Which audiences matter to public service organisations when managing their reputations?

Jan Boon, Jan Wynen, Koen VerhoestJan Boon, Jan Wynen and Koen Verhoest

Why do public sector organisations target different stakeholder audiences when managing their reputations? This is the question we wanted to address in our recent Policy & Politics article entitled What determines the audiences that public service organisations target for reputation management.

A basic tenet in the reputation literature is that organisations are sensitive to their environment. Different audiences (be it clients, politicians, the media and others) expect different things from public service organisations, so how do they manage such conflicting demands? How do they prioritise the needs of their audiences?

A growing body of research in this field has shown how public organisations respond strategically to their environment, for example, through discursive strategies (related to communication) or substantive strategies (related to their actual behaviour and outputs). Yet we still know very little about which audiences different organisations prioritise when it comes to managing their reputations. In addition, due to the case-based nature of most reputation-based research, we still don’t understand  how organisational features affect the interplay between organisations and their audiences.

The main contribution of our article to this field is twofold: firstly, we analysed the relative importance of different audiences for reputation management, and, secondly, we considered how this could be explained by core organisational characteristics (formal autonomy, task, size, and environmental turbulence).

So how did we go about it? Focusing on 41 Flemish government organisations (note that Flanders is a region in the Federal Belgian state with its own parliament, government and public sector), we quantitatively analysed a mixture of surveys and unobtrusive data. For our dependent variable, we relied on the Comparative Public Organisation Data Base for Research and Analysis (COBRA) survey, which includes a series of items that tap into the strategic choice of audiences by organisations for reputation management. For the independent variables, we relied on different data sources. The analysis involved a series of Tobit models.

Our analyses revealed a range of new insights which offer food for thought for scholars and practitioners. To highlight but a few…

Firstly, we found that organisations with formal autonomy (who are less under the direct control of their responsible Minister) considered their responsible Minister less important as a target audience for their reputation management. Yet we also saw that the same organisations reported a greater importance of politicians in general. This suggests that, as organisations have more autonomy, their “reputational scope” increases to include a broader set of political audiences (potentially at the expense of attention given to the minister).

Secondly, the formal autonomy that some organisations enjoyed did not seem to affect their perceptions of the importance of their users and target groups for reputation management. An important reason to grant organisations autonomy has been to stimulate them to be more focused on the experiences of their end-users or customers (eg. citizens, companies, etc.). The absence of any link between formal autonomy and the perceived importance of these end-user groups was therefore surprising. One potential explanation might be specific to the Belgian institutional context which is characterised by its centralised nature and the dominance of its political parties. By contrast, the United States context, which has inspired most of the research on reputation management, offers more opportunities for local interests to influence bureaucrats. The strong centralised nature of the Belgian context might therefore point at the importance of institutional context to understand context-dependent reputational dynamics.

Thirdly, we found that organisations exposed to environmental turbulence (for instance, due to intense media or parliamentary attention) considered their responsible Minister as more important for reputation management. In a parliamentary system such as Flanders (Belgium), individual ministers are privileged actors in governmental dealings with the bureaucracy. The observation that environmental turbulence makes organisations more likely to turn to their responsible Minister to help them manage their reputation might suggest that organisations distinguish between, on the one hand, actors that have a close and direct influence on the immediate survival of the organisation during times of environmental turbulence and, on the other hand, actors that have a longer term impact on the functioning of the organisation.

Overall, we are confident that this study sheds new light on the organisational and institutional context in understanding reputation management. We hope that future research will tackle the many remaining questions, including how and by whom reputation management is performed in different organisations, countries and temporalities.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Boon, Jan; Verhoest, Koen; Wynen, Jan (2020) ‘What determines the audiences that public service organisations target for reputation management?[Open Access], Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15613697611542

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Understanding reputational concerns within government agencies

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