Lead interview: The risk of inaction for CEOs

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LAST month, I had the opportunity to interview Tony Langham who co-founded strategic reputation management consultancy Lansons in 1989, writes Orla Clancy. He has advised Governments, organisations and companies on their image and reputation for over 35 years. In January 2022, Langham moved from chief executive to chair and appointed Gordon Tempest-Hays as the new CEO at Lansons in a move he described as “a transition while we were on the up”.

My first question for Langham was what changes he has seen to PR and how it contributes to the bottom line since 1989. “In some ways, very little has changed in terms of how we think, because we think holistically for our clients; we think in terms of their reputation; we think integrated communication and we have always thought about behaviour being crucial in reputation and image, not just communication,” he said. “In some ways, nothing has changed at all in that in the 1980s behaviour was a key part of your brand and reputation. What you did always mattered more than what you said and you always had to be authentic.”

“The language has changed with use of words like authentic and purpose,” he said. “In other ways, it has changed completely beyond all recognition because expectations of leaders and organisations are so much higher. The climate is, in many ways, more hostile, even though we no longer seem to have such a vivid debate between socialism and capitalism as we would have had in the 70s and 80s. The concept of whistleblowers and leaks is hugely different, and clearly the pace because of digital is hugely different,” he said.

I was interested to hear Langham’s view on the role PR and reputation play in ambitious growth strategies. “I’m a huge believer that what we do is best classified as reputation management. It’s a logical explanation of consciously managing your reputation. All great companies have to consciously manage their reputation,” he said. “Organisations with better reputations can enter new markets more easily than others; if your reputation or brand perception is higher you spend less on marketing than your rivals do because people believe what you say more easily, and people give you the benefit of the doubt if you have a higher reputation. These are completely tangible business outcomes that make a huge difference.” He elaborated further by saying that public affairs and lobbying are also important as we often need legislation and regulation to create business success and new markets.

Langham advocates for integrated thinking and integrated behaviours across organisations. His advice to CEOs is to have “an organisational structure that is fluid and dynamic, but has the right people in the room for the right decisions in a collaborative spirit. It matters the most in terms of the organisation having a purpose and behaving to that purpose.” He then said that reducing the silos as far as possible is important, yet acknowledged that this always differs across organisations. 

Thirdly, Langham said, to have the right reputation in the modern age in the way the world is, CEOs have to be proactive, take stances, and do things that traditionally look riskier than doing nothing. “It’s quite often been the right answer for organisations and corporations to be risk averse and cautious,” he said. “I don’t think that is the case any more. Now, understanding the situation where sometimes doing nothing is risky, and doing something that looks out there is actually less risky than doing nothing. I say that in terms of positions in society. Take, for example, diversity and inclusion. You shouldn’t be afraid as the chief executive to talk about white supremacy or white privilege. Sometimes, in a brand or positioning sense in society, it’s important to realise that it’s less risky to do something rather than do nothing or be conservative.”