Op ed in Edmonton Journal on reputation & politics January 5

 

Opinion: Reputation is paramount to voters

Electorate gets the final say on Wildrose Nine

Opinion: Reputation is paramount to voters

Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight other party MLAs crossed the floor last month to join Premier Jim Prentice and the ruling Progressive Conservatives.

Photograph by: JASON FRANSON , THE CANADIAN PRESS

Just days before Christmas, two stalwarts of Alberta conservative politics, former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and Reform party founder Preston Manning, each had their reputational stockings filled with lumps of coal — Smith for leading eight other Wildrose MLAs across the floor of the Alberta Legislative Assembly to shore up the under-new-management PC government of Premier Jim Prentice, and Manning for counselling this behaviour, although he has since penned a mea culpa for his involvement.

The politics — past, present, future — of this historic event will continue to be dissected by commentators and politicos. Of more significance, however, is the impact on the reputations of all those involved, including Prentice, in both the short term (before the next provincial election) and the long (the history books).

“A good reputation is more important than money,” Publilius Syrus observed in 1st century BC.

Twenty centuries later, just two days after the Wildrose MLAs swelled the PC majority to 72 seats out of 87, American business icon Warren Buffett sent a memo to his top Berkshire Hathaway Managers. “As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years: ‘We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation,’” he wrote.

Buffet delivered a similar message in 1991 when he stepped in as chair of the floundering Salomon Brothers. Appearing before Congress, he told legislators that his message was: “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

As an aside, in 2014 Industry Canada approved the $3.2-billion sale of Altalink to Berkshire Hathaway, subject to certain conditions on the maintenance of jobs and management in Alberta.

If the value of reputation in business is return on investment and long-term viability and success, then the equivalency in politics is being elected and re-elected.

In his landmark 1996 book Reputation: Realizing Value from the Corporate Image, Charles J. Fombrun introduced the quantification of reputation. He went on to found the Reputation Institute, which assigns four attributes and seven dimensions to reputation. The four attributes are feelings, esteem, admiration and trust. All strongly resonate within the political arena, as shown by comments vented by Albertans in both the traditional and social media about the events of Dec. 17.

To varying degrees, and varying degrees of interpretation, the seven dimensions of corporate reputation apply to politics.

Products and services: Offers high quality and value for money, stands behind products, meets customer needs.

Innovation: Innovative, adapts quickly, first to market.

Workplace: Offers equal opportunity, rewards employees fairly, considers employees’ well-being.

Governance: Fair in business, behaves ethically, is open and transparent.

Citizenship: Environmentally responsible, is a positive influence on society, supports good causes.

Leadership: Well organized, has an appealing leader, excellent managers and a clear vision for its future.

Financial: Profitable, has strong growth prospects, manages better results than expected.

In a brief time, Prentice has excised lesions from the image of the PC party, but he will have to await the next provincial election to see whether he has restored true lustre to the PC reputation or just applied a patina.

The province’s looming $6-billion or $7-billion deficit will no doubt underscore the relevance of reputational dimensions such as governance, leadership and financial aptitude.

Individual reputations are on the line: MLAs elected as PCs who accepted the Wildrose Nine — the equivalent of the starting lineup of a professional baseball team — into their caucus, MLAs elected as Wildrose and who crossed the floor to join the PCs, MLAs elected as PCs who crossed the floor to be Wildrose or independent and then re-crossed the floor to embrace the PCs, MLAs who were instrumental in orchestrating the Dec. 17 migration, MLAs who pretended it was business as usual in question period when they knew otherwise.

To be absolutely clear: a politician crossing the floor or choosing to sit as an independent may not qualify for sainthood, but has not committed a legal impropriety.

Professional sports understand the importance of reputation, corporate and personal, even if certain decisions by their leaders don’t always align with the four attributes and seven dimensions advanced by the Reputation Institute.

Major League Baseball, against the backdrop of the infamous Black Sox Scandal of the 1919 World Series, understood its reputation, and indeed its livelihood, were both at stake. It was the first to appoint an independent commissioner with enormous powers. Today, all major sports — basketball, football, golf, etc. — have commissioners.

Politics has often been referred to as a blood sport, though it has no commissioner to police its reputation. But politics does have an entity that is potentially much more powerful than a commissioner. It’s called the electorate.

Either this spring, as rumoured, or by spring 2016, the voters of Alberta will pass judgment on the reputations of the current MLAs, the reputations of candidates in the next provincial election, and the reputations of the political parties under whose banners most candidates run.

Feelings, esteem, admiration and trust will easily trump promises and more promises, policies and denials.

Consultant Ronald Kustra has more than 30 years’ experience in public affairs.

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