Interview: Rupert Younger on playing the reputation game

Rupert YoungerNot only is Oxford a hub for PR professionals; it also home to some of the top brains on the planet thinking about reputation.

One of those big thinkers is Rupert Younger, Director and Founder of the Centre for Corporate Reputation at the Said Business School, University of Oxford.

Younger has just published a new book, The Reputation Game with co-author David Waller, in which he explores how reputations are built, managed and damaged.

As well as building on academic research, the book features interviews with celebrities including Jay-Z and Hilary Mantel; and explores the reputations of high profile individuals from Volkesvagen to Donald Trump.

PUBlic Relations caught up with Younger to find out more about his views on reputation, and how it applies in the context of Oxford.

PR: Your book explores complex reputations. How do some individuals and organisations (Donald Trump and Volksvagen, for example) suffer public criticism without it seeming to impact on their success?

RY: The answer lies in two different areas:  the first, relating to corporates in particular, is the distinction between capability and character reputations.  Capability reputations are sticky – once gained, they are hard to lose.

VW has a strong capability reputation (for making great cars) which has been pretty much unaffected by the different lens of character reputation, which has been seriously tarnished by the emissions scandal.

While character reputations tend not to impact sales, they do impact counterparties such as regulators, employees and investors.

And we can see that these can be very costly when it comes to scandals.  VW, for instance, has provided (currently) for around €25bn of counterparty costs relating to the scandal.

When it comes to politicians, it is helpful to add on an additional layer of reputational analysis.  This relates to expectations.

Politicians play the reputation game in particular in relation to expectation frames – even more so than companies or institutions.

What advice would you give organisations that have suffered reputational damage? Are there key things you would advise them to do (or not to do) to rebulid their reputations?

There is a very useful frame for this provided in the research.  Dr Nicole Gillespie and her colleague Dr Graham Dietz wrote a paper entitled ‘Trust repair after an organisation-level failure’ published in the Academy of Management Review in 2009.

This paper sets out four stages of trust repair (and I would argue, a reputation for trustworthiness).

The first is to apologise, second is to diagnose properly the issues, third is to enact reforming interventions, and the fourth is to evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of these.

Its a pretty useful and effective frame.

How has reputation changed in light of digital and social media? And what are the implications for those managing organisations’ reputations?

Digital and social media have resulted in two significant effects:  time compression and context collapse.

Time compression relates to the fact that in a 24/7 social world, you have literally no time to react and reflect before being expected to communicate.

And context collapse refers to the fact that now every audience is connected to – and can see and comment on – every aspect of your organisation.

The pressure to be both authentic and transparent – which often are extremely difficult to do together – are extremely strong in a social and digitally connected world.

How would you describe Oxford’s reputation? Does its perception as a traditional -and sometimes elitist – centre help or hinder its ability to be relevant in the 21st century?

Organisations have multiple reputations for something with someone.

Oxford has multiple reputations which encompass both perceptions of huge history and tradition with modern and engaging subjects researched and taught by the best current thinkers.

Perceptions of elitism do exist, but ironically may perhaps as valuable in recruiting those high performing and high potential applicants as it may also put others off.

You founded the Centre for Corporate Reputation at the Said Business School. Are there any ways that PR professionals in Oxford who are concerned with reputation can benefit from the centre?

We run a number of executive education courses which are open to corporate affairs professionals, and our research is published online and is referenced in our publications.

We welcome questions and enquiries from all those interested in our subject area!


The Reputation Game is on sale now, published by Oneworld.

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