THE BLOG
30/07/2013 11:01 BST | Updated 24/09/2013 10:12 BST

Mind the Reputation Gap

Warren Buffett isn't often wrong. Yet he was when he said: 'It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.' Most reputations are severely damaged because an organisation has failed over many years to operationally live up to the high expectations set by their PR and marketing activity.

BP is a prime example. Most assume that it was the lack of a viable crisis comms plan and poor execution that led to the company's disastrous reputational implosion after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That could and should have been handled better, but it wasn't the reason for the monstrous brand damage caused by the spill. That was a result of the 'reputation gap' between BP's external claims and its long-term internal operational procedures.

For many years BP received deserved praise for changes in its operations. A greener and safer approach was at the heart of BP's comms to investors, the public and political stakeholders globally. On the back of those promises came a much vaunted corporate social responsibility programme that was the envy of many high-profile global brands. BP was fantastically successful in moving the perception of the organisation from a staid British oil company to a progressive global energy company that went 'beyond petroleum'.

Serious business commentators cited BP as a 'visionary' company then led by a 'giant of British industry' - John (now Lord) Browne. Yet, at the same time, a series of operational failures across the Atlantic were clashing with their PR and marketing promises. Most notably, the Texas City Refinery explosion of 2005 - which killed 15 and injured more than 170 people - led to scrutiny of the company's safety procedures. Similarly, the 2006 and 2007 Purdhoe Bay oil spills, caused by pipeline corrosion on Alaska's environmentally sensitive tundra, led to serious questions and sparked new environmental campaigns against the company.

BP, having made significant acquisitions in the US and overtaken the relatively conservative ExxonMobil in its own backyard, was finding that the expectations set for it were too great. And it is through this prism - a failing reputation and increased scrutiny in the US - that we must view the reputational disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The lack of 'reputational insulation' such as positive stakeholder recognition meant it was fair game for the media and politicians.

Such 'reputation gaps' are extremely dangerous for organisations. Yet too many comms practitioners willingly accept that such a gap exists in their companies. They say such issues are above their 'pay grade'. In this digital age, no PR professional can control the news and prevent damaging coverage, but we can all work to reduce the reputation gap, and deal effectively with threatening issues when they occur.

To do that, we should all conduct regular reputation audits in our organisations. This should be authorised by the C-suite and include all relevant operations: customer service, marketing, social media and comms personnel. Once the reputation gaps have been identified, a report and plan of action for plugging them should be delivered to senior management. At the very least, this allows for serious scenario planning for the management of likely 'issues'.

Every comms department should seize the opportunity to take a lead on reputation, conducting a comprehensive 'gap analysis' audit that will protect their organisation and gain the respect of the C-suite. After all, taking responsibility above your pay grade might just increase it.