Damaged reputations (and how to repair them)

Ian Briggs

During a recent conversation with a senior product development engineer who works for a high end vehicle manufacturer, the importance of ‘halo products’ opened up an interesting conversation. Investment in such ‘halo’ products is a given in a highly competitive marketplace and the known impact they have on consumer behaviour is a strong justification for the high levels of investment needed in them.

The conversation turned to the near universally low esteem that this talented, hard working professional engineer held local public services in. To him, they were poorly managed, overly costly and rarely related to the wants and needs of the local people. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that he held this view but I did ask him if there was anything he really valued about local public services.

There was very little, but one service emerged as something that he did value – the local Fire and Rescue Service. He could find little to criticise about them. He cited a number of times that he was called upon to work professionally with them, and he saw them as having a very high level of professionalism when exploring vehicle safety issues. Any cut backs in this service he felt was poor political judgement. He was continually impressed by them and appreciated that in many cases the conditions within which they worked were challenging, dangerous and above all professionally demanding.

So why, if within the case he was putting forward that in the commercial sector investment in halo products and services is seen as a key way of leading and managing the overall brand, did the public sector not think and behave in the same way?

This contrasts with two papers that have crossed my desk recently. In both cases a strong argument is put forward for increasing the importation of private sector talent into the public service. However, in both cases the argument centres around the skills that commercial managers and leaders have in controlling inputs whilst at the same time improving the outcome quality of products and services. No mention is made of strategic investment in halo products and understanding of how careful promotion of those products and services that are known to be valued, even by those who consume products lower down the range, have a positive impact on overall consumer behaviour.

We did go on to discuss how the reverse could be true; could poor product perception have a negative impact upon products and services across the brand? The answer was a clear yes but the means by which this was countered was revealing. He cited cases of increasing management and leadership attention on those products and services that are valued. Clearly this has to be done simultaneously with rectifying where possible poor product and service across the portfolio, but it makes me reflect upon the tactics we apply in public service management. Are we missing a trick? The media is full of challenging stories of very serious public sector failure and the reputational damage that the NHS is suffering is potentially immense, as are sections of local government and other governmental agencies. But within this there seem to be few issues that lead to reputational harm to the Fire and Rescue Services – although I do not wish to tempt fate here!

So, should we explore this transferability of positive product and service a little more closely? My product engineer friend said that lessons could be learned in how these high value products are developed – in certain cases the positive impact of the product was achieved through a ‘less is more’ approach. Consumer behaviour can be positively impacted on by taking out unnecessary or unappreciated elements of a product or service; this is perhaps counterintuitive but is now an established mechanism for commercial organisations. The giving of more or adding more leads to a rapid acceleration of wants and needs but positively promoting the efficiency of a product that closely matches the expectation of the consumer adds value.

It would appear that within the highly tuned commercial mindset the notion of meeting the needs of the consumer is not always about the surprise and delight extras that are offered, but rather exists within the precise tailoring of need to product – even if somewhat perversely it may cost the provider more to take things out than to put additional things in.

What seems to be key here is the amount of attention that is paid to understanding what you do well whilst at the same time seeking address what you may not do so well. This is a principle that is commonly adopted in commerce – it is drawn from the theoretical perspective of ‘appreciative enquiry’ – seeking to understand what is positive and then taking active steps to deploy the factors that lead to success. There is an extensive literature on the subject that rarely seems to have an airing in public management circles, but perhaps this is something that we could learn from other sectors.

The key point here seems to be the accepted dimension of the transferability of reputations, both positive and negative, and the need for commercially savvy organisations to pay close attention to the ‘halo’ product and service. If that positive transferability is a reality then we should perhaps pay more attention to where we are succeeding and achieving high reputational advantage, even if the media still wants to pay rightful attention only to those areas where we may deserve a poor reputation. Maybe it could be a case of not seeking to import private and commercial sector savvy to wider public services, but to recruit more fire-fighters into wider public sector jobs.


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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