Editor’s note: Michael Porter is the director, University of St. Thomas Master of Business Communication program, St. Paul, Minn.

You have one and so does the business you serve. The president has one and every professional athlete, team and major league – even the equipment used on the field – has one. Non-profits and countries develop them. Even your mother has one. What is it?

A reputation.

In truth, everyone and everything have many reputations. Reputations of a person or organization may vary widely from stakeholder to stakeholder. Depending on the perspective and concerns of any individual, a single act or statement can elevate or destroy a reputation in the minds of others.

Reputations are projected to mass audiences, defined by individuals, measured in aggregated data and generalized to reflect back a picture of the consciousness of the masses. That means there will always be outliers. The beast may only have one hump but will always have two tails. No one should know this better than a market researcher.

The issue – for the individual or organization concerned about the perceptions of others – becomes the difference between what people think and what we wish they might believe. This represents the potential for a gap. While we all have someone in our lives who sees us in the way we wish, many will think less of us and some may even think more highly of us than might be deserved.

This gap is only an issue when someone cares about the stakeholder and what that person or group perceives. You may not care what the neighbor next door thinks because of something he said at a BBQ last summer but the couple across the street is another story, so you hire that new organic lawn service they like.

In business, it’s not just our product or services that need to be monitored for this gab but also customers, community, regulators and even competitors. Particularly with the advent of social media, the lines between promotion, public relations/marketing and corporate communications have blurred to the point where reputation management becomes a reasonable catch-all. This is the place where people begin to act mindfully in identifying and narrowing the gaps.

With management of reputation comes an important caveat. In order to substantively manage reputation, it makes sense to have some idea of where it stands before you start with any given audience. This allows you to set a time in the future to return and measure any changes.

For professionals in the market research industry, this represents an opportunity as well as a potential Achilles’ heel. Working with firms to provide research options and services that help establish the essence and/or status of reputation may prove to be a stream of revenue or added value for you. However, when was the last time you conducted an assessment of your own reputation with key stakeholders? Making time and efforts to apply your craft internally can often be sidelined repeatedly, if not ignored altogether.

So if you have read this far, take another 10 minutes to think about your firm’s reputation. Answer this short list of questions:

  • Who are the audiences/stakeholders that are critical to the success of your firm in the next year?
  • How can you assess their current perceptions of your organization and its offerings?
  • How much would it be worth in potential new business or improved productivity if just 10 percent of those who think negatively about the firm changed their minds?
  • Do you already have people with the skills to gather the data you need? What about people to manage the reputation once you know where you stand?

Now take two minutes to think about whether you can afford to continue without better managing the gaps between what the firm’s reputation is and what you want it to be.