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Think before you leap

The World Health Organisation took just a little over 48 hours to revoke its appointment of Robert Mugabe as goodwill ambassador, following worldwide public, media and institutional outcry at an appointment which, at so many levels, was so blatantly wrong.

The wrongs of Robert Mugabe is not what I wish to argue here. What I am astounded by is that such an established institution such as WHO, with its army of strategists and planners could make such a rudimentary blunder. This reminds me that too many of us really still don't get the fact that if we are guardians of our organisations' brands, we have the responsibility to protect our organisation against risks which threaten to attack those values and thereafter, our reputation.

I have previously written about CEOs and their mistakes here. Unfortunately, u-turns and apologies will never completely obliterate the original mistake. In the reputation management world, a right never completely erases a wrong. Corporate wrong-doing tends to be remembered, tucked away in the stakeholder memory only to resurface the minute another stumble occurs.

Taking proactive steps to protect a brand and organisation's reputation against risk should be an integral part of the strategic planning process. After all, if no strategic plan is complete without an assessment of financial, operational, security and legal risks, why would the absence of reputation risk assessment be OK?

A responsible organisation which spends senior management time analysing, assessing and preparing against reputation risk would avoid this sort of blunder. More importantly, it would ensure that the conduct of its leadership and employees, as brand ambassadors, remain true to its brand values and ethical commitments. These are the organisations which receive support from its stakeholders and employees, these are the organisations able to recruit staff and partners effectively. Conversely, these are organisations which know which employee and partners to avoid. These, in other words, are organisations which are successful and sustainable.

There are six questions I always invite leadership teams I work with to think about.

  1. Are your employees as clear about your vision and values as you are? Have you evaluated the way these values are brought to life through your organisation's behaviours?
  2. Do you know who your stakeholders are? Are they identified and mapped systematically?
  3. Do you know what these stakeholders think and expect of you? Do you understand the issues which concern them, their beliefs and their biases?
  4. Do you know which of your stakeholders have the agency, legitimacy, inclination and voice to influence wider public and other key constituents' opinions?
  5. If you were to break your stakeholders' trust and support, do you know what impact this would have on your reputation? Thereafter, do you know what impact this would be on your ability to conduct your business, your 'licence to operate'?
  6. Finally, do you have a clear idea on the likelihood of reputational threats to your organisation - are you clear of the steps you would need to take to mitigate them, are these steps systematised?
Right now, I expect there is a certain amount of panic amongst the WHO leadership team, panic which would have started minutes after Mugabe's appointment was announced and social media went into collective attack. There would a scurry of "whose idea was this?" "why didn't we see this coming?" "what shall we do now?" questions and discussions. 

All this could have been avoided if they'd only thought before they leapt. 


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