In a socially connected world, reputations can be made and broken in a day. Social networks are both a unique opportunity to reach customers and their networks of friends and associates, and a dire threat of their turning on you in a very visible and viral way. The companies that ‘get’ this reach out to consumers and allow the conversation to happen within a controlled space.
“Anyone with a cellphone is a reporter and can tweet their observations within seconds,” notes Tania Landsberg, group communications manager for South African fuel market leader, Engen Petroleum. “It’s quite simply enormously important to be on the lookout and participate.”
There’s no need to exaggerate the issue, as US airline United Airlines found out in 2009. As reported widely, band members witnessed their equipment being flung around outside the aircraft prior to boarding. In response to their complaints about a broken guitar, the airline was unhelpful, eventually prompting the band to compose and broadcast a song about their experience on Youtube. The rest is Internet history.
“No corporate legal or advertising budget can make such a nightmare go away,” says Landsberg. “The lesson is that if you end up on Hellopeter, you have to engage and do so respectfully of the reach and influence of social channels, or you’re potentially doing great harm to shareholder value. The Web can be your friend, but it’s a double-edged sword. Be vigilant and be part of the conversation.”
That much worse in petroleum
In the world of Engen, South Africa’s fuel market leader, reputation management goes one step further into scary territory. “Our reputation is quite literally tied to our societal licence to operate,” says Landsberg. “If we’re seen to be environmentally irresponsible, for instance, it could jeopardise our operating permit.”
Exacerbating the problem is the complex technical nature of the petroleum business, and the emotive quality of environmental discourse, Landberg says. “If you’re not part of the discussion, issues can get away from you very quickly. People don’t always understand the finer points of the fuel price movements, for instance. Crude oil prices go down, but it’s hurricane season in North America, and the rand weakens against the dollar, so the fuel price moves in counter-intuitive ways.
“The world-wide conversation of social media gives credence to all viewpoints out there, so it’s our role to constantly reach out and educate, about our environmental efforts, the fuel price components that are outside our control, our endeavours to engage communities, our social investments – the entire Engen experience that isn’t always reported, or reported accurately or fairly.”
Her job of shaping Engen’s reputation is therefore not without its pressures: on Landsberg’s shoulders rests the heavy mantle of protector of the company’s right to operate.
Her team supports Engen’s entire business, including the operating divisions (Engen Refinery and Engen Sales & Marketing), Corporate Planning (government liaison and BEE), Supply, Trading & Optimisation (logistics), HSEQ (health, safety, environment and quality standards), Human Capital and others. “All these functions interact with their own unique environments – comprising operational, natural, social, economic and political elements,” Landsberg says. “They all have a need to be presented fairly and favourably to their audiences.”
On a day-to-day basis, this means putting strong, well-branded advertisements in the right places, engaging visibly with consumers on relevant offerings, and engaging with the media, government, state organs, NGOs and so forth.
But the enormous exposure of social networks requires companies to enlist help from hitherto untapped reputational resources.
Landsberg says the corporate story is most effectively told by many people, all singing from the same song sheet. This is where Engen’s staff comes in, all 3 500 of them – not to mention the company’s 1 200 dealers and 35 000 dealer franchise staff, she says.
Again, this is not without risks. Employees get disgruntled, they get it wrong or they say too much. Hence, reputation management requires internal preparation, says Landsberg, consisting of value-based training for staff to give them a sense of ‘familial’ belonging* on which to ground their role of corporate ambassadors.
“We try to breed the awareness that every statement and action by everyone in the company can have a consequence – good, bad or disastrous,” Landsberg points out. “Once that is achieved, the corporate reputation management team has eyes and ears everywhere, and we know people will present a united front. Only in this way will companies survive the unprecedented degree of scrutiny they’re subjected to today.”