I’ve often heard corporate communicators representing organisations under attack cite one of these three approaches and declare that they’ll turn a corner as long as they aggressively pursue it:
- No one understands what we do. “We’ve been too quiet and have not explained exactly what we do – when people understand how we operate, they’ll be supportive.”
- Fact vs. fiction. “There are too many falsehoods being perpetuated by critics. We need to rebut these far more actively, ideally using 3rd parties.”
- Draw a line the sand. “By being too quiet, we’ve let critics get away with murder. Enough is enough. Let’s send in the artillery and attack the opposition.”
- 3 is unlikely to work: belligerence makes things worse.
- There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1 and 2, but they don’t work in isolation. If both are practiced simultaneously, and with great skill, they’ll buy some time.
So what does work?
- If 1 really is true i.e. “no one understands what we do”, a campaign outlining how the organisation operates is not enough. There are probably deeper cultural realities that need addressing: why does no one know what it does? Presumably, they’ve appeared secretive, conceited or combative over the years (possibly all 3). Beyond information provision, a more deep-rooted change in tone and manner is vital: transparency, humility and a willingness to answer questions need to be palpable, with real people at the forefront, not just the polished spokesperson.
- If there is no truth at all in 1 i.e. if the organisation in question operates in a space in which no amount of cultural change and information provision can improve a damaged reputation, the communicator is fairly powerless. Reputational enhancement can only come about through significant business change i.e. dropping an unpopular product or service, or adapting the operating model or parts of the supply chain. Clearly, these sorts of big decision are C-suite remit and thus (usually) beyond the communicator’s jurisdiction. Unless real change is likely, the communicator is left fighting fires and attempting to stall the inevitable.