Fidelity Byte: Distilling Corporate Character in PR 2.0 Minutes

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“Character is like a tree; and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” — Abraham Lincoln


Establishing character and reputation as a (social) business

You may opt to experience the words and imagery of the two-minute IBM on Brand video first.

A few columns back I provided a definition for social PR for businessrelating the inside out—including a quote about a critically important, intangible asset: It has been estimated that reputation accounts for as much as 30 to 70 per cent of the gap between the book value and market capitalization of most companies.

How and why does a “valuable” corporate character and reputation form and grow (or depreciate)? How to crystallize or distill a social public relations version of the business that resonates? It needs a great communicator, honesty and fidelity to the source, and continued significance as corporate and societal norms change.

There’s a handful of well-known, larger companies that solidified their reputation through social (i.e., mainly as online entities), such as Amazon or Zappos. Other companies have prospered through social offerings and growing reputation, only to be bought up by an even larger entity (think of Radian6 being acquired by the equally respected SalesForce).

But for most businesses and non-profit organizations, an effective social communication component is like an integrated layer or piece of clothing complementing an overall outfit. Or like a watercolour painting—slowly, deliberately and wondrously created on a canvas filled with scenarios, different departments and people, with little daubs of subtle colours and shadings, filling in aspects of the entity.  (And, in my opinion, this constitutes the most-effective manifestation of brand journalism, also known as content marketing, as so ably written about by Windmill Networking colleague, Bob Geller.)

In my organizational narrative post that continues to receive attention, I offered the analogy of a constantly, endlessly woven tapestry created by multiple internal and external hands.

Time and attention: both the allies and the adversaries of social corporate character

In past columns I have quoted from different parts of The Connected Company, but not this statistic: The average life expectancy of a company in the S&P 500 has dropped from 75 years in 1937, to 15 years in a more recent study.

Given the 15-year-expiration company estimate and the relative newness of social business options, it will be interesting to see who has the greater advantage for the long term—newer or established businesses—when it comes to social character and reputation.

I propose that agility and mindfulness are necessary allies to effectively integrate social into communication; key components in making it to the 16th year and beyond with corporate character and reputation intact.

The challenge is that mindfulness takes resources and can only be “managed” internally. And this takes time. For established companies, it may also mean a radical change in the mindset of corporate culture regarding agility.

Adversaries include: the noise inherent in social; the plethora of options/channels; and the lack of time, attention and critical thinking so many internal and external stakeholders are able or willing to devote to any one social business. The bright and shiny new companies may get this attention—particularly if core offerings and audiences are already socially aligned in nature—but for how long?

In particular, if all business communication and relationships are devoted to social, whereas the people in decision-making positions of authority look to non-social channels for the most-important information and relationships regarding investments and resources, such as employees.

It’s also why I get frustrated by pop-culture social marketing terms like “fans,” “engaged community,” “sales funnel” and “third-party validation” being arbitrarily assigned as the heart of social PR. If a company doesn’t know its own character and reputation in social, fly-by fans and imprecise communities are unlikely to lend themselves to either sales or validation for the long term.

“We need to bake integrity into corporate DNA.” —Don Tapscott in The Toronto Star

I’ve referred to the Global Alliance’s Melbourne Mandate (November 2012) before.

Although the Mandate isn’t a company, it’s an example of a new or at least potential “legacy document” that needs “time and attention” allies in order to take hold for the long term, i.e., more than 15 years. There’s also a “PR 2.0 minutes” connection per my column title, but it will be revealed later.

Jean Valin, APR, FCPRS, commented on a blog post, “I co-edited the Melbourne Mandate with my colleague Dan Tisch [current chair of the GA]. It was a co-creation effort [using social media platforms] involving more than 1,000 public relations practitioners from around the world, including the 800 assembled in Melbourne who helped us fine tune this advocacy platform for the PR profession.”

Although not a lengthy document—the PDF a mere five pages, plus a one-page Appendix, The Integrity Index and Testing Values—it does involve a lot of complex concepts and thoughts distilled or crystallized into A call to action for new areas of value in public relations and communication management.

Previously published in Strip Search Byte, its Principles are worth repeating for social-muscle-memory purposes:

Defining an organization’s character and values 

The communicative organization has a clear sense of its core or “DNA,” which consists of three strands: 

  1. Values: the set of values the organization lives by and which guides its decisions and behaviour.
  2. Leadership: the responsibility of leaders to model the character and values of the organization and beliefs on how it should operate, through decisions taken and the direction they set.
  3. Culture: the processes, structures, collective behaviour and ways of working that are part of organizational life. These things affect the way people and groups interact with each other internally and with external stakeholders. 
Response from a lack of time, attention and critical thinking adversary

A month ago, a UK-based social media and communication consultant claimed not enough communication or promotion was being done about the (then-five-months-old) Melbourne Mandate (primarily because he didn’t know enough about it).

Besides suggesting it was “too academic sounding” (despite being written in a consensus-building and collaborative fashion, primarily by PR practitioners), the pundit indicated it required too much attention to wade through the details. He claimed it needed simplicity. He suggested pictures might help to make it “pithy and concise,” “easy to summarize and grasp” and “make it more relevant.”

The consultant’s only innovative “contribution” regarding how to correct and deliver on all of these current deficiencies? Create an Infogram of the Melbourne Mandate. 


A possible “solution” to impart all of the mindfulness and intricacies, plus agility and collaboration needed for such a call to action—let alone putting it into practice and developing benchmarks and case studies? A Mandate that might help raise the reputation bar and value for thousands of companies and practitioners, including integrating social into the communicative organization, particularly for listening purposes…? I think perhaps the (above) criticism prompted Dan Tisch, APR, FCPRS, to write, Eight ways you can use the Global Alliance’s Melbourne Mandate.

Remember, the intangible asset of corporate reputation accounts for as much as 30 to 70 per cent of the gap between the book value and market capitalization of most companies; this makes the Melbourne Mandate worthy of time and attention.

A company with character and a long-standing reputation 

IBM was founded in the 1880s. In The Connected Company, Dave Gray writes:

“As the company grew, it continued to focus on its business customers and helping them to process and manage the data it took to run their businesses. IBM successfully managed to stay ahead of the technology curve for most its history, combining investments in research and development and innovation with customer service and support for its complex, leading-edge technologies.”

But after more than 100 years in business, the culture had atrophied into an “internally oriented, ritualistic web of territorial fiefdom.” Ergo, Lou Gerstner was recruited from American Express to become IBM’s transformative, change-agent CEO in the early 1990s.

“You can’t mandate [cultural change], can’t engineer it. What you can do is create the conditions for transformation. You can provide incentives. You can define the marketplace realities and goals. But then you have to trust. In fact, in the end, management doesn’t change culture. Management invites the workforce itself to change the culture.” —Lou Gerstner.

Testing the corporate character

When I posted the IBM on Brand video by Jon Iwata on Google+, the first person to +1 and comment on it was Jennifer Hanford (who interviewed me earlier this year). On my G+ posting, Hanford commented about her past history with IBM and how much what Iwata said resonated.

I asked Hanford for more information:

“IBM hired me as a supplemental employee in 1994 but never treated me any differently; when hired full time it was a seamless transition. During seven years with IBM, I was provided with opportunities for growth, training, and recognition. I’ve never worked for a company—before or since—that invested as much time and dedication to its employees. Working hard certainly paid off, but another key factor was encouraging employees to play hard. This feeling of special-ness engenders loyalty to a company. I worked in customer service with marketing reps that truly listened to customers and worked with them. It’s a very rewarding experience to be part of a synergized, marketing-customer team, especially as issues were resolved quickly and effectively: a win-win-win for all.

To raise my young family was the reason I left in 2001, but I remember my time with IBM fondly. I keep in touch with some people who still work there, including a former manager who served as one of the best mentors one could ask for. Although IBM has endured rough times with the economy and competition, it continues to treat its employees with respect. Now a solopreneur, I’m more effective having ‘cut my teeth’ in such a professional and established environment: I am proud to have been an IBM’er. The saying goes, ‘Once an IBM’er, always an IBM’er.’ I concur.”

Earning the right to distill corporate character into a mere two minutes of social PR

Lou Gerstner began his time with IBM in 1993, with the Herculean task of changing the corporate culture.

Flash forward 20 years to where the IBM brand is recognized as one of the most valuable in the world.

Jon Iwata, senior vice president, marketing and communications, was hired by IBM before Gerstner. He leads IBM’s marketing, communication and citizenship organization, and his global team manages an integrated system that encompasses market insights, demand generation for IBM products and services, communication and corporate affairs, workforce enablement, and stewardship of the IBM brand. He has led the development of IBM’s “smarter planet” strategy, established new marketing and communication disciplines and is the lead in driving IBM’s adoption of social media and networking models.

I asked Toni Muzi Falconi, my Italian (global) PR mentor and friend, to watch IBM on Brand and comment:

“Jon Iwata does not say what the character of IBM is—in a way, the non-character is the character. Jon is possibly one of the two or three greatest corporate relationship leaders of our time. He is the human product of a great company that has survived many difficult times, without losing its licence to operate. 

In addition, he has been able to ensure the external spreading of this non-character/character concept to others by leading the collective construction of the ‘building beliefs’ theory, to inspire the Global Alliance in at least one-third of the Melbourne Mandate and in restoring legitimacy to the Arthur Page Society that had been dispersed in recent years.”

If you haven’t yet, please take two minutes to watch this IBM video featuring Jon Iwata.

I believe it is the most exquisite, spot-on corporate culture video I’ve ever seen in capturing and distilling what I know and what I sense IBM is all about, both today and in the past. My column-opening quote from Abraham Lincoln is in there, as are the words clarifying, changing, fidelity and corporate character.

Do Iwata’s words and the images found in this social vehicle perfectly distill IBM’s corporate culture and reputation for you, as well?

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
Judy Gombita


Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
By @TedMurphy (of @IZEA) for @Convince: New Study Reveals the Lifetime Value of a Blog Post #business #blogging - 6 hours ago
Judy Gombita


  1. says

    Thank you, Judy for this wonderful post – so much to learn and remember from here. Loved the video and IBM is a great example. One of my clients used to work for Lou Gerstner and he pointed me to the book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” when I called him out on trying to change too much too soon in the company….as you quoted – Once an IBMer, always an IBMer :)

    Suchitra Mishra

    • says

      Thanks so much for commenting here and adding yet more “proof points” that IBM is truly a great company and brand.

      Dave Gray does mention Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance in The Connected Company (I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where he gets a lot of his Lou Gerstner quotes). And the quote YOU refer to is actually from Jennifer Hanford, who was herself tickled pink to be quoted in the same column as Lou Gerstner.

      Did your client work for Lou Gerstner when he was at IBM? (Maybe American Express or another company.)

      What I like best is that Lou Gerstner came in and transformed the culture (kind of like the reboot Star Trek films, the newest one of which I saw this weekend), but he’s no longer in the CEO role, yet Jon Iwata was there before Gerstner, during Gerstner and now post-Gernster, a living, breathing, highly functional and effective leader to demonstrate what can be accomplished when the company culture, reputation and vision is first-rate.

      We need more aspirational companies like IBM. That’s the most common response I’m receiving: “Have you ever worked at IBM? I would sure like to.”

      I appreciate you stopping b, Suchitray. And now I believe YOU finally have a new post up….I must stop by and drink from your wisdom….

      • says

        Yes, Judy – John does come across as an effective communicator and leader – inspiring, indeed.
        My client worked for Lou in IBM – and though he has worked for other big companies after that, his strategies and working style appear to be “IBM” style..

        Thanks again,

  2. says

    Judy, IBM indeed is an inspiration of purpose-driven business. Whether we call it brand, or reputation, or corporate definition, the goal is to define what it means to be IBM. The culture depends on shared purpose, on (to be academic about it) social identity theory — IBM’ers strongly identify with the company not because of its products and services, but because of who it is, its purpose for being beyond the quotidian. The Page Principles are still relevant, still a roadmap to effective PR, still vital. We have strayed from them, and a lot of our effort to reform our industry reflects the extent of that departure from our norms.

    • says

      Thanks, Sean. I will double-check with Toni Muzi Falconi, but I think when he gives Jon Iwata credit for extending his influence beyond IBM (including the Melbourne Mandate), that included in the credit was the (Arthur) Page Principles.

    • says

      Agreed, Sean. One of the best things about Jon Iwata is how he appears unaware of his huge influence. It’s other practitioners/academics and public relations-oriented organizations promoting (and quoting) him, not Jon doing it. That’s true thought leadership.

  3. says

    Great post Judy, I used to work for IBM back in the day (before social media, however some say Lotus Notes, which I was involved with, was an early form of social media). The post is chock full of useful info and tips.

    You grabbed my attention right from the start, with the point about the correlation between reputation and company/ brand value.

    On that note, I am wondering if or any of your readers can help with a question I have been wrestling with – I am wondering if there are any case studies or data that shows what happens when the PR and social media teams have a hard time doing their parts to support and build brand reputation when they are constrained by overly cautious management / IR – what is the opportunity cost?

    • says

      Thanks for weighing in, Bob.

      If you told me before about your IBM connection, I can honestly say I didn’t remember it. On the other hand, I think that speaks to why you do such a great job on your content marketing column, because it reflects the principles of corporate values, leadership and culture, of which you have first-hand familiarity.

      Am I correct in remembering that your university degree—like Suchitra’s—was in engineering? If yes, I think you should think back to that training regarding your current challenge about convincing those who have concerns about an increased social business profile. Engineers, like accountants and lawyers, are used to thinking and speaking in terms of risks and opportunities, as well as identifying the organization’s responsibility to society—the “licence to operate,” per Toni Muzi Falconi.

      Use influential/persuasive words and operational matrixes—see Suchitra Mishra’s new post—that appreciate risks but also indicate opportunities. Help clients to recognize whether the operational and human factors are in place to mitigate risks—the social media policies and guidelines, the focus put on not only recruiting the right staff, but in ensuring those directly involved in the social media areas understand the corporate character and reputation, and can be trusted with accountability and mindfulness, in relation to agility. Do a SWOT analysis of current communication channels and vehicles in terms of effectiveness and risk.

      Some social media channels are less risky than others. For example, how often do you hear about crisis management and communication needed for LinkedIn or Google+? From my observation, most of the social media crises seem to arise on or be amplified on Facebook and Twitter. Do your clients need to be on those channels from the onset, or can you take mitigating baby steps on others, first?

      If you haven’t yet, I’d recommend a closer read of Dan Tisch’s “8 ways you can Use the Global Alliance’s Melbourne Mandate,” which was a timely and very-late addition to my column. In offline discussions with Dan Tisch and Jean Valin, I learned this document is one component of a “toolkit” of resources being developed for PR practitioners to assist in applying the Melbourne Mandate to businesses in a realistic way. Dan and Jean have agreed to do a future post on the toolkit (for PR Conversations), which I understand will also cover existing case studies relating to the Mandate.

      Besides the interview I did with Ike Pigott in last month’s column—a public utility company is definitely risk-adverse—how about also looking to industry associations relating to your clients’ areas? Or the trade publications. What are your clients’ competitors doing in social? What are similar companies in different countries doing? European companies tend to be more risk-adverse than North American ones, so maybe you can look to their social activities to find some natural fits for your clients that can be modified and adapted to their corporate character and needs.

      • says

        Thanks, Judy, great suggestions. I will take a look at the resources you mention. Take an engineering (yes I plead geek guilty) / scientific approach – now, why didn’t I think of that!!

        Probably because I am a better marketer than engineer.

  4. Sunil Malhotra says

    Thanks for this great article Judy. Well timed and relevant. Culture is a funny thing; try all you want to make it a policy, evangelize its merits, pack it into manuals, whatever … it can’t be tamed. Culture is a tribe thing that can only be lived, not taught, not learnt. I quote from a rather old post …

    “It is time now, to create heart capital. An exchange of feelings, emotions and culture to foster knowledge creation and sharing.

    – An asset for individual growth and organizational excellence.
    – A tool for sharpening the competitive edge.
    – A culture for human enrichment.
    – A plan to protect and propagate our common heritage.”

    Link to the original post

    And yes, the IBM video beautifully captures your thought.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Sunil, including being persistent and re-posting!

      I agree with what you say about culture. And also about the outward manifestation as the corporate “brand.” That’s why I indicated it could only be “managed” internally (with varying degrees of success, often depending on the corporate character and culture). Once the brand is out there in social all bets are off–it certainly can’t be “controlled” and only a bit can it be managed, through policies, etc. (For example, per McDonald’s Canada, not responding publicly to negative comments on Facebook. Ever.)

      I’ve forwarded this comment including your own “heart capital” excerpts and links to Dan and Jean. I said they should consider involving you in the Melbourne Mandate “toolkit.” Not only because of your thoughts, but it would be great to have more global contributions and input.

  5. Sunil Malhotra says

    Hi Judy, always happy to be involved with changeists! :-) And honoured that you considered me worthy of contributing to the ‘toolkit’. (glad to meet you Dan and Jean) I have written about the business of culture hoping someone somewhere relates to the ideas and thoughts.

    Here’s an example.

    Would love your comments on this 3-part article on Online Reputation Management as well.

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