Managing the word on the (Brussels) street

What does it take to weather a reputation storm in Europe’s capital? FH Brussels mulls it over at European Public Affairs Action Day.

Reputation. Built over time; destroyed in an instant. Coveted but capricious, it can seem uncontrollably fragile when disaster hits. But it is possible to keep reputation safe and sound in the face of adversity – if you nurture a reputation nest egg when the going’s good.  We invited two industry professionals with reputation success stories to tell to join our panel at this year’s European Public Affairs Action Day, a yearly get-together for public affairs types in the know in Brussels.

It’s a tricky thing, the reputation conundrum. As Françoise Humbert, Communications Director at the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), pointed out: we all know when reputation is bad – and the impact this can have. It’s fairly easy, nowadays, to cite examples of companies – even whole sectors – that have fallen unceremoniously from grace, seemingly from one day to the next. At the same time, we all know how crucial a good reputation is for getting your voice heard among Brussels policy-makers. The missing link for many people out there is: what’s the secret to having a good reputation, not just today – but forever?

Our panel – entitled ‘harnessing reputation to succeed in Brussels’ – explored precisely this issue, to the obvious interest and enthusiasm of our audience. Anita Kelly, FH Brussels Associate Director, kicked-off by explaining what makes reputation management so difficult. Reputation, a blurry mix of fact, emotion and gut feeling, is a hungry animal in relentless need of nourishment: to stay strong, it needs constant work – in the good times and the bad. Here are Anita’s four building blocks to building a good reputation:

  1. Determine your starting point. Work out how people see you. Are you trusted? Are you understood?
  2. Have a game plan. Do something with the research above. If your stakeholders don’t understand you, what do they want you to do about it?
  3. Walk to talk. Prove you’re worthy of being understood and trustworthy – be how you wish to be seen.
  4. Tell people about it. Use all channels available to you – and, of course, those your stakeholders use.

Françoise’s story backed this up. Cefic, keen to jump-start their relationship with stakeholders, launched a survey to ascertain what people really thought about them. The results were mixed: the overwhelming majority of institution officials now believe that chemicals are key to innovation and growth; but they doubt the public’s trust in both chemicals and the industry at large. But Françoise stressed the positive role of the survey as a starting point: Cefic knew where they were and what they had to do – and they’d grabbed a fair bit of media attention in the process. Today, she sees how the survey informs the everyday work of Cefic – not just that of the comms department, but of everyone: people are more switched-on about reputation and less nervous about losing control by telling people what they’re all about.

Our second panelist Florence Ranson, Senior Advisor at the European Banking Federation, agreed that transparency and honesty are at the heart of reputation. Things will go wrong; mistakes will be made – and at these times frankness is essential.  This is even more important in a member organisation, she stressed, where control can seem even harder – and the actions of one can impact both the organisation as a whole and all its individual members.

For Florence, honesty and transparency pave the way for trust. With the compulsive need for control and secrecy stripped away, the communication flow can be more fluid, engaged and interesting. You can start building credibility by interacting with stakeholders and the media in a meaningful and pertinent way.

Honesty. Integrity. Transparency. A sure-fire approach to reaching out to people and making them believe what you’re about and what you stand for.  And that – if you maintain it – is what reputation building is all about.


If you want to learn more about reputation management, follow our Twitter feed at @euroreputation, where corporate communicators from across the Fleishman-Hillard network in Europe share links and insights on corporate reputation.