Why everybody hates you: Health - part 2
Reputation is formed from three main components: your own behaviour, the manner in which your behaviour is communicated, and the context in which that behaviour takes place. It is possible to change your behaviour, and you can certainly influence the manner of communication but in order to do either of those things effectively you need to understand the third – context. Many of the issues that affect your reputation are exceedingly complex. Money, race, gender, inequality, climate change – how can you possibly be expert enough in each of these areas and more in order to stay ahead of your critics and be (seen as) a ‘good company’?
This essay is the latest in a series that explains the context in which your corporate reputation is being formed, so that you can guide your own company safely through. In part one we discussed the way in which companies directly affect the health of their employees, customers and the rest of the world – and in turn how that impacts corporate reputation.
Today we are tackling an altogether more slippery beast – indirect harm. Some companies or products may not harm us directly but instead influence us to act in ways that are implicitly bad for our health. Even more than most of the issues that affect corporate reputation, indirect health harms are difficult to quantify. We aren’t talking here about, for example, passive smoking – there the product is actively harming you it’s just that you didn’t choose to buy it. Instead these indirect harms are the ones that a product or company creates around itself but that are perhaps not inevitable and not easily traced back to the culprit.
Here are some examples:
In the most remote cases, the impact of corporate behaviour is felt by people who have never had any direct contact with a brand or its products. Consider the current debate about marketing images and the impact that they have on self-esteem and health. Who should we blame for effects of content about beach bodies, building bulk, thigh gaps and flawless skin? The magazines, advertising standards, the products, the photo editor, our own flawed brains? I don’t need to have any interest in protein powder or beauty tips to see a poster on the train or a magazine in checkout line – yet the messages from these sources impact our body image, life satisfaction and, ultimately, physical health.
Even where the relationships between consumer and supplier are more clear, lines of blame can be imprecise. Multitudes of food products, for example, are not in themselves harmful. A single donut or Pringle will not kill you. No testing regime is likely to find them in breach of regulations. However, by persuading you to spend more money and calories on foods like this, the companies behind them are changing your behaviour. You will have less space in your diet and budget for green vegetables or fruit. There is a genuine and important freedom of choice argument for these products being available but when coupled with advertising that emphasises the way in which ‘junk foods’ make you feel good, or be more sociable, there is also an excellent argument that their existence influences our behaviour in a negative manner.
Another example of this would be video streaming services that autoplay the next episode of a series as soon as the first finishes, making it a little easier to succumb to the urge to stay on the sofa, rather than getting up and moving. This is the TV version of social media’s ‘continuous scrolling’, where the page never comes to an end – there is no nudge to put down your phone and move or interact face-to-face.
It is not just our leisure activities that cause harm though, some jobs might require or encourage long work hours. Again, this does not directly harm us (in moderation, certainly) but if this interacts with our own behaviour to make it easier to say no to social interaction and exercise and yes to takeaways and alcohol, then health impacts may be significant.
The complexity of assigning ‘blame’ for negative effects kicks up a notch when you consider medications – for afflictions such as chronic pain and crippling anxiety – that make life bearable for millions of people around the world but are also at the heart of a spiralling prescription drug addiction crisis, especially in the USA.
In each of these cases I have given only the tiniest glimpse of a sprawling set of arguments for either side: freedom of speech, commerce and flavour vs health costs, freedom to choose how we use our own leisure time vs the social good, and the unintended consequences of even the most positive inventions. The intensity with which scrutiny falls on each of these issues varies greatly and often with what seems like little logic – high profile art galleries across the world, for example, might have been forgiven for thinking it was safe to receive sponsorship from ground-breaking pharmaceutical companies but now face tough choices about how to respond to the reputational effects of the opioid crisis.
Information, intent and transparency
How can you stay ahead of the game? How can you predict the reputational risks and avoid them? It is far too easy to be glib: do no harm, don’t kill people. But the examples above show how slippery these decisions can be – should all Easter egg manufacturers lay down their tools for the good of our health? In the absence of easy answers, your armoury against scandal comprises information, intent and transparency. Intent is the test of when you cross the line and, arguably, deserve a bad reputation; transparency is the route to redemption – but neither of these is possible without information gathering.
You need to be engaged with the world around you in order to see what is happening. Plenty of companies operate in a bubble focused on fulfilling orders or increasing market share. Customer focus is a great skill – but it can be a weakness if you exclude signals coming from the wider world. This kind of single-mindedness is how you fall foul of public opinion as norms change, and it also means you will miss opportunities for growth and evolution. This kind of single-mindedness also sends a signal to employees that any means by which they increase market share are justified by the ends – that every other impact of their work is simply a meaningless externality. This in turn increases the risk that your employees will make bad choices that will later be detrimental to your reputation.
You can achieve information flow through both formal and informal conduits: hire a diverse team that challenges your internal thinking (the opposite of ‘cultural fit’!), seek out media sources that take you outside of your comfort zone, conduct research amongst your main stakeholder groups – talk to people! Some of these steps can be codified, institutionalised into your company culture, others need constant effort. But at the root of all of them is a state of mind that says that learning and acquiring new knowledge are a good thing. Employees who learn new skills and facts will challenge the status quo and that will keep your company progressing and evolving and aware of emerging threats.
Once you have the facts, you have to choose what you do with that knowledge. It isn’t always sufficient simply to mean well – thoughtless idiots are almost as annoying as malevolent ones – but good intent is certainly a necessary component of good reputation.
Intent is to commerce what values are to political campaigns. When a voter heads to the ballot box they ask themselves ‘does this party mean well by me? Do their values align with my own?’ and when we buy a product or service we vote with our cash for a company that wants good things for us, wants to bring us joy or convenience or health.
Intent is the difference between the way we view doctors of the early twentieth century and the way we view tobacco manufacturers. Doctors actively recommended that pregnant women take up smoking to keep babies small and reduce maternal deaths in childbirth. We know now that smoking during pregnancy is incredibly damaging for the foetus, and damaging and addictive for the mother. But the intent was a positive one: to save lives. Conversely, tobacco manufacturers shifted in our minds from ill-advised to evil when it became clear that the companies had found out the risks of smoking yet continued to sell the products without full transparency.
The aim is to build an organisation that instinctively means well. Then as information flows in, your employees will process that knowledge in the way that makes most sense for all of your stakeholders.
Transparency & lobbying
Finally, transparency. The reputation impact of either direct or indirect health impacts is worsened by any trace of concealment or dishonesty. It is, as they say, the cover-up that gets you. And often it is hard to disentangle transparency from intent because the instinct to hide our failings is incredibly strong. In almost every single case that instinct will be wrong. A well-timed confession or apology is one of the strongest weapons in your armoury when it comes to restoring reputation after a scandal.
The clearest example of how concealment affects reputation can be seen in the public’s view of lobbying. While many theorists consider broad access to lawmakers a fundamental part of a functioning democracy, ‘lobbying’ – by which I mean trying to change the opinion of policymakers and influencers – has taken on incredibly negative connotations. This is because it combines two things that make us uneasy: a lack of transparency and the impression of malign intentions. If the argument for a change of policy was good enough, goes the logic, then surely it could hold up to public scrutiny.
In the UK, many organisations that are seen very positively by the public – including many high-profile charities – have campaigned strongly against anti-lobbying rules but the public resolutely believes that ‘lobbying’ is a bad thing. This is partly because of the language used by the media to describe lobbying activities. Often if the outcome of lobbying was seen as a positive step we stop using the L-word and instead talk about ‘high-level briefings’ or we make it sound nicer by citing collective action such as ‘charities came together to lobby ministers’. If the outcome is less ideal we dehumanise it and the L-word comes back in force ‘Lobbyists for big pharma’, ‘lobbyist dinners’ and so on. However you dress it up, the public does not like it.
Bringing it all together. Three questions to ask yourself
Every organisation changes the world around it in some way. Sometimes this is directly – polluting our rivers, or improving our leisure time, or ensuring the flow of food into our shops. At other times the path of influence is less clear – subtle changes to our environment nudge our behaviour or the availability of other options tugs us away from our chores or the foods we know we should be eating.
It is nigh on impossible to avoid making an impact but if you want to safeguard your reputation then you had better make sure that you know what that impact is and that you are happy to own it.
Information, intent & transparency are key to avoiding any unfortunate mishaps. Good information flows allow you to spot problems as they develop – or maybe even before. A company culture that means well will prioritise acting upon intel about negative impacts. And a bias towards transparency will encourage whistle-blowers and make it easier for leaders to make the decision to confess and apologise for any mistakes.
In future, I’ll talk far more about how organisations can navigate these tricky issues (subscribe here if you want to be sent my articles as they appear each Wednesday) but for the time being, here are three questions to ask yourself and your team:
Have you mapped the impact you have on your stakeholders? And does your analysis include impacts on health? If the answer is ‘no’, there’s a quick start guide here.
What is your organisation’s intent? Do you have a clear company purpose, for example? How do you demonstrate or measure whether you are living up to that purpose?
What is your organisation’s approach to transparency and honesty? I don’t just mean the policy. How do you actually act? Does information flow freely up and down the hierarchy? What is your instinctive reaction to press scrutiny or customer complaints?
As ever, if you need any help with answering these questions get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org
Perhaps you are wondering how I’ve managed to write an entire article about health and corporate reputation without mentioning Covid-19? The answer, of course, is that most of this was written before lockdown and before a few of our corporate leaders made complete tits of themselves.
As I said in part one of this essay: “when companies imperil our health they suffer some of the longest-lasting, most substantial effects on their own reputation” – some of the early missteps of companies such as Wetherspoons and Sports Direct need to be seen in this light. Elsewhere it is clear that companies are failing in their duty of care as employers.
On a positive note, a few organisations have already shown capacity to step up and offer aid in this time of crisis but not everyone gets that opportunity. Some firms are already too financially unstable to stretch themselves now, others simply aren’t in a useful industry.
In our newsletter, we will be highlighting some of these examples as the crisis progresses and keeping a careful eye out for reputation lessons that they rest of us can learn. For immediate use, we’ve also produced a cheat sheet of strategic tools to use during the crisis and one tactical tip: Don’t contradict the experts unless you have acknowledged expertise or new evidence to share. Contradicting the official line on a ‘reckon’ or for business reasons is a bad idea.