It is the time of the year when corporate reputations are paraded afresh. First out of the blocks: the annual list of The World’s Most Reputable Companies from the Reputation Institute.
The 2014 list contains some interesting findings from an Asian perspective:
Three Asian firms make the top 10: Sony, Canon and Samsung
Only 20 Asian firms make the grade, all but five (Samsung, LG Electronics, Singapore Airlines, Acer, Lenovo) of which are Japanese
Lenovo is the only Chinese firm to be listed.
The fact that Japanese companies are still regarded as the most reputable in Asia comes as little surprise (despite Sony’s financial difficulties), and Samsung’s rise to the top ranks is probably only to be expected.
The list also underscores the huge reputational challenges facing Chinese companies as they go global – an issue I have written about previously.
The RI list is also interesting for what’s not there:
The rush of tweets, infographics and animated gifs makes it challenging to get a real handle on longer-term communication trends. Thankfully, long-form journalism, storytelling and analysis are in rude health.
Here are the three best books on communication I have read in 2013 (ie. not necessarily published over the past twelve months):
Billed as a warts-and-all confessional on modern-day media manipulation and spin-doctoring, Trust Me is actually principally a polemic on the state of the media in the US and a no-holds-barred expose on the inner workings of the blogs re-setting news industry plate tectonics, notably Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Drudge Report, Gawker and Huffington Post.
If you believe your news should be informative and balanced, then this book makes for highly unsettling reading – Holiday’s thesis is that the media industry has effectively lost its bearings in a desperate quest for exclusives, page views and ad bucks, disregarding any pretence at accuracy, objectivity or integrity in the process.
While Trust Me, I’m Lying reads a little like a personal slanging match in places (the author pulls no punches in fingering those he sees as chiefly responsible, amongst them Gawker Media’s Nick Denton and media talking head Jeff Jarvis), it holds valuable insights and lessons for both communications professionals and consumers.
When Michael Woodford, newly appointed CEO of medical to consumer optical manufacturer Olympus, got wind of a scoop by a niche Japanese magazine detailing massive financial irregularities at his firm, he could scarcely have believed that he would wind up blowing the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses and becoming one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history. (Of course, Woodford has since been knocked off his perch atop the whistle-blower premiere league by one Edward Snowden.) While Exposure suffers from poor writing and can hardly be described as a balanced account (according to Japanese friends, Woodford is seen to have over-egged the publicity pudding and thrust himself to the front and centre of the story in an unashamedly un-Japanese manner), it is nonetheless a fascinating and, in this case, singularly unedifying insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It is also an excellent example of how a reputable company can be brought to its knees by a rogue employee (or two) through bitter resolve and smart communication on the one hand and corporate secrecy and intransigence on the other. For fuller thoughts see this blog post.
A book less about communication and reputation than about brand building, the authors use in-depth interviews with senior executives at emerging giants from Brazil, China, India, Turkey and other ’emerging’ markets to identify how a new wave of multinationals are building global businesses and global brands. Full of valuable insights into how firms like Asian Paints, Asia-Pacific Breweries, Godrej, Haier, Lenovo, Natura and Wipro are building their brands, The New Emerging Market Multinationals sets out a step-by-step process for global brand-building, including how to overcome country of origin perceptions, and ends with a look at how companies are – and should – manage their brands across their organisations, making a strong argument for centrally-managed brands. An excellent resource for professionals at emerging market firms and at established players figuring how to take on their new competitors.
Translated literally, ‘keiretsu’ in Japanese means ‘headless combine’. Sadly, it would seem a reasonable description of the state of Japan’s mega-corporations and their relationship with the Japanese mainstream media after reading Michael Woodford’s Exposure over Chinese New Year.
Having slogged his way to the top of camera and medical tech firm Olympus, a rare achievement in Japan for a gaijin, Woodford memorably blew the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses, making him one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history and Olympus a default case study in corporate governance abuse.
It is striking that while the story was broken by Facta, a small Japanese magazine, and lapped up by the international business media, Japan’s mainstream newspapers and broadcasters would not run what was probably Japan’s biggest business story of the past decade. Why? Apparently out of a fear of losing advertising revenue and concern that they might expose themselves legally.
Only when the independent Third-Party Committee had reported its findings and established the guilt of Olympus’ leadership did the local media jump on the bandwagon, even if (as Woodford points in an insightful interview with the Japan Times) they only then reported, not investigated.
Woodford was clearly adept at working the media. Yet he also knew that if he was to return to lead the company then he had to make his case directly to Olympus’ workforce, leading his team to set up olympusgrassroots.com, a (now defunct) website for Olympus employees, and to conduct an open interview/Q&A for website members on Japanese video site Nico Nico Douga.
This was a PR masterstroke, providing Woodford and his team with a direct route to communicate with and galvanise rank and file staffers and enable them publicly to demonstrate their support – not easy in a culture in which people rarely go publicly against the grain or express their opinion on controversial matters. It also proved a useful tool rebutting misleading statements being circulated by the Olympus leadership.
Worth watching is Woodford’s performance on Nico Nico Douga, in which he comes across as assured, sincere and objective, despite having had almost no sleep for days.
Of course, there’s nothing much new about using digital networks to circumnavigate formal communications channels. But its use as a proactive PR channel by a CEO against his board is a novel scenario. Certainly, nothing like it had been seen in Japan.
Ultimately, Exposure is afascinating insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It also persuasively demonstrates the power of communication and some of the techniques available to help force an issue into the open in a tightly controlled and conservative business and media environment.
For many, ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in India’ imply derivative products manufactured at low cost in sweatshops. Some cast this as a mark of shame. But if Forbes’ latest list of World’s Most Innovative Companies is anything to go by, perceptions of Asian companies are changing rapidly.
Of the 25 companies listed, 9 are from Asia:
4 from China
3 from India, and
2 from Japan.
One might reasonably expect to see consumer electronics, automotive and perhaps also BPO firms represented. Yet beverage, construction and internet companies are also baking innovation into their veins.
A key challenge for many of these firms will be not just to increase awareness and interest in their products beyond their domestic markets, but also to strengthen their reputation for innovation amongst customers and other stakeholders.
The experiences of Huawei – and other Asian firms – show that despite a focus on developing higher quality products and services, investing significantly in R&D and boasting an increasingly strong armoury of patents (Asian firms dominate patent lists), building a credible and strong corporate reputation can take considerable time and effort, not least in terms of governance and a proactive approach to good citizenship.
With product considered the primary driver of corporate reputation, ‘Made in China’ is already taking on a different and more positive meaning.