When a company faces a lawsuit and a trial by jury, its reputation becomes very important to the outcome of a trial.

As much as we'd like to think that jurors can look past pre-existing biases and evaluate a case on the facts, we kid ourselves if we don't consider the company's image as a major issue.

So, what can/should an organization do to develop an image that serves not only marketing purposes, but also serves to insulate it from negative bias in the courtroom? The answers are complex, but the basic strategy is not.

First, a company should pursue a positive image. Although this sounds elementary, many companies hide their head in the sand and do not prioritize good corporate citizenship. Awareness is the first step to the development of positive image equity.

Secondly, an organization must recognize and consider the image of their industry. Like it, or not, organizations are lumped together with their "brethren." A well-planned image strategy must carefully consider this issue and determine whether a company should separate itself from its industry or build on the strengths of its segment (or a combination thereof).

Next, the organization must evaluate the primary elements that determine corporate image and build on the positive elements that fit the company's mission and personality. Research has shown time and again that one of the more basic elements that impact public opinion of companies is "how they treat employees." Employees are the strongest representatives of a company. The word-of-mouth communications within the community that come from employees is without equal in terms of impact. The particulars that determine opinions of "how a company treats its employees" are vast, and they must be addressed through enlightened, programmatic policies.

Another issue that often comes up in our research is the question of the impact of "community involvement" on an organization's image equity. The sad fact is that this element does not have the impact that company's would prefer. Rather, these efforts are often thought of as insincere or obligatory or worse. We generally file this research finding under "don't look like your buying image equity."

The bottom line is image equity is important to a company for many reasons and, image can is a huge factor when facing legal liability issues. Therefore, decision makers must consider the organization's legal "face" when an overall communications strategy is developed and implemented.

Samples is president of RMS Strategies, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. RMS Strategies has extensive crises communications, counseling and litigation research experience and has worked for clients throughout the nation during the last 25 years. They can be contacted at 304.343.7655 or www.rmsstrategies.com.

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