Courtney Malengo headshot
Courtney Malengo

You do not have to look hard to find reputational nightmares unfolding before our very eyes — whether that is politicians, celebrities, faith leaders or, gasp, even senior living professionals. As the coronavirus pandemic has thrust senior living into the national media spotlight, it only compounds the scrutiny placed on communities and their executives.

As the wise Benjamin Franklin noted, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” No matter how great your marketing efforts are, reputation is the one thing that can either bolster those efforts with credibility or undermine everything you have worked so hard to achieve.

Publicly traded companies know that 70 to 80% of market value comes from hard-to-assess intangible assets such as reputation and brand, according to the Harvard Business Journal. Glassdoor found that approximately 69% of job seekers would not take a job at a company with a bad reputation (and if you haven’t checked out your company on Glassdoor, now is the time to do it and to post thoughtful responses). A growing number of executives also recognize that their personal reputation directly affects the company. Approximately 74% of executives believe their customers tie brand reputation to their reputation, according to Forrester Consulting.

Organizations tend to have disaster plans, and maybe a crisis communications plan, but neither of those plans focus on long-term reputation. How many organizations do you know that have a proactive reputation management strategy or plan? In today’s climate, it is not difficult for executives and companies to land themselves in hot water.

“Contingency plans for crisis management are as close as most large and midsize companies come to reputational-risk management. While such plans are important, it is a mistake to confuse them with a capability for managing reputational risk. Knowing first aid is not the same as protecting your health,” wrote Robert G. Eccles, in the Harvard Business Review.

Reputation matters because it acts as your credibility and track record. Your reputation affects public perception and trust. Ultimately, if either of those are poor, then that will directly affect sales, employee engagement, resident satisfaction, brand loyalty and more.

Senior living will not remain insulated to consumer demands, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There always will be a need to draw on goodwill during a crisis, especially if your organization is wrongfully maligned.

You want to differentiate yourself from your peers, but don’t let that be a bad reputation! Here are some tips to assess your organization’s reputation, proactively identify reputational risks and implement strategies to bolster your reputation.  

Assess reputation

Start by benchmarking your existing reputation. What you think your reputation is, and what it actually is, could be very different things. Review media coverage, social media and online reviews, and conduct stakeholder surveys as well as focus groups.

Focus on the common themes that permeate throughout these feedback mechanisms. Those common themes that emerge are where you can prioritize your efforts and responses.

Identify reputation-reality gaps

You know better than anyone what your organization’s “warts” are. Every company has them. The power is in realizing where there is a disconnect between what you are selling and offering.

For example, if your marketing campaign promises luxury living but you are serving burnt appetizers and boxed wine on a regular basis, then you have a reputation-reality gap brewing.

Another area these gaps emerge is when there is any difference between what you say and what you do (this applies to the organization as well as its leadership). When there is a stark contrast, people will jump all over that and be quick to bring it your attention, often in a very public forum (online reviews, social media, etc.).

Recognize reputational warnings

Warning indicators are the bellwethers for crisis and, sometimes, the skeletons hiding in the closet.

Often, it’s the problems bubbling below the surface that are the greatest threat to your organization. If you can identify and mitigate these threats early on, then you can prevent these issues from becoming full-blown crises and reputational nightmares.

Are there disgruntled family members or employees? Are there internal silos and territorial departments? Do individuals experience frequent communication breakdowns? Does your marketing overpromise and underdeliver?  

Monitor changing opinions, preferences and movements

Things that once were acceptable or preferred are no longer. If you monitor the changing opinions and preferences of your clientele, then you will be able to pivot more quickly when change is required.

Keeping a pulse on larger cultural movements also is important, because it is very likely to affect employees and those in your organization’s sphere of influence, and ultimately it will affect how your community is perceived in a new climate.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best

Taking stock and implementing these steps begins the planning process. Plan for the worst-case scenarios so you know how to respond and can have ongoing strategies to mitigate future reputational issues. With plans and actions underway, no matter what pops out of Pandora’s box, you are prepared to weather the storm.

Implement and maintain community relations/public relations strategies year-round

Building and maintaining a positive reputation in the community takes time. There is no quick fix. All the more reason to start that process before crises and reputational nightmares come knocking at your door.

It requires a proactive, ongoing stance versus a reactive, in-the-moment response. Investing in strategic public relations and community relations, however, will yield countless dividends — everything from brand awareness and increased revenue to third-party endorsements and referrals.

Don’t be afraid to peel back the organizational layers and look at what’s bubbling below the surface so you can prepare to actively monitor, defend and bolster your reputation.

Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their stories to inspire audiences and galvanize growth. She has 17 years of experience leading branding, marketing, public relations and communications initiatives, 10 of which were spent in senior living. Courtney has counseled executive teams in times of crisis and reputational pitfalls, tackling situations from employee misconduct and natural disasters to a domestic shooting and COVID-19.