As we witness the rapid and messy implosion of the superinjunction in the face of guerrilla communication and the high-profile demise of the head of the IMF, it would appear that behaviour and reputation is in the spotlight once again.

I was speaking at an event last month attended by more than 40 senior names from the professional services sector. The core theme was brand development and brand engagement, an area of increasing relevance for this sector that has hitherto relied on the superhero/star-chamber model epitomised by the names above the door.

Professional services firms, particularly the legal ones, are gradually recognising the importance of differentiation when it comes to competition for market share, mergers and acquisitions, succession and, yes, the war for talent. Consequently the role of HR may be assuming new-found prominence, given they are responsible for ensuring that the values, culture and people processes – such as recruitment, performance management, and training and development – support rather than undermine the brand. They are accountable, ultimately, for ensuring that employees – and partners – keep the promises their firms make to their customers.

The various debates were fascinating, not least the shared insight that reputation, rather than brand, has greater resonance with partners. It was also apparent that in many firms the top team still resists attempts to include them in the common employee throng, making it extremely difficult for change facilitators to ensure consistency when communicating the firm’s brand.

There was a shared acknowledgement, however, that culture development is becoming increasingly important as a way of focusing on behaviour that may help differentiate one firm from the next in the eyes of the customer. But the change agents’ lot is not an easy one.

In such a politically charged environment, where hierarchy is still king, an objective “third way” can be very helpful. Measurement, in the form of a pragmatic and tailored employee engagement gauge, or culture benchmarking facility like the Organisation Culture Index, can be very powerful, especially if linked to customer data. HR has the opportunity to play an important role bridging the internal and external stakeholder communities.

Despite the inherent difficulties, HR functions can be hugely influential drivers of emplyee engagement & culture improvement to grow the brand by ensuring that words make actions and promises are kept, especially if they have the ability to convince the stars in the chambers that there’s a business case for change by asking the killer question “what price reputation?”

Ian’s latest book Brand Champions, linking HR and Marketing is out now.