Gen Z, loosely, people born from 1995 to 2010, are about to enter the workforce, the political arena, the NGOs and your potential client base. In short, they are about to become your stakeholders. We all know they are the first true digital natives. But how do their attitudes influence how businesses should and must approach their reputation management? It is time for a rethink. 

We live in a world that seems to be getting more and more polarized. The attitude is “either you are with us, or you are with the… with the other group. This is driven by all generations since the baby boomers but by millennials, the generation prior to Gen Z, in particular. Several studies show that millennials are more idealistic, more confrontational and less willing to accept diverse points of view than former generations. 

This has been a challenge for businesses who traditionally have avoided taking a stand on current affairs and political debate, be it about environmental policies, equality, trade or foreign affairs – oftentimes to avoid upsetting any stakeholders unnecessarily. However, over the last few years, quite a few business leaders have, some actively and others more inadvertently, taken a stand or adopted a cause on behalf of the company they run or on behalf of themselves. Because it is wanted and because it is expected. 

For several reasons this has been a very welcomed development. What businesses say and do impacts the world a great deal. Knowing what they stand for on key issues is valuable and adds to our society’s overall transparency. 

The problem in our blackorwhite world is that businesses can end up being part of a one-dimensional aggressive movement where both sides are shouting at each other and no one is listening. The businesses end up acting like an NGO, and, instead of adding value and sense to the public debate, the businesses might just fuel the aggression.  

The good news is that some things are about to change: Introducing Generation Z. 

But first, why do generational attitudes matterThe concept of reputation has real business value only if its linked to expectations about the future actions of stakeholders. What those who affect, and are affected by, our business will do. Will politicians back the development plans, will customers shop more regularly, will employees stay, etc. 

The definition of reputation thus becomes “the collective evaluative attitude of stakeholders.” It is the sum of all stakeholders’ attitude towards the business. It is about feelings and trust, it is about behavioral preferences and, increasingly more important, it is about the stakeholder’s world view. 

Measuring the attitude of stakeholders is more demanding than simply determining whether they like you. In return, it provides an insight that could inform decision-making. 

Generation Z, more than two billion individuals, have a different world view from former generations1. That is probably because they, in many countries, are more racially diverse, have less traditional family backgrounds and are more likely to have friends from various ethnic, religious and racial groups. Among other things. 

Generation Z does not define itself only in one way and understands that there are different truths in the world. They want to live life pragmaticallyhaving fewer confrontations and more dialogue. 

The impact this has for reputation management cannot be overestimated. Because Gen Zers believe in the importance of dialogue they tend to accept differences of opinion with institutions in which they participate and with companies they interact more than preceding generations. They can disagree with some of your policies and stands and still support you wholeheartedly if they like other things you do. It is not black or white. 

Based on what we have learned, here are 5 recommendations as to what companies should do in order to manage their reputation effectively among Gen Zers without turning off other generations: 

  1. Pick a position when relevant issues come up, but don’t be black or white in your arguments. You are running a business, not an NGO.  
  1. Be honest about some of your business dilemmas. Talk about it every now and then. 
  1. Feed into the curiosity of generation Z. They search for the truth. Not THE truth, but A truth. Help them find it. 
  1. Don’t hide when things go wrong. Gen Z are more tolerant of companies when they make mistakes than other generations. Just make sure to fix it. 
  1. Be transparent. Gen Z knows how to access information quickly. If you say one thing and do another, they will find out.  

Gen Z is still young. Most of them are not yet allowed to vote or buy a beer. Still, they are a huge group and they will change the world we live in. They will also change your business. But don’t prepare for a fight – prepare for dialogue.  

Simen Johannessen, Senior Account Director, Gambit Hill+Knowlton Strategies and author of “The beauty and the reputation,” a book on how companies best can manage their reputation.