Actions speak louder than words
Henry Ford famously said "You can't build a reputation on what you're going to do." For anyone in the business of building and managing corporate reputation, those words should be front of mind at all times.
Many organizations invest significant resources into marketing and communications campaigns promoting plans for the future. It could be as simple as chasing media coverage for yet another non-binding MOU expressing an intention to collaborate in the future. Or it could be as complex as buying up significant digital and real-world advertising space to promote a new computer-generated image of some utopian future. It's a trend that is very noticeable here in the Middle East, but is certainly not limited to this region.
While this type of promotion has an important role to play in building awareness, anticipation and buy-in for a given initiative, it is not sufficient in itself to enhance the reputation of the entity responsible for delivering it. Over time, excessive focus on communicating a vision can actually be detrimental, especially when detractors can easily criticize or undermine it on social media.
Reputation is grounded in tangible action, and organizations need to move quickly from communicating a vision of the future to showing in real terms how they are delivering it. That means identifying milestones, large and small, that clearly demonstrate progress toward the communicated goal.
Those milestones can be as basic as a contract signing (always more compelling for reputation building than an MOU) or as resource-intensive as inviting media and other stakeholders to observe work in progress. Build outreach programs around financing secured, work phases completed, important hires made, signature research and baseline studies, community engagement and involvement, new technologies implemented, personalities involved in key roles and so on.
Of course, all of this needs to be done within the context of the vision that has already been communicated. In essence, the message will be a variation of "We have done x so that we can deliver on our promise to y." The objective should be to build an ongoing narrative that not only tells stakeholders what you are going to do, but also builds confidence and credibility in the organization's ability to deliver it.
For communicators, this can be a tough sell to senior leadership. Often there is significant pressure from boards or senior sponsors to aggressively promote a visionary project even when there is little of substance to announce. This is especially true at the early stages of a project, when essential groundwork is being laid.
One approach is to use this time to establish the underlying philosophy behind the project. Engage audiences in a narrative about why the initiative is important and deliver that narrative via speaking platforms, owned communications channels, direct outreach, editorial features and multimedia.
As the project moves forward, seek to build up a strong body of coverage on relevant trade and industry platforms as a priority over mainstream media titles. This serves three purposes:
Because you are taking to industry insiders, you are more likely to secure informed, in-depth coverage of the initiative that you would achieve in a mass-reach publication;
You are engaging directly with the stakeholders who matter to the completion of the initiative - potential partners and contractors, job-seekers, analysts and other opinion leaders who might advocate and amplify your message; and
You are building up a body of online content that is both findable and credible for people, including mainstream media, with an interest in what you are doing.
Finally, look for opportunities to recap progress on a timescale that makes sense to the initiative. This gives you the opportunity to communicate around milestones and achievements that might not have been strong enough, by themselves, to secure coverage.
Ultimately, a promise delivered is a more powerful tool in building reputation than a promise made. It is our actions, not our ideas, that underpin our success.