What is the difference between corporate and individual reputation? Or perhaps a more appropriate question would be where does a corporate reputation stop, and the personal reputations of the company’s employees start? 

The answer is paradoxical: the two are both closely intertwined, and also very separate. Let’s unpick this a little, because it is potentially hard to understand how both those aspects can be true. 

Developing a personal reputation

Let’s start with personal reputation. Your personal reputation is built on everything that is known about you. For most people, that is what you have said at events and conferences, what you have posted on social media and blogs, and what other people have said about you publicly and to each other privately. You are in control of what you say, write and post. 

For thought leaders, this means taking time to build your reputation through an ongoing process of thinking through ideas publicly. This includes discussing them with other people online and in person. We have said before that you need a ‘red thread’ running through your ideas, but you also need them to evolve over time, as more information comes your way.

You are not in control of what other people say. However, you can and should respond to comments and engage with criticism of your ideas. This can happen on social media, and also in person at events and through private messages and emails. This conversation is an essential part of thought leadership. Indeed, the best thought leadership brands make a point of using thought leadership to develop high-quality conversations with their customers and prospects. 

Thought leadership and brand engagement

However, thought leadership is not entirely an individual effort. Its purpose is not solely to develop the reputation of employees as the ‘go to’ expert in their field. It is also to enhance the company’s reputation as a leader in its field, and to enable it to have effective conversations with its customers. Especially in B2B, therefore, a company’s reputation is at least in part the sum of its thought leaders’ reputations. It is also fair to say that we all understand that there are people behind every brand’s social media activity.

However, there is also no doubt that brands and companies have a very separate reputation from that of their employees, especially for long-established businesses. Brands or companies that have been in existence for a long time have built up their reputation over that time. One or even several thought leaders may be part of the brand’s ongoing maintenance of its reputation. However, thought leaders can leave, and take their personal reputation with them without affecting the brand’s reputation. 

What about a mistake by the brand? If experts have genuinely built their own thought leadership following, then a corporate communication error by their employer will not destroy their reputation. However, they may need to work to separate themselves and their views from the company’s actions. Ultimately, they may need to step away, and that could be professionally quite difficult.   

The situation may also be different for start-ups. There, the corporate reputation is far more closely associated with the founders—and therefore the reputations of the two are more closely entwined. Sergey Brin and Larry Page are intimately associated with Google in the minds of most of the world. Their personal reputations are certainly tied to that of Google. It is possible, however, that Google is now big enough that its reputation would survive a personal reputational meltdown by either. 

Complicating the reputation management journey

The elephant in the room here is social media. Social media has changed how we view and manage corporate reputation. Creating and curating a corporate reputation is no longer a matter of producing the right goods and services, and behaving well towards customers. Reputations can now be made and broken within hours on social media, simply because of what someone says or does online. 

Both companies and individuals have been on the receiving end of social media ‘pile-ons’, and discovered them to be a bruising experience. However, these experiences also often highlight the disconnect between company and individuals. We know that it is unreasonable to blame every employee for a brand’s action—or the brand for the words of a single thought leader. 

Perhaps, therefore, it is fairest to say that corporate and personal reputation are most closely entwined when positive. When there is a problem, we see them as distinct, which is probably fortunate for those involved.