Reputation in the time of Covid

Nic Jarvis, Public Affairs / PR Consultant at Kommunal

Daily, hourly we consume news and information about the impact of Coronavirus on Australian society. It impacts virtually everything we do, from our work to how we live our lives and our interaction with family and friends and even where we can travel. It has affected how we think about the future and how things will change in our lives, probably forever. Our values and outlook have changed probably forever.

When it first began earlier this year, the common view was that Covid would be all over by the end of 2020 at the latest, if not sooner. We would have a vaccine, our cities and country would re-open and daily life and work would return to normal. Short term inconvenience replaced by business as usual.

Only it hasn’t turned out that way and, in the absence of that elusive vaccine, it’s unlikely for some time to come. Availability of a vaccine appears to be a year away and we can’t plan on that overseas trip until at least 2022.

Before Covid struck, we lived in a strong economy, house prices were on the rise and borrowing to buy them was at historically low levels. We took much of this for granted.

But with many people either working from home or not working at all has seen the consumption of news (via social or mainstream media) grow massively.

Social distancing (whether willingly undertaken or forced) has meant more than 70% of people get their news more than once a day and often multiple times as they try to keep up to date, a rise from 56% a year ago*

And while so many people are getting their updates from news media, anything related to Covid is getting airplay as well. In fact it isn’t news these days unless there is a Covid-link to it.

One thing that has occurred as people have more time to contemplate the world through their mobile, computer or tablet is the number of corporate ‘bad behaviour’ incidents being amplified through almost daily exposures.

As someone involved in helping clients manage their reputations in the public domain, particularly among their key stakeholders, one ‘side-effect’ of Covid has been a greater focus on reputation particularly that of companies and governments in Australia.

In the last few weeks we have seen the annual company reporting season, Senate Estimates hearings, the New South Wales Casino enquiry and New South Wales ICAC hearings. We’ve witnessed the frustration in Victoria at the seeming intransigence of a Premier who puts the economic welfare of the state behind the health of his electorate, even when no or a very few isolated cases of Covid occur.

All in all people seem angrier and more willing to blame those perceived to be doing wrong. Its reflected in social media in particular.

Perhaps the biggest recent example was the Prime Minister’s attack in Parliament on the head of Australia Post following revelations in Senate Estimates about the purchase of Cartier watches more than two years ago. Whatever you think of this, it’s the optics which Morrison used to his advantage to call out what he sees as bad behaviour. But what about Government waste PM?

This has been followed by revelations about the Chairman of ASIC’s tax arrangements and in the weeks before that the televised interviews by the Commissioner examining Crown’s suitability for a NSW Casino licence and the NSW ICAC’s hearing of excruciating evidence from the Premier of New South Wales, perhaps the best performing state leader in the country. And before that we had the debacle impacting AMP, one of our oldest and previously most respected companies.

It seems that in each of these cases, Covid has delivered much greater scrutiny and examination by the public of what amounts to behaviour detrimental to shareholders. In some cases this has resulted in changes to management and boards, but in most it’s seen (in the court of public opinion) all too late.

One outcome will be a much sharper focus by boards on management, perhaps to be welcomed when the largest intangible asset any company or organisation is its brand.

And the heightened scrutiny will hopefully see better and more effective communications between boards and management, avoiding the “I know nothing” argument that has been the common theme through these turbulent times.

*Study undertaken by the University of Canberra News and Media Research Centre