As Weber Shandwick's chief reputation strategist, I have decided to join the ranks of the end of the year palm readers and offer my predictions for the next year. Time and time again during the past twelve months, I have been asked to hold my finger up in the air and divine from whence come the changing winds of reputation. My head has filled with reputation-related ahahs and hunches. Now is my chance to let it all out. So here is my list of what to look for in 2011.
1. Hijacked Reputations: As increasingly more information gets leaked, mismanaged and corrupted via the Internet and otherwise, more and more companies will suffer as a result. Repairing such reputational damage will not be easy -- what used to be 15 minutes of shame may now last forever on the Internet. The best antidote will be, as it always has been, being prepared beforehand to act quickly, decisively and transparently.
2. Reputation Recoverers Anonymous: The prevailing trend for 2011 will be reputation recovery. As the "stumble rate" increases (Weber Shandwick regularly measures this), so does the rate at which many companies will pick themselves up and rejoin the race. Trophies will increasingly be handed out to CEOs who lead their companies back from worse to first. In 2005, there were 455,000 search mentions of reputation recovery. Five years later, that number has soared to nearly 2, 500,000 mentions. Reputation rehab is a new industry to watch.
3. Reputation Warfare. Reputation warfare will expand and intensify. Enabled by the Internet and social media, individuals and small groups will continue to rise up and take greater control of reputations by slinging criticism, some valid, against companies and other entities. Adopting strategies on how to better leverage and counter these reputation insurgents will be essential (See my article on Reputation Warfare in Harvard Business Review for more insights). The release of confidential U.S. embassy cables via WikiLeaks is only the most conspicuous of these attacks. It will become apparent in the year to come that WikiLeaks was only the tip of the iceberg.
4. Online Reputation Revisionism. Further advances will be made in establishing a workable system of erasing or amending unfairly disparaged online reputations. One such particularly promising idea is likely to be at the forefront: a one-time only policy that grants social amnesty to young adults turning 21 who are about to enter the workforce. Google's CEO Eric Schmidt hinted at the wisdom of this kind of social amnesia: "every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites." The day will come, maybe not next year but soon, when a communally agreeable system of "social amnesia" will arise. We can expect increasing discussion in 2011 on what form that system will take, since the need for one is critical.
5. Ascendancy of Social CEOs: Chief executives will increasingly join the 21st century, expanding their use of various online channels to burnish their company reputations, including writing or participating in internal blogs, telling the company story at conferences and on corporate YouTube channels and being interviewed by journalists on online media channels. The socialization of CEOs has begun and will continue in 2011.
6. Reputation Blacklisting: List mania will continue to expand. Every day new rankings and league tables are born: best companies to work for, best companies to launch a career, best companies for hourly workers, best companies for C-level executives. These rankings help companies build and differentiate their reputations through third-party endorsements. In the year ahead, however, we can also expect the long overdue but inevitable reaction to such "best of" lists. Look for more reputation "blacklists" to sprout and then propagate - for example, worst companies for women to work for, worst companies for training and least socially responsible companies.
7. Reputation Risk Insurance: After a year of reputation scandals and downfalls, now would be the time for reputation risk insurance to firmly take hold. Several large insurance brokers already cover reputational damage as part of their directors' and officers' liability insurance (D&O) designed to shield board members from shareholder law suits. A more expansive reputation-based product is due that would compensate companies whose reputations have taken a hit whether offline or online and caused them to suffer declining sales, additional marketing and public relations expense and other reputational fallout.
8. The Corporate Brand Rises: In the next year, companies which own a portfolio of individual brands will focus more intensely on developing the reputation of the parent corporation, not just the individual brands. Consumers have access to a dizzying array of information. Even the most unsophisticated consumer can now easily identify the company standing behind any brand. If the parent company's reputation is strong, known for treating its employees well, being transparent and sustainable, and having good leadership, consumers are more likely to make a purchase and then tell their friends about it.
We will revisit these trends as next year closes and 2012 awaits us.