Magazine article New Zealand Management

Minding Your Reputation: When Impression Counts: Steve Hart Casts an Eye over Some Reputation "Issues" Struck by New Zealand Companies and Discusses How to Naviqate Potentially Troubled Waters

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Minding Your Reputation: When Impression Counts: Steve Hart Casts an Eye over Some Reputation "Issues" Struck by New Zealand Companies and Discusses How to Naviqate Potentially Troubled Waters

Article excerpt

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It has been an interesting time for reputation management in New Zealand. We've had MP Winston Peters battling accusations of undeclared political donations; Mercury Energy caught up with the death of late paying customer Folele Muliaga, and Fonterra knocked for six by the fatal Sanlu baby milk scandal.

In addition, many people still remember the embarrassing Ribena drink issue of last year when its maker GlaxoSmithKline was fined $217,000 for false advertising after its vitamin C drink was found to have no vitamin C in it.

All this, says Gary Mersham, a professor of communication at the Open Polytechnic's Centre for Social Sciences, is causing Kiwi firms to take a long hard look at themselves and start to understand the concept of reputation management.

When it comes to protecting a reputation, Mersham says the first mistake people often make is understanding the differences between proactive and reactive communications.

"When a problem breaks, people are immediately in reactive mode, as you can well see from Peters' example and of Fonterra," says Mersham. "You are immediately on the back foot. The professional view is that reputation management should be as proactive as possible. In other words, deal with an emerging issue before it becomes a crisis."

It is pretty clear that when it comes to reputation management many leading Kiwi-based firms have been left wanting. Take for example the Ribena case when two schoolgirls did tests on the drink and discovered it contained none of the vitamin C the drink is well known for. The girls called the company's head office to ask what was going on and were fobbed off. The company missed the warning signal and before they could say "blackcurrant" the media descended on them and the firm attracted worldwide negative publicity.

Mersham, co-author of Disaster Management, says the mud can stick for a long time after the event and the Ribena issue is a case in point that "shook a lot of people up".

"Even yesterday I saw a new Ribena advertisement that was designed to try and patch up that huge dent in their brand," he says. "So reputation management has become a huge thing as a result of these sorts of circumstances.

"I would say the idea of reputation management is, all of a sudden, catching on in New Zealand. For example, the NZ Army has--for the first time--appointed a reputation manager."

Mersham says if he had been advising Winston Peters in the early days of the allegation about non-declared donations to Party funds, he'd have told him to double check everything before going to a press conference and holding up the infamous sign saying 'no' [donations].

"You must be very careful about presenting the media with visuals that they can use in different kinds of context," says Mersham. "So holding up signs with the words 'yes', 'no', 'I love this' or 'I dislike that', will become a ball and chain to people such as politicians, which can stick with them for the rest of their lives. That was a major mistake for Winston.

"But his first mistake was not to have done his homework. What he should have done when challenged by reporters was to offer to check the facts and give reporters a timeline for when he would respond."

But the treatment Peters got is all par for the course when you are a politician says Mersham.

However, Mersham takes his hat off to how (then) National MP John Key handled it when asked about his shareholding in Tranz Rail during a TV interview. It's what Mersham calls ambush journalism--when a reporter pounces on someone or asks an unexpected question.

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"The John Key example is a perfect illustration of this. But Key owned up to his shareholding interests straight away [admitting he had 100,000 shares and not the previously stated 50,000] . …

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