Opportunities for startups in the reputation economy

“There is no place for shrinking violets in the reputation economy.” That’s according to Neryl East, an experienced public relations (PR) professional.

Reputation was the cornerstone of Neryl’s presentation when she spoke recently at the Startnest co-working space in Crows Nest, Sydney.

Neryl told some very entertaining yarns. She advised through one of the biggest corruption scandals in Australia’s history and also helped a university avoid too much fallout from a choice to… ahem… burn books. Many of the Startnesters hearing these stories seemed as wide-eyed as I was.

Neryl realised that the PR approach in these situations was really around the wrong way. “It was like calling the paramedics when the patient is at deaths door,” she said and this is why Neryl now focuses on helping businesses develop, what she calls “reputation capital”.

Over the session, Neryl covered a range of thoughts on and approaches for establishing and managing reputation and how to live this to really connect with customers. For startup businesses, she sees great opportunity for getting on the right foot early.

Reputation is all of these things: the collective perception of your business, trust, perceptions compared to competitors, customer experience, culture. And no company can afford to ignore their reputational health.

Reputation – three things

Neryl introduced a very easy concept for explaining reputation = her three legged stool.

  • Leg 1: is about your messages, what you’re choosing to put out there eg. Branding, signage, how you present, person to person
  • Leg 2: how people experience you. What do they think when they’re interacting with you.
  • Let 3: what other people say to others. This part of stool is heaps bigger these days.

Words and actions need to align between leg 1 and 2. Neryl said if they don’t people can feel that something isn’t quite right (like Simon Baker’s character on The Mentalist). But the third leg is where a lot of action is. “It’s heaps bigger these days and now more people are more likely to form an opinion about what they’ve heard rather than what you actually do”, she said.

The second and third legs cannot be controlled but they can be influenced (2 more than 3). Neryl recommends getting back to basics by using proactive, positive messages expressed in everything you do and thinking about all three aspects in balance.

Social media

Social media tools are really just newer ways for people to express themselves but this is a “game-changer era”. Neryl emphasised that businesses can’t ignore social media and that she hasn’t experienced a sector where the growth in social media isn’t happening.

But why is it so important to be on top of?

“Because decide and tell doesn’t work; people can see what we are doing these days. There has been a change in credibility and big agencies and government taking six weeks to respond to things; that doesn’t work these days.”


Thinking that you need to make the CEO the main figurehead? Well that might not be the best option as who is trusted has changed. This ties in to her message that credibility and reputation is based on all company people and operations.

“In 2011, if you heard about a business, who would be a credible source to believe? The key findings were that according to 70% of people, the subject matter expert was the most trusted; followed by the CEO at 50%; and someone in the business: 25%. In 2013, the CEO and employee had swapped positions with the CEO 25% trusted and someone in the business, 50%. Fancy titles and who we were used to matter but we are now influenced by what people say in our networks.”

The Edelmen Trust Barometer is a great resource to explore trust and there are a growing number of studies that explore who are the trusted people/organisations in different situations.

Being proactive; avoiding disaster

Neryl said that in the past people would say ‘call doctor spin’ (ie. the PR professional to get a good message out) but companies can’t do this these days. So what should companies do to avoid these disasters?

  1. Be aware. You need to know what’s being said about your business so monitor what’s being said as much as you can. You need early warning of an issue.
  2. Prepare. Check about the Awareness-Action matrix and do what you can to get to the top right corner.


Prioritise: the most influential things you can do

Neryl advises that businesses shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket saying that there are lots of options for building brand. For example, TV, radio, magazines, digital platforms. And local media can be important for building profile.

“I bet that every business in this room has a story. You just need to find the story,” she said.

Work with journalists. “When a journo writes your story, something happens. Amplifies the authenticity of the message,” said Neryl.
But it’s not just a single story in paper once, it needs to be something you do regularly and along with other communication and marketing activities.

Working with the media is a learned skill just like others. You need to understand the environment and start as soon as possible.

Some tips from Neryl: “Journos love human interest stories and timeliness is important and remember if it bleeds it leads. If you’re a shrinking violet you will struggle in the reputation economy.”

Some tips from me: think about the different angles to you and why you are doing what you’re doing. What might be interesting to an old friend you went to school with? Are you participating in an event soon that you can use to get out some of your key messages? Also, images are really important and both social and traditional media thrive on powerful images, so make sure you have some great shots to accompany your story.

And what would Neryl say to entrepreneurs that are afraid of getting out there and criticism?

“There is no option in this environment. If you’re confident that you are great then you have to get out there. Businesses that have PR disasters are those that have usually had trouble bubbling away for a while, for example, they haven’t made the hard decisions to resolve something. This is an opportunity for startups. You can start building your reputation now and keep it.”

There’s a great schedule of events held regularly at Startnest so check them out on Facebook or Meetup.

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