Why the language of reputation can harm business Article icon


In the corporate responsibility arena companies aren’t just doing more, they’re talking about it much more too.
There’s now a huge amount written by businesses about how seriously they take their responsibilities, thousands of words in detailed CSR reports to demonstrate their progress and plenty of stirring CEO speeches and impressive-sounding ‘values’ to show how much they care.
And there’s the rub.  When you read the actual words being used, the language often feels strangely out of step with the real world.  In fact, the way companies talk about reputation runs the risk of undermining the very thing they’re trying to enhance.
Let me give you an example.
We’ve analysed the responsibility reports, purpose statements and values of sixty top businesses, a body of text that amounts to almost 130,000 words.  Of the companies we studied, a quarter claim to ‘put the customer at the heart of everything we do’.  Many others have a value like innovation or responsibility ‘at their heart’.  This phrase is so common in these reports that it’s difficult not to find it insincere.  One business, perhaps unwittingly, even claimed to have five different things at their heart, which is a particularly neat trick. 
Yet ask the general public what they think is at the heart of business and they rarely say the customer.  It’s no surprise to anyone that when we tested this phrase against a range of well-known businesses, many people felt it wasn’t credible and wasn’t their experience of how the company works.
Moreover, when you think about it, it’s difficult to see how a company could ever make it true.  The public’s view of what it would require for them to be truly at the heart of a company isn’t easy to achieve: they said things like reinvesting 50 per cent of profits in services and reducing environmental impacts or cutting prices and giving customers an actual say in decisions.  While some of these actions may be possible some of the time, the claim raises expectations about how a company will engage customers that will rarely be fulfilled in practice.
So why write it?  Presumably it’s because it sounds appealing and is something CEOs genuinely want to see happen.  However the reality is that for many companies it doesn’t enhance their reputation.  On the contrary, they are using a phrase that is generally felt to be incredible, inauthentic and impossible to meet.
It’s not just the exaggerated language that’s the issue.  The general picture created in responsibility reports is an idealised world where everything is improving with rarely any reference to the challenges of making this happen.  
This is particularly evident when you explore what words aren’t mentioned.  Of the 127,977 words we examined, the word ‘failure’ featured only eight times and ‘mistake’ just five.   In describing how they are playing a part in solving major economic and social issues, few companies want to admit their struggles and that’s at the same time as pledging to be ‘honest’ and ‘transparent’ in all they do.
The irony is that talking about the challenges business faces in improving services or tackling environmental issues doesn’t erode trust: it actually increases it.  Consumers and other stakeholders aren’t blind to the difficulties involved.  In fact, their expectations of what an individual company can achieve in this area often start surprisingly low.  Closing the gap between the reality of how business works and the public’s perception of it is the surest path to creating a resilient reputation.
Ten years on from the financial crisis and the reputation of business as a whole remains challenged. Yet it’s clear from their reports there’s plenty being done by companies large and small to demonstrate their responsibility to the wider world, an impressive set of activities that are making a difference.
My argument here is not with the deeds but with the words.  The way we talk about reputation runs the risk of undermining the very thing we’re seeking to achieve.  In trying to sound good, we might be making less credible the real efforts to do good.
 It’s time for business to reflect more openly on the work being done, the problems as well as the progress.  We need a new lexicon to describe responsible actions that avoids the clichés and helps business to talk in more meaningful terms about what it’s doing. 
The lesson for responsible businesses is clear: by all means put the customer at the heart of all you do but put more of the real world into everything you say.
Dr Matt Carter is founder of research and campaigns company Message House.