This is a key question in the mind of many, both inside and outside of the co-operative sector – and especially among those long-term admirers of co-operative values and principles.
The answer is captured wonderfully in a quote from a recent article (not relating to the co-op sector) by Amanda Coleman, head of corporate communications at Greater Manchester Police. It sums up the single most significant risk and opportunity facing all organisations today: “Being caught on camera is part of life, so it is vital to ensure that organisations behave in the right way.”
The fact is, one of the main challenges for any organisation or sector is to ‘live the reputation they seek’.
No longer is it possible to be on the outside, what you are not on the inside. You will simply get found out. In this connected world, where stakeholders influence and are influenced, long-term sustained success is determined by the ability to be utterly transparent and accountable and to consistently demonstrate that at all times.
The most recent addition to the duties of any senior executive team is to align the belief of what the organisation is internally with the perceptions held by the external world. Then, the task is to adjust internal operations, systems, processes, habits and behaviours towards achieving alignment.
So, with recent events at the Co-operative Group, how can the UK sector and the global movement continue to not only maintain the reputation of the co-operative movement, but to enhance it?
Achieving this demands the need to evidence several reputation qualities and strengths, some of which are more vital for the sector at this present time than others.
Six ways to enhance co-operative reputations
1. Acute listening: Digital and social media channels make it possible to really listen to the tone, emotion and theme of conversation. Understanding how people are talking about co-operatives provides incredible insight, and a detailed understanding of the sector. It informs reputation strategy, predicts risk and often provides the ‘how to’ of appropriate and proportionate response. The co-operative sector must carefully listen to how it is being assessed, across all stakeholders.
2. Visibility in its difference: Rather than retreating in response to recent events, co-operatives need to be more visible than ever. In the UK, there are 15.3 million members of co-operatives, and the co-operative economy is worth £36.7bn – pulling together to demonstrate the sector’s collective difference is needed more than ever.
3. Understanding: Strong reputations are built around ensuring all those with an interest in the sector are left in no doubt as to the purpose and nature of co-operative organisations. Gaining clear understanding in the minds of stakeholders, delivering consistency and checking that it is resonating will remove any risk that all the reputation equity for the sector is held in one ‘basket’ and around one organisation.
4. Performance: A key aspect of reputation is a perception of financial success and health. Especially post-recession, reputation is strengthened when stakeholders know a sector is a ‘safe bet’, has strong anticipated performance and is likely to be here for years to come. Co-operatives may be used to highlighting their credentials in corporate citizenship and sustainability – but they now need to enhance the reputation of their financial health.
5. Governance: Being well governed in its affairs, having strong stewardship for the benefit of members and the ability to make decisions for the future is vital in terms of reputation strength. While governance is about processes and systems, in reputation terms it is also about perceptions. The values and principles of being a democratic sector, run in the wider interests of its members, not just the interests of a few shareholders, is perhaps the biggest reputational challenge to emerge from recent scandals. It is time for the sector to stand confident in its ability to evidence how this principle leads to good governance. Celebrate and highlight the democratic decision making within each co-operative and show how this makes it different.
6. Honesty, trust and transparency: The only way to maintain or regain honesty, trust and transparency is to align reputation from the inside out. Being able to evidence and articulate your difference and to demonstrate ‘how’ you are co-operative through both what you do and how you do it will serve to maintain and establish trust. These aspects of reputation have never been more important. Ensure co-operative enterprises are aligned to the values of the sector and that these are consistently visible in everything it does.