues Michelle Bryne, head of strategic communications at the Victorian Essential Services Commission. Remember that every interaction with stakeholders impacts their view, and rethink those hundred-page reports.

Does having a good reputation matter for a regulator?

Michelle Bryne
Michelle Bryne

That’s the question Michelle Bryne set out to answer in 2017 with her new colleagues at the Essential Services Commission.

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The answer, they decided, is yes.

“When the you-know-what hits the fan, you are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt, and an opportunity to make good to apologise — and for your apology to be accepted without too much damage to your reputation,” Bryne told a recent ANZSOG National Regulators Community of Practice event.

A good reputation means regulated entities will be more likely to work with you without the need to resort to the law. It’s also key to your licence to operate.

“Regulators with a good reputation are rarely decommissioned”, Bryne notes.

There are a range of other potential benefits. A good reputation can:

  • Open doors
  • Build collaboration and cooperation
  • Promote constructive dialogue
  • Encourage alliances
  • Buy time in a crisis
  • Build belief in a shared vision
  • Unlock staff discretionary effort
  • Generate open communication
  • Underpin effective working relationships

Your reputation is influenced by several factors, most of which are within the organisation’s control.

“Things like how a constituent is treated when they walk in the door, or call on the phone, or contact you online. What is their direct experience of you?”

Direct communications and media coverage influence are important factors, as is the quality of your work and how people perceive it.

“The only one you have no direct control over is a person’s personal circumstances. Are they vulnerable? Are they in hardship? Are they unemployed? You can’t directly affect these — but you can be aware of them and adapt to make sure that your comms and engagement with them is effective and that their needs are taken on board.”

Increasing trust in local government

Tackling each of these factors can make a significant difference.

Using this framework, local authorities in the United Kingdom set out on a nation-wide reputation drive between 2005 and 2013.

Councils focused on “what we would think of as a really basic core communications, sending out newsletters to tell residents what their local council was doing for them,” says Bryne.

It also included advertising, a helpline, managing the media and branding, good internal communication so you can identify issues early, protecting the environment and “cleaning up grotty areas” — as well as branding council cleaning services, so people recognised them as being provided by council and gave them credit.

The result was that over the eight years, the number of residents who said they highly valued their local authority doubled, and trust in local government increased from 52% to 65%. This was particularly impressive when you consider that this boost occurred against a background of service cuts and increasing charges.

Everyone is involved

It’s vital to remember that reputation is not just about the comms team, Bryne argues — your reputation is built on every single interaction stakeholders have with your organisation, in turn affecting your ability to influence stakeholder and their likelihood of pushing back.

“Every time someone writes a letter or report or answers the phone, they have an opportunity to improve or damage your reputation with an individual or a group of stakeholders.”

This means you need a strategy for the whole organisation. The Essential Services Commission developed its plan with a model used by RepTrak, an American reputation data and insights company.

They starting with working out where the organisation was at and where it wanted to be — seen as trusted, impartial, connected and innovative. Bryne conducted a simple review of what she believed was and was not working, then got to work.

“Year one was about getting the basics right, establishing standards and the value of good communication that was planned, targeted, audience-focused and effective.”

She focused on a few key areas:

  • Quick wins to gain buy-in across the organisation
  • Evaluating channels for effectiveness and efficiency
  • Reviewing the organisation’s needs
  • Establishing a centralised communication team to ensure control over what was happening
  • Developing new standards for writing web content and media
  • Establishing a small set of performance metrics

Then the commission went about establishing gathering reliable data on how others saw them — “not just what we were hearing from our favourite stakeholders”. The results of the survey surprised some — whereas overall the commission was seen as an effective regulator making good decisions, on individual measures stakeholders saw them as only being average or below average. Notably, there was a large difference between divisions within the organisation.

Building skills

They worked hard to improve engagement. The agency developed a stakeholder engagement framework, put nearly 100 staff through engagement skills training, replaced a still relatively new website that was not meeting needs, and established a social media presence.

Bryne’s team wanted to ensure the entire organisation was engaged in taking responsibility for improvements, so every division had a communication and engagement plan embedded in their annual operational plan, which included reputation measures.

Training in plain English and writing for the web helped to build skills across the organisation, so the comms team could focus on its role as an adviser and manager of external comms channels.

One division really took on board the need to communicate clearly, and now receives the highest ratings from stakeholders of any division.

“The water part of the essential services commission used to put out hundred-plus page performance reports and decisions. Their average reports are now down to 20-30 pages, and they also make use of infographics, one-page infographics, and one or two page fact sheets,” she explains.

“They live and breathe the fact that they need to translate complex information into simple, accessible information, and it’s embedded in the team.”

A strong foundation

Making a plan and sticking to it is key to making sure intended changes aren’t swallowed up in the day-to-day, she says.

“We’re working on a themed media calendar to ensure our key messages don’t get drowned out by business-as-usual comms, which is often the case with busy comms team — they’re so busy churning out the messages that they have to get out there that the strategic messages get lost.”

The commission is now working on bedding down the changes of the past four years. More recent surveys have shown that the organisation’s overall reputation has improved, and that the gap between high and low performing teams has shrunk.

So yes, organisational reputation does matter, and it can be strengthened.

“Your reputation is a brick wall. It’s a defence. It’s protection against the elements and damaging winds,” says Bryne.

“It’s built one brick at a time, and it’s only as strong as the foundations that it’s built on and the mortar that holds the bricks together. Your communication and engagement channels are your foundation. Your content, your stories are the bricks, and your mortar is the culture that holds it all together.

“A word of warning: like any brick wall, it can be brought down by a wrecking ball if you’re not paying attention to its integrity.”

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