Book Of The Week: How to enrapture raptors

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The Independent Online
Waltzing with the Raptors

by Glen Peters

(John Wiley, pounds 18.50)

BANK OF Scotland's recent spot of bother over its now-abandoned venture with the US television evangelist Pat Robertson demonstrates once more that businesses of all sorts appears in almost constant danger of undermining their reputations.

Glen Peters points out in this timely book that the risk is growing. The episode involving Shell and the disposal of the Brent Spar oil storage platform showed how even companies with strong reputations for corporate responsibility can burn their fingers.

The marketing folk may talk increasingly about such concepts as "brand values", integrity and other aspects of reputation. But this counts for little if organisations fail to live up to the expectations of not just society, but small yet potentially powerful segments of it. The increased readiness of activist groups to take on companies gives Mr Peters, a consultant with Pricewaterhouse- Coopers, his title.

Velociraptors, or "raptors", were among the most deadly of dinosaurs. He likens the exploits of the "asset strippers" to these aggressive beasts.

But he also stresses that special-interest groups can have the same effect - and he paints gloomy scenarios of multinationals brought to their knees by claims that they have put shareholder interests ahead of safety, conservation or human rights.

Mr Peters imagines a different world, in which the company "engages" the raptor by seeking to understand why it wants to attack.

"You provide alternatives that sate its hunger and placate its killing instincts. In a way, you provide the musical accompaniment of a calming Viennese waltz," he writes.

This sounds rather pretentious. But he does have a point. As he explains, BP - before its merger with Amoco - had a run-in with Greenpeace. Initially, it responded in the traditional way, taking court action against the protesters occupying its oil platforms. But then it decided to waltz, by offering to create a $1bn solar power business over five years. The company had not abandoned fossil fuels as Greenpeace had demanded but it had made a significant commitment to renewable energy, and the pressure group recognised that.

These examples - like others cited in the book - show how companies have responded to attacks. And what Mr Peters is keen to explain is how companies can avoid getting into trouble in the first place. This is what makes his book of greater value than many of the others that have appeared in this area in recent months.

It would be hard to find a senior executive who did not want his organisation to have a good reputation; the trick is actually gaining one - and retaining it. Many organisations will have noticed that setting yourself up as reputable or, in the current terminology, "values-driven", can make you even more of a target.

Being a management consultant, and especially one in an organisation that is part of an accounting firm, Mr Peters has a business solution. But, while this might appear simplistic, it sets out principles that can help organisations through what is an increasingly complex landscape.

The "Reputation Assurance Framework" basically involves organisations looking at the four principles of "stewardship", "the environment", "health and safety" and "communication" in terms of the various stakeholder groups - shareholders, customers, employees, society and partners. Underlying this are what he calls three golden rules - listen to constituencies - and avoid assumptions; rely on self-assessment, rather than regulation; and monitor and measure what you are doing.

Clearly, nothing can guarantee that an organisation will never get into trouble. But, reading this book, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that if the Bank of Scotland had followed this approach it probably would not have stumbled into its recent furore.