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Does Visibility Equal a Good Reputation?

“I know I got a bad reputation/ And it isn’t just talk, talk, talk” — from “Bad Reputation” by Freedy Johnston

Leafing through The Wall Street Journal the other day, I came across a story entitled, “Ranking Corporate Reputations.” The article was related to Harris Interactive’s seventh annual RQ (reputation quotient) report, and I was curious to see what companies topped, and bottomed, the list.

Harris Interactive picks the sixty most visible companies in the United States and then polls approximately 600 adults to see how the companies’ reputations stack up against each other. Respondents rate companies on 20 attributes in six key dimensions: Products & Services, Financial Performance, Workplace Environment, Social Responsibility, Vision & Leadership, and Emotional Appeal, according to Harris Interactive. Johnson & Johnson has topped the list of most visible companies every year since the study began in 1999, while Enron (which is currently only operating in order to liquidate and pay its creditors) has been at the bottom of the list every year since 2002.

That Enron sits at the bottom of the list is certainly not a surprise. Other bottom-rung companies include MCI (WorldCom) and Adelphia Communications, and Tyco International and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, companies racked by accounting and insider stock trading scandals, respectively. Oil giants ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch/Shell are in the bottom ten, and so is Altria Group, perhaps best known for its tobacco business. United Airlines, which has been in bankruptcy proceedings for more than three years, is another name in the bottom ten, as is Halliburton, a company most people know because of its connection to Vice President Dick Cheney. The most interesting selection in the bottom ten was telecom provider Sprint.

People have long memories, and the fact that Enron, MCI, Adelphia, Tyco and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia don’t poll well proves that and shows just how difficult it is to change public perception. What’s interesting, however, is that Adelphia and Tyco were done in by its executives, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia suffered because of something completely unrelated to its business. And unlike Enron and MCI, there wasn’t a top-to-bottom pattern of fraud at Adelphia or Tyco. I guess that doesn’t matter – a scandal is a scandal. Why Sprint polls so low is a mystery to me, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the company’s historically poor customer and network service at its wireless division. (The company has improved both markedly over the past several years.)

The other bottom-rungers – Altria, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch/Shell and Halliburton – probably make the list because many people don’t agree with the products, profits or politics. United Airlines, meanwhile, is the ugly face of an industry that Americans rely on, but hate to deal with.

Looking at the top ten, Johnson & Johnson is intriguing. The company’s products, from baby powder to BAND-AIDs, are well-known and used in many households. In my book, however, J&J is more of a pharmaceutical and medical devices company (they sell more medical devices than any company in the world), and I don’t find them a very visible company. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a J&J commercial, and by the same token, I can’t remember the last time I heard anything really negative about them either.

The other top ten companies, in order of #2 to #10, were Coca-Cola, Google, UPS, 3M, Sony, Microsoft, General Mills, FedEx and Intel. One wonders if the UPS and FedEx trucks we see everyday on the street shape our image of those companies. The companies ranked second and third, respectively, in Emotional Appeal (J&J was first), a real head-scratcher when you consider these guys deliver packages, not babies or puppy dogs.

Coca-Cola’s incredibly strong brand has been able to weather storms for more than a century, and Google is, well Google. 3M is another J&J type selection. Are we really that into tape? General Mills is on many breakfast tables, Intel and Microsoft are in our computers, and many of us own Sony products. (Sony was one of five foreign-owned companies on the list, the others being Toyota, Honda, Unilever and Royal Dutch/Shell.)

What’s pretty obvious when looking at the top ten is that people equate a good reputation, to some extent, with visibility. How else to explain how Microsoft, which is probably one of the most complained-about companies in the world, makes the list? I have little doubt that the companies that scored well in the RQ survey deserve their rankings, though I wonder how a company such as 3M ends up number five in the Workplace Environment category. I’m not saying that 3M doesn’t have a good workplace environment; I’m just saying that I don’t have a clue what their workplace environment is like, and I would think someone like IBM has a better overall workplace environment. Again, it may just be a matter of daily visibility.

After looking over the RQ results and thinking about my own personal experiences, I began to laugh, remembering a guy I knew years ago. I worked in an office with him, and he was always running around, keeping himself busy. He was in every meeting and involved in every project. He was constantly busy and was usually one of the last guys to leave the office. What he didn’t do was much actual work. He was so visible, however, that people just assumed he was doing something right.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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