Business Reputation: Crash-Test by War

Any conversation about reputation in business typically boils down to comparing the words spoken on behalf of the company and the actions taken in the corresponding direction. The prospect of receiving reputational benefits in the long term depends on whether there is and how big is a gap between these parameters.

In the post-truth era, multiplied by the technological revolution, a rather large gap between declared intentions and real affairs has become socially acceptable. Only some information consumers were ready to spend time on in-depth fact-checking without having a personal interest, mostly material. Then, with the pandemic's onset, humanity was walking blindly through the darkness of total uncertainty. But right now, we are passing a turning point where tolerance for eloquent cover-ups for the void is plummeting, at least in the business world.

After 24 February 2022, all economy sectors and businesses are being “bend tested.” There is a definition from the conceptual apparatus of theoretical mechanics referring to the ability of a detail to withstand the influence of an external force that tries to bend it. Proving their fortitude, Ukrainian companies are rebuilding their activities every minute in real-time by adapting to inevitable changes and playing ahead.

The reputation management strategy is also changing in sync with the business model and according to the wartime challenges. In fact, the entire reputation management system became more anti-crisis and reoriented to fight against two critical threats:

  • physical destruction (loss of property, loss of personnel, disruption of supply chain, and other breaches of business processes);
  • mental destabilization (destructive attitudes and actions of business leaders, employees, partners, and consumers).

Most of the companies suffered significantly both from the point of view of fixed assets loss and from the point of view of market reduction and sales volumes. They are now faced with issues, not so much of promoting a business product, but of survival, preservation of financial capacity, and continuation of business activities. Also, many large corporations were affected by a wave of public anger and government restrictions on their activities, i.e., canceling any manifestations of “Russianness” from the public and sanctions from the state.

In response to today's challenges, businesses focus on salvaging/relocating capacities that can be saved or restored, including moving key employees, helping them with shelter, adaptation, and material support. Supply chains are being reformatted due to leased production space and changes in the operations geography. Companies replace the lost demand by expanding the area of business activity and the “new demand” – new product offers oriented to the specific needs of people in war conditions, in particular, to the needs of Ukrainians abroad. And those who have connections with the aggressor country in one way or another, depending on the global vision of the headquarters, distance themselves from it and prove their patriotism through social initiatives. As for work with reputation, it continues even with freezing strategic PR projects and reducing the lion's share of PR budgets. But not so much in the information field as in the practical actions.

Reputation Front
The most noticeable reputational activities today are naturally observed in industries where a decent level of business activity has been preserved since the Ukrainian economy now resembles a puzzle with fragments burned with napalm. Heavy industry is destroyed, depleted, or working purely for defense. The most demanded product categories are FMCG goods, medicines, fuel, electricity, communication, logistics services, banking retail, and the intangible businesses of the IT industry feel naturally the best. That is, business activity is concentrated in critical infrastructure, digital economy, and life support of the population's primary needs (B2C).

At the same time, the public expects a VERY extended social responsibility from a business. It is no longer just conscientious work and traditional CSR/ESG activities but full-fledged corporate citizenship. Therefore, any business simultaneously solves the task of its own preservation and development and the task of saving the country.

Therefore, regardless of the company's industry affiliation, the current priorities of reputation management are as follows:

  • corporate-wide PR — to verify that the business continues to function and has development prospects;
  • product PR — to support demand for a traditional business product (if possible) and raise interest in products for which “new demand” has to be formed;
  • GR — to confirm commitment to national interests and readiness to support the state;
  • IR — to give messages worthy of trust to the investment community regarding the competitiveness and anti-crisis stability of the business and its ability to participate in post-war reconstruction programs;
  • personal branding of public businesspersons – following the personal goals of their life project (there is an overall decrease in activity in this direction);
  • internal PR — to save the key team, support the image of the employer, and save the mental health of the team;
  • CSR/ESG — to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine, humanitarian programs, search for foreign financial donors to help the country, restore destroyed infrastructure,  and corporate volunteering.

At the message box level, this means that Ukrainian companies with effective reputation management systems, first of all, manifest “We are alive!” at the strategic level. That is, “We work, help the country, have plans for the future, worry about people, invent new things, appeal to the international community in the country's interests, and we are heard.” And secondly, at the operational level, they note that business is conducted under conditions of force majeure, “We are working almost beyond belief; not everything can be as it would be in peacetime. But we do not use war to justify irreversible violations.” Such an approach means that not the hypocritical so-called “new sincerity” is highly valued again but sincerity in the classical sense of the word, which is more desirable than exquisite political correctness.

The moment of truth has come, and deeds have become more important than words, and they are the most effective PR tool. Especially since the media landscape has changed completely. The majority of the mass media is struggling to survive and does not show a particular desire to cover even the most wonderful projects of corporate newsmakers. Therefore, you should paddle own canoe – to rely on owned media and various digital formats (own representations in social media with accompanying promotional support, messengers, working online mass media). Even companies that previously did not think of mobile applications whatsoever are now creating them or thinking about it. And this determines new requirements for the qualifications and range of tasks of a PR professional.

Humanity and Professionalism
Whatever the capabilities of the artificial intelligence are, it is unlikely that it will quickly master multidimensional reputation management skills, especially considering Ukrainian realities. Meanwhile, live PR professionals of flesh and blood and access to GPT-chat and similar systems should work marvels.

Heads of PR teams recall the half-forgotten skills of working without budgets and protecting the PR functions before top management and beneficiaries, who, in the vast majority, try to “cut” reputational activities during any significant crisis. In conditions when not everyone’s primary life needs are met, heroic PR directors save their subordinates from dismissal or depression, allowing them to shed tears of despair during video conferences and trying to maintain the ability to think rationally simultaneously. Humanity, the ability to keep strategic and tactical priorities in sight, and superhuman patience are the three ingredients of successful PR teams management today.

Concurrently, the situation is the same for both management and PR team members from the point of view of professional requirements. There is no one to rely on anymore. The time has come for handmade PR. There are no templates, and you have to do it yourself. And efforts are not permanently transformed into material rewards. When society expects increased social responsibility from business, the business expects the same from employees – with additional pro bono duties and no right to a digital detox without work gadgets.

Light is Ahead
It is still too early to talk about the conclusions drawn and the lessons learned from this tragic historical period. Bending and breaking tests are ongoing. However, now people often ask me what reputation management will look like in the post-war era. For now, I can confidently say that it will be more technological from the point of view of using the capabilities of neural networks and artificial intelligence. Secondly, its leitmotif under any conditions will be reconstruction in which Ukrainian companies, transnational corporations, international organizations, and donor countries will participate. And each of them will broadcast their vision, messages, and thematic tracks in the information space. And thirdly, which is less optimistic, we will face a new dimension of crisis communication related to the non-economic redistribution of property. Many will be tempted to reformat the markets and assets in the country, referring to the wartime events and making one or other accusations. It can cast a shadow over all the bright changes that have taken place in society in terms of cohesion, self-organization, devotion to high ideals, and self-sacrifice.

That is why we should start installing “fuses” today – whoever knows about the danger is ready for it. It is impossible to give a talking-to to every kleptocrat or unscrupulous person in business now while all future devices are still being prepared at the level of ideas or their embryos. But you can always keep in mind the general red line that no one can cross.

The main achievement of our people because of the tragedy we are all experiencing is clear even now. The world is beginning to perceive Ukraine as a courageous, honest, and ingenious country. This huge achievement was gained at a terrible price, so we all have one task – to maintain such a perception because the volume of weapons supplies and financial support from partner countries depends on its stability. And if we preserve such a reputation of our state after the victory, it will be a good reason to look into the future more confidently.

10 Tips for Reputation Management During Wartime

  • A working business saves jobs, pays taxes, and is worthy of respect per se.
  • Corporate social responsibility measures must correspond to the scale of business and society's expectations.
  • Real help and cooperation with real volunteers always give a reputational effect
  • No need to rely on mass media; it is better to have developed owned media and effective SMM.
  • A company is invisible to the general public if this company's news are not in “instant messengers.”
  • Personal brands of business leaders are significant, but it is necessary to get priorities straight so that their promotion does not annoy the audience.
  • Company management is often tempted to close financial holes by reducing the PR function in times of crisis, so be ready to be in-house attorneys for your teams and work directions.
  • Artificial intelligence is not yet able to manage corporate reputation without people, but it is a professional challenge that will force us to learn and acquire new skills.
  • The recipe for PR team leaders' effectiveness: common sense + superhuman patience + humanity
  • The reputation of Ukrainian business is one of the essential factors in forming the reputation of the state of Ukraine, so do not embarrass yourself and your Motherland.

Used material is available at https://mmr.ua/show/olena-derevyanko-mmredu-20-klyuchovih-dumok