“Your reputation is what you are perceived to be; your character is who you really are,”
– John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach, 1948-1975
That is a profound statement that has taken on new meaning in light of a string of recent crises that have confronted major global corporations like BP, Apple, Toyota and others.
Is it time for communications and marketing professionals to move from simply managing brand and corporate reputation to more actively asserting themselves — at a board level — in the stewardship of institutional character? If not these professionals, then who should assume the role of truly looking at institutional character, not at a transactional level, but at the DNA level of the organization?
Taking a step back from the aforementioned companies, the pundits will continue to debate how each handled their respective situations, but from where I sit, Toyota seems to be the only one of the three that has really move beyond repairing its reputation, to truly addressing “character” issues that were at the heart of its safety problems. It made sweeping changes to its engineering and quality assurance processes that cost the corporation (and its shareholders) many millions of dollars.
The most common criticism of Toyota during the crisis was that it acted too slowly to address the problem. Some also suggested that it tried to put an American face on the problem in an attempt to isolate the issue and limit global impact on the brand. There is little doubt that this factored into the “reputation management” phase of the crisis, but ultimately, Toyota took the learning and addressed safety at a “character” level.
The monetary cost of revamping the engineering and quality processes was a small price to pay to restore the corporate character of a company that has built its brand on quality and safety. No one would suggest that Toyota had an epiphany that guided its action? Undoubtedly, reputation management was at the core of this operational strategy, just as it was for communications and marketing. However, in its actions, Toyota has demonstrated the difference between managing its global brand at a character level, rather just at a transactional, reputational level. They will not be held up as a role model, as J&J was for its handling of the Tylenol crisis of the 1980s, because they acted too slowly in the early stages. But, there should be little doubt that safety is who they are and not just how they would wish to be perceived.
What will we learn about the character of Apple and BP as they continue to handle their challenges?