Simon Walker on reputation, trust and fighting fires

SenateSHJ reports back from the IoD Leadership Conference 2014, where Simon Walker was a keynote speaker.

At the recent Institute of Directors conference in Auckland, Simon Walker issued a rallying cry to directors about the importance of active reputation management.

Simon, a former broadcast journalist who made his name on New Zealand television in the 1970s (remember the ‘smart alec reporter’ who interviewed Sir Robert Muldoon?), is the head of the Institute of Directors in the UK. In his time he has managed some significant reputation challenges, having worked in top communication roles at Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the New Zealand Labour Party.

Of one of his previous assignments, Simon said there was a "whole graveyard full" of skeletons to deal with. "Never in my life have I had to fight so many fires with so little in the way of a hose and water."

This experience means he knows a thing or two about reputation management, in good times and bad. And about why being prepared with hose and water means you’re much less likely to ever need it.

He said that businesses today are much more cognisant of the value of reputation and the need to protect it – the gravity now given to reputation is the greatest change he has experienced in 30 years working in business.

"Understanding how the public perceives you, addressing their concerns and being ready to cope in a crisis is now regarded as essential," he said.

Simon also noted the critical importance of building trust and maintaining and investing in protecting it. Businesses should not overlook or underestimate threats to that trust.

"The process of private enterprise is built on layers of trust. If one element of that trust is eroded through accident or neglect, the rest is put at risk. ... It's far easier to nurture a good reputation than to repair a damaged one."

He said today's environment was relentless and unforgiving, with the media increasingly demanding and omnipotent. In this environment, he argued reputation protection relied on three rules that should be in directors' collective DNA:

  1. If there is a problem, acknowledge it immediately: don't deny or hide from it.
  2. Provide adequate resources to deal with problems – no reputation has ever been rebuilt on the cheap.
  3. Accept that an open approach is the only one that is likely to be regarded as credible by outsiders.

Here are some other lessons he offered at the IoD conference:

Decision making in times of crisis

"Be prepared to argue strongly and against all your operational colleagues if you believe reputation is at risk."

  • During a crisis, organisations need to be prepared to make decisions rapidly.
  • Senior managers and board members need to be prepared to argue strongly for the decisions they believe are right.
  • Leaders should keep reputation management in mind when making crisis management decisions.
  • When an organisation or its people are clearly at fault, the only thing to do is acknowledge that openly.

Dealing with the media

"The media has always been a hungry beast, but at least in my day it ate at regular hours. These days it can gorge continuously."

  • A strong reputation, both corporate and personal, is enhanced by being available to the media and speaking openly and in a personal manner.
  • Organisations can't hide from the media – they have to engage with it.
  • The only way to bring a story to an end is to get out ahead of it – don’t hunker down and hope the storm will blow over.

Simon Walker’s presentation at the IoD Leadership Conference 2014 was sponsored by SenateSHJ.