BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig on fire

Book interview: David Waller, ‘The Reputation Game’

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Reputation is one of the key ingredients to success in the technology space. So how do we gain a good reputation in the market? How do we maintain it? And how can we repair it when things go wrong? Author David Waller has the answers.

“Reputation in today’s world is more valuable than money.”

So says David Waller, whose new book ‘The Reputation Game’ sets out to analyse how such a nebulous concept as what people think of you can be moved out of the ‘soft skills’ set and into something more concrete. Indeed, he says, “reputation can create tangible value for organisations and individuals in their working, private and public lives. On the basis of that starting point, myself and my co-author, Rupert Younger, decided to do a deep dive to come to an understanding of how reputation works.” While the book opens by explaining how valuable a commodity reputation is, the remainder examines how to get a good one, how to keep hold of it, what happens when you lose it and how you go about rebuilding.

There are three pillars of reputation. The first is behaviour, which Waller says stands to reason as being simply how people judge you by what you either do or don’t do, what you are or what you are not. “But it’s not as simple as that. People can enjoy an undeserved reputation in either direction. Apple enjoys an extraordinary reputation. But if you delve into that, you can see that while people love the products, there has been a series of flaws along the way. But their reputation is such that it doesn’t matter, because they are so very good at creating a user experience.”

‘The Reputation Game’

We read it for you

In the world of engineering management you can either choose to ignore what your customers or the media are saying about you, or you can learn the rules and discover that the potential benefits of a positive reputation are unlimited. So says David Waller, one half of the authorship duo that has written ‘The Reputation Game’, a detailed examination on how to get the reputation you want and how to avoid being landed with a reputation you don’t. But to be successful you need more than to just deliver products to the expectations required. You need to be in an ecosystem that recognises your competence even when things go against you. Obvious examples are delivered in the form of Apple and VW, whose smartphones and cars are still hugely popular despite seemingly catastrophic setbacks. Authors Waller and Rupert Younger unpick the secrets to reputation with illuminating interviews and case studies. Fascinating stuff.

At this point Waller digresses to reference Greek philosopher Plato, who pondered whether it is better to be a good man with a bad reputation than the other way around. “It’s an interesting imponderable because it goes to the heart of what it means to have values. But in simple terms it means that a company can have an undeservedly good reputation or an undeservedly bad reputation, meaning there is often a misalignment.”

Second is the network in which you operate. “This is very true of tech investors. If you are a start-up company, to hang out with the people who provide money, expertise and insight can make all the difference. You might have a fantastic product, but unless you are in the networks where that product is going to be appreciated your reputation will probably stay rather small.” In other words, reputation here follows another ‘stands to reason’ proposition of “it’s not what you know but who you know”. But if you break this down scientifically, says Waller, “networks are interesting because this is how reputation flows”. Not only that, networks can be closed or open, “with tech networks, as compared with say financial markets or diamond trading, tending to be open”.

The third pillar is narrative, which Waller describes as “what you say about yourself and what other people say about you. You need to have a good story and ideally that will match your behaviours. But you can have a good story alongside lousy behaviour and vice versa. Basically reputation is a combination of these three factors.”

‘You need to have a good story and ideally that will match your behaviours.’

David Waller

Beyond this, there are the two sub-categories of competence and character, the former being about “how good you are at what you’re supposed to be good at. So in the case of the corporate CEO this involves making money, making more money than other people and so on. Character is more related to the ethical values that you demonstrate,” which in the corporate world might involve concepts such as sustainability, environmental responsibility, employee benefits and conditions, safety, customer relations and general sense of mission.

“There are paradoxes within this,” says Waller, who cites the example of the reputational blow experienced by Volkswagen in the wake of the emissions scandal. “In some respects this is a superb case because to have deliberately designed a ‘defeat device’ that gets around technology designed to measure noxious emissions is a serious failure of character, because basically you are cheating your clients, the regulator and the environment. But VW’s capability reputation was enhanced by this, because it shows VW to be very clever engineers. It’s a triumph of German engineering in a very amoral kind of way. Engineers see problems and they fix them through ingenuity. VW saw a problem and they got around it with some clever software. The paradoxical consequence of this is that they’ve lost a lot of money, but people still like their cars. So the actual impact on sales might have initially been bad, but it has picked up because VW is fundamentally known for making cars and good engineering. Their character reputation has been tarnished but their competence hasn’t.”

This is in stark contrast to BP, which, according to Waller, as a result of the Deepwater Horizon episode lost traction in all three reputational areas. “We saw action and behaviour failures leading to a tragedy in which people died. There was also a failure of competence and they proved themselves to be ill-networked in North America where it mattered at that point in terms of reputation.

“They were also confronting a social media environment that was new – which to a certain extent no-one would have been prepared for – making them top of the news agenda for 90 days in a row with tens of thousands of stories per day. This was before the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, but it was an environment that just couldn’t be countered. There were pictures of pelicans covered with oil and BP just couldn’t get their own side of the story across, ever. It was a communications and reputation disaster, but it was a lot more than that. It was a disaster that went to the heart of what the company was supposed to be doing, which was to extract minerals from our environment in a way that isn’t damaging.”

The first step to repairing a damaged reputation is “simply to tell the truth. Managing or trying to manipulate your reputation is simply the wrong way around. Reputation is fundamentally a by-product of what you do, the networks you are in and the stories that are being told about you and by yourself. You have to ask what it really is you want to be judged by in terms of performance.”

‘The Reputation Game’ by David Waller and Rupert Younger is from Oneworld, £18.99

The heart of Apple’s core


The rise and rise of Apple under CEO Steve Jobs was built on its capability reputation. Every product that launched was iconic, the latest in functionality, a must-have device. The value of the company rose from $3bn in 1996 to over $350bn in 2012 when Jobs handed over the reins to Tim Cook. Yet, while Apple’s products were magnificent in design terms, they suffered a number of embarrassing technical glitches.

It all started in 2008 with ‘Crackgate’, when cracks started to appear in the casing of the iPhone 3GS. This was followed by ‘Antennagate’, when users holding the iPhone 4 in a certain way impaired the mobile signal. One year later, in 2011 came ‘Batterygate’, where users of the iPhone 4S experienced rapid loss of battery power. Then 2012 saw two problems: first ‘Scuffgate’, where nicks or marks started to appear quickly on the newly launched iPhone 5, followed by the much more embarrassing ‘Mapgate’, where Apple’s long-awaited mapping app failed to deliver accurate directions. This last problem prompted a full corporate apology from CEO Cook. And finally, three issues emerged during 2014 – ‘Cameragate’ (problems with the iSight cameras on the iPhone 6Plus); ‘Hackgate’ (where celebrity hacks placed a focus on the security of Apple’s iCloud service); and also ‘U2gate’ (where Apple was criticised for allowing the automatic download of U2’s new album on to every iTunes account without the users’ permission).

These missteps did not affect Apple’s capability reputation; the company’s reputation protected it from any fallout. Once you have the reputation for producing devices that everyone on the planet wants to own, it is hard to shake off.

Edited extract from ‘The Reputation Game’ by David Waller and Rupert Younger, reproduced with permission

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