If you aim for nothing, the chances are that that’s what you’ll hit.

I’ve just read the latest ‘Business Panel Research’ report from Richmond Events, the company that organises directors forums that bring ‘sellers’ and ‘buyers’ together to do business aboard luxury ships at sea.  The ‘at sea’ bit is clever because there’s no way for the buyers to escape the sellers, who are paying for the cruise.  The topic under discussion by the panel of business executives this time was ‘Corporate Reputation’.

Do 61% of companies really not monitor their reputations?

The research tells us that six in ten companies don’t measure (or don’t know if anyone measures) the state of their corporate reputations.  If true, I wonder how comms departments set their strategic objectives at the start of the year and justify their pay and rations at the end. I’ve always found it a challenge trying to solve a non-defined problem.

I’m hesitant about attaching too much importance to the findings because only 16 per cent of the respondents are marketing or communications directors. Almost a third (27%) of the respondents are IT directors.  Now, call me cynical, but I’m unconvinced that IT directors (or catering, finance or logistics directors for that matter) pay enough attention to corporate reputation research.  The case for the prosecution would highlight that fact that most didn’t think their comms or marketing departments were responsible for measuring corporate reputation, m’lud.

The good news from the research is that 84 per cent of the executives surveyed believe their employer’s reputations are ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. Quite what the basis for their confidence is with limited measurement going on is beyond me.  The good news doesn’t stop there: 61 per cent believe their corporate reputations have improved over the last three years.

Is the panel practicing the art of self-deception?  The Edelman Trust Barometer, a comprehensive annual survey into corporate reputation that’s been running for a decade, found that trust in business, government and non-governmental organisations suffered a significant decline between 2011 and 2012.  That drop came hot of the heels of another significant decline in corporate reputations in the UK and the US between 2010 and 2011.  The dark economic outlook is playing havoc with corporate reputations.

What gives the Edelman survey authenticity is that it seeks the views of people like customers, rather than company executives.  The comparison with the Richmond report reminds me of the old adage that when a man tells you he’s good in bed, that’s advertising; but when his ex-girlfriend confirms it, it’s public relations.

If the majority of companies genuinely aren’t assessing the key components that make up their corporate reputations, depending instead on gut feel, I think a big problem is being created for the future.   If true, maybe it’s budgetary pressures that’s at fault, but corporate reputations are more fragile today than at any time over the last two decades.

Stakeholder’s trust in businesses has been slammed into reverse since the global economy got a sick note from the doctor. The growth of social media channels is making the challenge more difficult by lowering the bar on what constitutes a threat to a business’ reputation (and a CEO’s tenure), just as much as the opportunity that social media is creating to enhance it.

Many corporate reputations need significant rebuilding after four years of dark clouds, cost reduction, job cuts, price rises and whatever the collective noun for ‘financial scandals’ is.

When it comes to managing your corporate reputation, facts always beat opinion.  Planning for success without factual data is self-delusion.