Reputation Management Insights & What Comms Leaders Are Most Concerned About These Days

Q&A with Corporate Affairs/Reputation Leader & MAHA’s Advisory Board Member Judy Brown

By MAHA

Q: Can you tell us about your background (touching on your corporate affairs and CFO leadership roles)?

A: I started my career working as an auditor for Ernst and Young (EY) in the US and Germany. After a 10-year career in public accounting and consulting, I moved to a consumer product client – relocating to Italy to work in finance at Whirlpool. Later, I expanded my portfolio of experiences, taking roles in global product development and brand management. I was pulled back into finance when given the opportunity to become the CFO of Perrigo, a consumer healthcare and generic drug company in Michigan. In my 11-year tenure in that role, the company underwent a period of massive growth – expanding from $1 billion to $6 billion in revenue, from three to 35 markets and participating in 27 M&A transactions. During this time, we also began making investments to improve the company’s position externally and, as such, built out corporate communications, government affairs and social/digital media competencies. This meant expanding my responsibilities beyond the classic CFO role, making sure all of our stakeholders appreciated the value drivers of the company. An opportunity then arose to work in biotechnology in southern California with Amgen, initially as an executive in finance, but then later as a member of the C-suite leading the corporate affairs function. This gave me a chance to tap into my experiences managing and transforming complex, multi-national teams as well as handling the messaging and narrative development processes. I was fortunate to continue to develop a very dynamic and talented team responsible for all facets of communications, patient advocacy, ESG, patient support programs, our corporate headquarters management and philanthropy during a very dynamic time in the industry.

Q: What are a few of the biggest challenges you faced over the years linked to managing reputation?

A: We live in complicated times where the macroeconomic environment is extremely volatile, management teams turn over continually, people consume information very differently than in the past and stakeholders’ trust in companies and brands can change rapidly. CCOs are constantly playing the role of firefighters, managing one business crisis after another, waiting for things to return to an ever-elusive “normal.” With that said, when I assumed the role of SVP corporate affairs at Amgen, which included CCO responsibilities, the thing I had to ask was – how do we move from putting out fires to all rowing together in a cohesive direction? This applied to all of the function’s sub-teams – communications, advocacy, ESG, patient support and philanthropy – even if their day-to-day activities might feel very different. My thought was that we could all align behind a vision to shape, drive and enhance the reputation of the company, and each group had a unique role to play through their different activities. Ultimately, we had to think about how to allocate our time, human resources and funding across a portfolio of work to optimize the reputation of the company. We then used that framework to help clarify and create transparency for the value creation of our own function, providing clarity around what we would and would not do and say. So, the question is, in a universe filled with daily noise, with people demanding they get more information instantly in tight ten second clips, how do you decide what you will communicate? That’s probably the biggest challenge facing CCOs now – being disciplined about what you will and what you won’t do in a time when the demands to continually create more content, take stands on social issues and manage drama never cease.

Q: What attracted you to MAHA, prompting you to join their CCO advisory board?

A: While at Amgen, I had the opportunity to see the first phase of development of MAHA’s platform. I was intrigued, because I felt like this was potentially something that would meld my keen interest in data and analysis with the importance of making qualitative decisions as a CCO – informing what we should and shouldn’t communicate. And in an era where every function of a company is being asked to use data to prioritize and allocate resources, this tool seemed to me like a very effective way to earn CCOs a seat at the leadership table, enabling communicators the strategic ability to look at what messages are resonating, with which audience and to what amplitude. It positions them to have much more meaningful conversations about the value of their work.

After retiring from Amgen, I continued talking with the MAHA team. The conversations were very organic – about how MAHA’s platform could afford executives a chance to share their knowledge beyond the four walls of the communications department and into the C-suite. Having served on a public company board for 15 years, having been a CFO working closely with Wall Street for 11 years as well as having been a CCO for four years at a mega cap company, I thought I might be able to provide broader executive suite insights to help MAHA in their continued development.

By starting with behavioral data and learning what is actually relevant to reputation, MAHA can generate data that goes beyond what people think, feel and say and instead, provide an on-demand, forward-looking analytical tool to inform what companies need to do – to enhance their reputation and overall performance.

Q: As for measurement, do you think it’s important for reputation teams to invest in data and technology, and if so, why? 

A: I think data is going to become ubiquitous across all functions in corporations going forward. Resources are tight, and like I said, the macro economic conditions are volatile no matter what industry you’re in. Therefore, data is really important, to be able to ground the conversation in reality and point to some reason you are individually or collectively deciding to go in one direction or another. Moving forward, data is really going to be the key driver for everyone as they make decisions, and that includes something that historically has felt much more qualitative, like communications and messaging. And while there’s certainly a huge component of art vs science when it comes to communications, being able to have a thoughtful conversation with business peers about why you will place resources in area A vs area B, is going to become increasingly important. You’ll want resources to position the company’s reputation optimally, but you should have some foundation to provide evidence to your peers why this investment is a good one. Everyone is trying to get resources from the same pool of money, so having data to point to that demonstrates some return metrics for the communications investments you’re making is always going to be a better choice than not having data. I told my team they needed to learn how to “speak CFO” in addition to being able to communicate well on behalf of the company, because ultimately being able to show – with data – the ROI of those communications initiatives is a virtuous cycle that feeds further investment for the future.

Q: How can a reputational intelligence platform, such as MAHA’s Darwin, help guide reputation teams, C-Suites and board of directors? 

A: I’m a fan of the Darwin platform because it allows people to have a very clear path to make informed decisions and tradeoffs on reputation and communications investments. We are all faced daily with time constraints, and companies are also faced with human resource and financial investment constraints. Darwin provides a decision tree framework to be able to make informed tradeoffs – not just on a yearly basis but rather monthly, weekly and, to the extent needed, a daily basis – regarding where to place one’s time, energy and talent and to be able to optimize a company’s reputation to a whole host of stakeholder groups. There are multiple fly wheels going every day, therefore you have to be able to optimize where you’re putting your energy. Darwin provides a much better set of parameters to make the necessary decisions and tradeoffs that are inherent in a CCO or Corporate Affairs leadership role (or by a CEO or board for that matter). It is a useful tool to compliment risk management processes as well as to manage perception from stakeholders. Also, it’s my feeling this tool provides leaders who might not otherwise have a voice in these conversations, the ability to use data to point to which decisions might truly create value and which might destroy it.

MAHA’s platform empowers companies to understand and manage the evolving drivers that are increasingly affecting their corporate reputation, providing reputation teams with a scientifically oriented research product to bring into their boardroom, speaking the language of their leadership team (e.g., CEO, CFO), stemming from big data.

Q: What are your top tips for companies interested in managing their reputation?

A: Reputation is a somewhat nebulous concept, and being able to encapsulate some quantitative metrics around a concept that is qualitative in nature can feel daunting. My recommendation is: be as pragmatic as possible and don’t attempt to try to manage everything or position oneself within an organization as the reputation “fixer” because there’s no way to solve for everything and/or do it alone. Data can provide a framework for conversation and be the basis for selecting one strategic investment over another, but ultimately the way a company is going to be perceived and the type of reputation it’s going to have is a product of every facet of the organization – (e.g., product quality, customer service, responsiveness, ethics, behavior of management, etc.). Every person in the organization has a role to play in maintaining and further enhancing a company’s reputation. So, my advice is, don’t assume that having data about reputation or perception is going to be the only driver, it takes participation from everyone. However, Darwin gives communicators a much better foundation to have a thoughtful, meaningful business-centric conversations.

I think it’s safe to say that knowing how you are perceived has never hurt anyone. You can spend a lifetime building a great company with the best product, service management, etc., but just one shift in perception can take a lot of your position and value off the table. Taking a data-driven approach to know how your company is viewed can only be additive to your long-term value creation goals.