Preparing for Recession: The Importance of ‘Corporate Body Language’ in Building Resilience

Yesterday the Bank of England cut its growth forecasts, and now sees the economy falling into recession from the October-December quarter. This grim warning about the economic outlook is a good opportunity to reflect upon the lessons learnt from the pandemic and how these can be used to build reputation resilience ahead of what is expected to be over a year’s worth of recession.

As we witnessed throughout the pandemic, reputations and value were battered through miscalculations of the importance of public perceptions and expectations in extreme environments. Conversely, many organisations were able to maintain, or even build, value and trust through their considered responses to the crisis by quickly reacting and adapting to support their critical stakeholders and broader community – think Airbnb offering 100,000 places for healthcare workers and first responders to stay around the world, while working on the frontline of the pandemic.

What this experience highlighted is the importance of what Nepean calls, ‘Corporate Body Language’ – the actions and behaviour that signal what an organisation represents. Corporate Body Language is critical to trust, reputation, and value. It’s not simply what you say. It’s the combination of your behaviour (be it action or inaction), language and engagement that drives reputation.

In the digital age, this is more important than ever. With access to vast amounts of digital information, stakeholders can make rapid and informed decisions surrounding authenticity and effectively utilise their networks to influence or even destroy the value of a business.

While the same will hold true no matter the environment we are working in, it is even more critical as we enter a challenging economic period. By integrating Sustainability and ESG within the overall business strategy and aligning the KPIs and outcomes with the overall Purpose, companies will be able to mitigate risks and identify opportunities within a challenging macro-economic and political context; whilst enhancing their market position and reputation. As Airbnb showed, being cognisant of the pressures on society and leaning in to play a role in supporting communities, is valued highly by employees, consumers, and all other critical stakeholders.

Drawing on our own experience, we have outlined three key building blocks to Corporate Body Language that can help businesses build reputation resilience in this uncertain time:

Employee engagement and internal communications are critical

Employees can be your greatest and most impactful ambassadors. It is therefore critical to proactively engage with employees in times of (expected) crises. Business leaders who acknowledge the information “gap” between themselves and their employees – and who engage regularly – will avoid disjunction between the business’ values and goals, and the way in which employees experience and represent them.

Be Human

Trust is a key tenet of reputation, and you can only build trust by acting and sounding human. Even in the digital age, when the majority of engagement with critical stakeholders is done through a screen, recognising the anthropological nature of communications is hugely important. Stakeholders can detect lip service from a mile off. Confront the facts with honest truths, avoid jargon, deliver responses which are authentic, and evidence your efforts to tackle the challenges that lay ahead.

Actions speak louder than words

It’s not simply what you do, it’s also what you don’t do. It is easy to treat these “Black Swan” events with a defensive mindset, being resistant to raising your head above the parapet to enact change. Whilst there are undoubtedly times when doing or saying nothing is the best course of action, more often than not we focus on what could go wrong when it comes to action, especially for businesses who thrive on playing with a straight bat. However, we need to start focusing on what could go right. If you’re not willing to act meaningfully and take risks, there is every chance you’ll be a laggard when you come out the other end. Afterall, that’s why the first-mover advantage exists.

Whilst this is not a complete guide to building reputation resilience, organisations that start framing Corporate Body Language as a value-creation opportunity will be in a strong position to navigate and successfully deal with the recession when it hits.