The CMO Show:
Mark Forbes on brand reputation

Mark Forbes, Director of Reputation at Icon Reputation, sits down with host Mark Jones to discuss how marketers can build brand reputation through storytelling.

A 2019 report by global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright surveying leaders across business and government projected the top 4 future trends expected to have the largest impact on reputation risk as ethics and conduct in the workplace, disruptive innovation, regulatory disruptions, and social media in the ages of fake news.

Today, we can add to this the acute challenges presented by a public health and economic crisis, and significant shifts in public perception driven by global social activism.

In this context, what can marketers do to more sustainably build the reputation of their brand, with full knowledge that one mistake can cause irreparable damage?

Director of Reputation at Icon Reputation, Mark Forbes, believes effective and transparent communication helps marketers build a business’ most valuable assets – its good name, brand and reputation.

“I think trust, reputation and purpose are almost a new holy trinity for a lot of brands. We’re seeing trends that are already being exaggerated and accelerated by [the coronavirus], as people are looking for things that they can believe and trust in,” says Mark. 

Mark says that marketers must rely on the strength of their brand and reputation to influence customer decisions and behaviours amidst a competitive environment.

Crafting compelling and authentic brand stories can help marketers communicate their purpose and offerings in a way that aligns with their audience’s expectations.

“Reputation is your most valuable asset and you need to both promote it and protect it. I think to promote it, you need to craft your story with quality content. You need to shape and own your message and make sure that you’re in some degree of control over getting that message out to your audience,” says Mark.  

“I think that particularly in the current climate, companies need to be cautious about straying too far out of their lane. I think that really, as well as purpose, people want authenticity and so if you’re saying, “This is our purpose,” it better feel real, and it better be related to what you actually do and it better be reflected in your actions.”

Check out this episode of The CMO Show to find out how marketers can communicate their purpose through the power of storytelling to build a strong brand reputation.

Resources

You might also like…

####

The CMO Show production team

Producers – Charlotte Goodwin & Stephanie Woo

Audio Engineers – Tom Henderson & Daniel Marr

Got an idea for an upcoming episode or want to be a guest on The CMO Show? We’d love to hear from you: cmoshow@filteredmedia.com.au.

####

Transcript:

Host: Mark Jones

Guest: Mark Forbes

Mark Jones:
American business magnate and famous investor, Warren Buffett, once said it takes 20 years to build a reputation and just five minutes to ruin it. This perfectly describes how fragile business reputation is today and it’s particularly true in today’s age, where there’s an increasing importance on building consumer trust. So, the question becomes, what are you doing to consistently and sustainably build your reputation, knowing just how quickly it can fall apart?

Hello friends, Mark Jones here. Great to have you with us again on The CMO Show podcast. My guest today is Mark Forbes. He’s Director of Reputation at Icon Agency in Melbourne, and just a quick note is to say that Icon Agency is a partner of Filtered Media. We’re actually part of PROI Worldwide, which is the world’s largest network of independently owned agencies.

We’ve invited him on the show, not just because he’s a friend, but because he’s got a really interesting perspective on what reputation management means for CEOs, for CMOs, brand managers, and comms teams. Because you see, during a crisis, brand trust is at stake and when we think about brand trust and building reputation over the long haul, we know we’ve got so much work to do. Whether it’s during a crisis or whether we’re thinking about the long term and how do we respond to social trends. It’s a really important issue that we really need to get our heads around, how to make sure we’ve got effective and transparent communications, and that we are aligning that work with what we know to be our brand’s identity, its purpose and its reputation. It’s a great conversation, hope you really enjoy the interview. Let’s hear what Mark has to say.

Mark Jones:
Mark, we have Fairfax Media in common.

Mark Forbes:
Oh, do we? Where were you based, Mark?

Mark Jones:
Well, I was the IT editor at The AFR in Sydney back in the day

Mark Forbes:
I’ve been at Fairfax for most of my media career, so Sydney Morning Herald to start with, but mainly The Age.

Mark Jones:
There you go. Well, look, I was on a different floor to the Herald and Age people, but nevertheless, same company. So it’s great to have you on the show as our guest, and actually wanted to kick it off with the media stuff, Mark, because we’re talking about reputation. We’re talking about brand development and also trust. So, brand trust I think is a pretty key thing these days, but tell me about life as the editor in chief of The Age newspaper in Melbourne. I’m interested in to what extent you thought about the reputation of the companies that you covered, or that your reporters covered. How did you interpret what they were doing through that lens?

Obviously we’re all human, we think about the perception of an organisation and that drives the news agenda, and I’m just wondering if you could put the goggles on, if you like, from the media days and tell me what it was like.

Mark Forbes:
Well, Mark, as you’d know, I think bad news sells better than good, generally. Often as a journalist, or an editor, and as a journalist bulk of my career was spent in investigative reporting, you’re really looking at I suppose poking holes in reputation. It’s a bit of a hunt, in a way. You’ve got targets that you might want to bring to account, or hold accountable and I suppose the big thing in terms of reputation for a journalist is you’re looking for a sniff of hypocrisy. You’re looking at the green company that doesn’t recycle. I mean, one of the big stories I did in my career which I won a big award for was looking at steroids in the lead up to the 2000 Olympics when the Australian government was really being outspoken about the use of illicit drugs in sport and grandstanding on it.

I found out that 80% of our veterinary steroids were actually being exported to Mexico and Croatia, the two centres of the international steroid black market. So, putting those two together was pretty embarrassing for the government at the time, and made them actually change the laws around exporting steroids. It’s that sort of a conflict that journalists really dream about.

Mark Jones:
Yeah. It’s interesting, stories are driven by an opportunity to change a reputation or potentially pull it down in that context, right? You’re actively seeking to do that.

Mark Forbes:
Absolutely. If you’re an investigative reporter, and there’s a bit of a difference between news reporting when there’s much more of a focus on fairness and balance, although that is changing in the modern era. I think partly due to the influence of digital in a range of different ways, but an investigative reporter will often, they will have a target and they will be seeking potentially to bring that target down and certainly in my current role, I’ve probably got a shortlist of 6 or 10 journos that you know, if they ring a client, it’s a serious problem and you’ve got to get moving pretty quickly to respond.

Mark Jones:
Yeah, it’s game on in terms of the support you provide, but we’ll get to that in a minute. I just wanted to talk a bit more about this because we don’t spend a lot of time on The CMO Show talking about earned media and the influence of it in marketing and communications. It’s a really good opportunity to think about particularly for CMOs who think about the brand, stewarding a brand. The trust of media itself has been smashed globally, right? We all know why, in terms of certain president and what he’s done to make this a popular narrative, but interested in your perspective on just how you think that’s changed and what it looks like for people who are trying to steward these brands.

Mark Forbes:
Yeah. I will just firstly, you were talking before about earned media and I would say to all the marketers out there, please, please remember that there is I think a much higher value in getting positive content in the earned media space, than the owned media space. It’s third party, it’s got credibility and so on. I think Trump has really taken advantage of trends that were really happening. I don’t think he is responsible for these changes. I think a lot of these changes have been driven by technology in terms of competition. It’s not just media you’re dealing with now, it’s social media and those two interrelate all the time. It used to be that the media, whether it was the paper or the TV, was almost the sole source of information.

It would tell people what was going on and other people would follow that. Now, the communication streams are multiple, intertwined, and they’re multi-directional. So that whole picture has changed a lot. I do think it’s been interesting, and they did, certainly credibility in the media has dropped. Edelman, I think in May, put out an update to their trust barometer looking at the COVID period, and it actually showed an increase in the trust in the media. And we’re certainly seeing a massive boost in the audiences for traditional media at this time, because people are looking for news that they can trust, that has some credibility. They’ve started looking at where it comes from again, and that to me has I suppose boosted the importance of traditional media in particular.

Mark Jones:
Yeah. Kind of ironically, the brands, the media brands themselves have found themselves caught up in this same dilemma. We can’t actually get on with our jobs because your perception of my brand is limiting my ability to communicate effectively, right? Which side of the fence are you on? And all of that sort of stuff. I also saw that report you mentioned and I think the interesting thing, too, here is that brand trust has become very much a pervasive thing in the minds of marketers, right up there with obviously the growth objectives and driving sales and all those sorts of good things. But the report said that brand trust was second only to price in terms of an influence in a purchasing decision, which I think is remarkable if you think about it.

What do you think’s really driven that in the last 12 months? It’s been a big change in terms of brand trust becoming quite so influential for consumers.

Mark Forbes:
Yeah, I think in a way that trust and reputation and purpose are almost a new holy trinity for a lot of brands. Again, I think we’re seeing trends that were happening already being exaggerated and accelerated by corona, as people are looking for things that they can believe and trust in and looking at a sense of hope. I think people are tending to see brands much more as personalities and people almost. They want to have a personal relationship and that’s probably boosted by the increased numbers of CEOs coming out there wanting to be thought leaders, wanting to be outspoken, wanting to almost assume that bit of a moral role in society and be agents for change in a way that we purely would have looked at institutions and governments before.

I think all those trends are coming together for people seeking to personalise brands and a greater desire for authenticity and reliability. That’s what they’re searching for.

Mark Jones:
And isn’t it remarkable, too, the people on social in particular, you mentioned that holy trinity, they hold very dear this notion of purpose at a personal level. And they’re looking for that match with brands in some instances. It’s interesting to me that we would withhold purchase activity on the basis of the fact that this brand hasn’t put a flag in the sand and told people where they stand.

I think we’ve really, really only at the early stages of trying to understand what all this means, right? How do you steward a brand in that context when things are changing so fast? What are your reflections there on the speed, how you need to get stuff out in the market really quick?

Mark Forbes:
Oh, well everything’s quicker. Everything’s quicker and that’s, again, I think the genesis of that is technology. It’s the fact that say if you look at media or communications schedules, when we started, maybe it was more around the daily routine of a newspaper would come out, radio would pick that up, TV news would report on it a bit more that night and then you’d have a new cycle the next day. Whereas now you’ve got everyone with a mobile phone can be a publisher and distributor of content. They can do that effectively in real time. I mean, the chances are if someone gets arrested or in a struggle with police down at the end of the street, there’s probably going to be two or three people filming that. Some of them will be streaming it live.

And so we’re dealing in seconds rather than hours or days or weeks. In this area of increased visibility and accountability, people’s expectations are very, very high.

Mark Jones:
Let’s get a bit practical for a minute and I think we all intuitively understand what reputation is, but I’m kind of curious in your view on a couple of different ideas that all play together. We’ve got reputation management, we’ve got crisis management, and then we’ve got risk management which the accountants love. There’s three different perspectives there. How would you clarify those? How would you define those?

Mark Forbes:
I think risk management is fairly straightforward. It’s identifying the risks to your business in a whole range of sense, from communications to operational, financial. It’s identifying the risks and then looking at processes and steps to mitigate those risks. Reputation management I would see as being part of a coordinated plan strategy to basically to build and enhance the reputation. That’s both at a personal level and at a brand level, and increasingly those two are intertwined as this sense of accountability, humanity, outspokenness demands on CEOs. Their personal brand, boosting out personal brand is very tied up with the corporate brand, as well, which is why people like the bloke from CrossFit had to go pretty quickly, because he was causing way too much damage.

I see crisis management is really after you’ve made that tweet. It’s dealing with it in as an effective way as possible, to survive the immediate crisis and set yourself up for success after it.

Mark Jones:
Yeah. Look, that’s really good to understand. I think one of the things for me, too, you’ve really clarified it well because reputation management has that growth aspect to it. It’s a positive, future focused type feel as you’ve described it. Crisis comms is very much in the now and we’ve got to fix this thing. It’s interesting, a colleague of ours, Neil Green over at SenateSHJ, he says one of the key things about crisis comms is identifying “is this a crisis or is it an issue?” Because we have issues all the time and an issue could be just, “I’ve got one unhappy customer and I can fix that pretty easily,” but a full blown crisis is you’re in the newspaper, you’re being talked about by politicians and so on and so on, right? The house metaphorically, is burning.

I’m interested in your take on reputation and trust and what’s the best way of doing that? How do you build reputation? Because we’re not talking about crisis per se, we’re not talking about how to fix the burning fire in the house, but what’s the best way to go about building a reputation, I think particularly this year? There is a sense that we have to do it fast, and we’ve already talked about that, but we also have to be much better, I think, about reading the zeitgeist. What do people expect us to do? How well in tune with the feelings of our customers are we, right?

Mark Forbes:
Yeah. I do think that there’s a real link between reputation management and crisis management, because I would view that the smart company and the smart organisation has adopted a process for building reputation and then when a crisis hits, you’ve actually got some money in the bank, so to speak. It’s a little bit of an insurance policy and part of that process of building reputation certainly as I see it, I’m a bit biased obviously because of my media background, should be about building your voice in media. But also particularly building a relationship with the journalists who are covering your company and your sector. Because that relationship can be very, very handy when you need to have a frank conversation with someone and you maybe need to get part of your message out.

I see them all as being part of a connected continuum, if you like. I mean, everyone’s saying that brands need to have purpose, and I think that’s right, but I think that particularly in the current climate, companies need to be cautious about straying too far out of their lane. I think that really, as well as purpose, people want authenticity and so if you’re saying, “This is our purpose,” it better feel real, and it better be related to what you actually do and it better be reflected in your actions. I think a brand should be looking at potentially getting out there, being more upfront, taking leadership roles in a whole range of areas, but they should actually look at, “Okay, what do we do? What’s important to us? What’s relevant to us?”

Mark Jones:
I kind of got this view that everybody in an organisation is responsible for the reputation of the brand, but how do you think the CEO and CMO dynamic going to change over time? Who holds the candle as it were, for reputation in the C-Suite?

Mark Forbes:
I think ultimately it needs to be the CEO. I think that really, that reputation now is such an intrinsic and valuable asset, that your comms team, your marketing team clearly need to have a big stake in it, but if the buck is going to stop anywhere, I think it needs to stop with the CEO, and I think we’re seeing that across the world. We’re seeing executives recognise that. I get a lot of enquiries and do a lot of work with leaders who want to be thought leaders, because they think that’s what they need to do. 

They see that almost as part of their KPIs, which is great, but I have a lot of conversations with people to say, “Well, if you want to be a thought leader, you need actually to have some sort of original thought and it needs to be leading.” You can’t simply say, “This is what’s happening in my industry.” You need to have something to say and sometimes you need to be prepared to take on some contentious issues.

Mark Jones:
Yeah, imagine that. Imagine actually having to need an idea. I think that’s fantastic. So, where does that leave CMOs? I’m also actually thinking of brand marketers, brand managers, too. So, people who are far more closely aligned to products and services. And they, in my experience, really get very passionate about the brand. They live it, they think about it, they’re executing strategies that are directly connected to brand. They’re almost like the chief no officer of the brand. “You can’t do that because it’s off-brand,” right?

It’s like we’ve been around this, we’ve got our playbook, you can’t use that colour or that word or whatever, and by the way, yes, I totally believe in that. But if the CEO is ultimately the chief brand officer or the chief reputation officer, what role do you think CMOs should be playing in that space? What should they be doing?

Mark Forbes:
I mean, I think there really should be a team approach when we’re looking at the CEO, the PR and comms experts, and the marketing experts, that it should be clear about, “Okay, this is where we want to be. This is where we want to be in terms of reputation.” Some idea of how we’re going to get there, and that needs to engage all those parties. Because that needs to be happening through owned channels, marketing and advertising campaigns, and it absolutely must be reinforced and furthered by that external presence in media, that if there’s conflict between those things, then everything will crumble. It needs to be part of a coordinated strategy and people need to talk to each other. I mean, I think probably one of the most I suppose incompetent things I’ve seen during this whole corona period was the recent Lorna Jane campaign for anti-virus activewear. That looks really like-

Mark Jones:
Yeah, that was a fail.

Mark Forbes:
Someone in the marketing team somewhere thought that was a good idea, and no one said, “Well, what are going to be the broader reputational comms and PR and media implications of this? What are people going to say and do about this?” Having that space to actually talk together and to be cognizant of the fact that things in a marketing channel don’t happen in isolation. They flow over into so many different areas, so you need to have a wide range of perspectives and people offering reality checks and say, “Does this really match where we want to be? Does this action reflect what we say our purpose is and our actual goals are?”

Mark Jones:
Yeah. Are there any other good case studies come to mind? I mean, either stuff that you’ve done or other things that you think work or don’t work out there in the world.

Mark Forbes:
Yeah. There’s probably some good and bad. But there’s been a couple of major, major companies, one of the largest investment advisors in Australia, and one of the biggest global energy and automation companies in the world who I’m working with at the moment. And it’s taken a very similar approach of companies that have traditionally been risk averse in terms of getting into the public arena. In one case, I think very good at their B2B marketing, but now wanting to actually take more of a role in the world and have more of a voice and lift their profile, which B2B marketing can only do so much. They see a key role and I agree, in the profile and their influence being earned media. You start from the bottom and you build up. You go around and you talk to media and say, “What do you think about this company?”

This particular company is not small. It turns over nearly three billion dollars in Australia a year, and I found that pretty much all the business editors have never heard of it. So, you go and you introduce them, you show them the facts and you come with a few little nice trinkets as in, “We’ve got this great story happening here” or, “We’ve got this major initiative.” So, you build those relationships, build those stories. You help the various leaders in the company start to be more outspoken and LinkedIn is a great tool. If you’re trying to boost your professional reputation and your network, LinkedIn is fantastic.

You should be looking at getting more active there, but you also should be looking at a strategy of gradually boosting your voice through the media, through thought leadership, and starting to I suppose build relationships with journalists so they become sought after voices of expertise and commentary. So when a big story happens in that sector, they get the … And that’s now starting to happen with this energy company. Similar with the big investment company. Again, it’s you’re having to bring people on a journey with you because a lot of companies and leaders are really nervous about putting themselves out there.

Mark Jones:
Well, what’s interesting about your example and I can relate to it, because I do a lot of work in B2B, as well, is that you are combining a lot of traditional media relations and PR/comms tactics, in terms of the journalists, but the strategic view here from a reputation point of view is, “Well, we want to have a national voice. This is a big company with national reach,” but it wants to speak into issues that traditionally it hasn’t spoken into. So you’re trying to map that national agenda, maybe you’ve got to figure out how you best stay in your lane, and map that to the products and services and the historical views that it’s always harboured, right? In an industry context. I imagine that is a pretty interesting conversation.

Mark Forbes:
Yeah, and you need to pick the topics, you need to pick the channels, and you need to pick the time. I mean, I’m doing a bit of work around sustainability issues at the moment, which is great, fulfilling to do, I enjoy doing it because you feel like you’re making a contribution to potentially making the world a better place, but it’s also difficult to know, you know that earned media can be fickle. It’s very much based on what’s happening then and what’s the topic, so particularly anyone who’s based down here in Melbourne at the moment, I’m very cautious about trying to put much stuff out there because the focus is suddenly intensely around COVID again.

So, there is movement and a natural cycle in the news cycle and part of the work is trying to anticipate that to a degree, and so you’re out there just at the right time when you look like you’re leading an issue.

Mark Jones:
Yep. Now, I think you put out a whitepaper a little while ago. Do you have a few very quick best practices, tips or recommendations, things people could takeaway to manage their and build their reputation?

Mark Forbes:
Sure. Certainly, I can talk about that.  We’ve also just put out an eBook on crisis management but for reputation, I suppose if you wanted to boil it down to three, it would be saying that recognising that reputation is your most valuable asset and you need to both promote it and protect it. I think to promote it, you need to craft your story with quality content. You need to shape and own your message and make sure that you’re in some degree of control over getting that message out to key audiences. And finally, I’d say that just you need to be authentic. You need to say what you mean and mean what you say, and ensure your deeds match your words.

Mark Jones:
That’s great. 

Mark Jones:
Well, Mark, it’s been fantastic to have you with us on The CMO Show with us today. I really appreciate your perspective and the shared journey and all the best for fighting the good fight and helping companies get the right story out there to build their reputation.

Mark Forbes:
Thanks, Mark. It’s been a pleasure.

Mark Jones:
So that was Mark Forbes. Hope you enjoyed it. I did. It was great to hear his perspective and to reflect on the importance of reputation. It’s a really important part of the marketing mix and we kind of do it intuitively I think a lot of the time, but actually developing plans, not just for crisis management but for ongoing reputation building, I think is one of the key things that I’m taking out of this. We need to slightly reframe the earned media conversation because if you look at the importance of effective, transparent messaging today, he makes this great point about staying in your lane. But it’s really about how do I align in that context? My messaging with the narratives that are going on in the world, and in my industry, and how am I going to make sure that we as a brand are saying the right things at the right time, to the right people?

It’s very easy to get caught up in the tactics of getting media clips and getting your name out there, but really we’ve got to make sure we’re getting the right messages out there at the right time. I think this is a really good reminder of that. Now, before I go, a quick reminder that if you haven’t already, we’d love you to subscribe to us, to The CMO Show, on your favourite podcast app. Just search for The CMO Show. It’s that easy, and hit the subscribe button. Rate us, too. We’d love your review if you feel so inclined, and as always, it’s great to get your feedback. Your guest or topic suggestions, email us at cmoshow@filteredmedia.com.au. Tell us what you think and who we should have on the show next. Thanks again for joining us on this episode of The CMO Show. Until next time.

Get in touch
I want to Filtered Media.