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.
I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks back that I was slightly unsure of how to approach the presentation on reputation I was due to give at the Public Affairs Action Day.
In short, we all know reputation matters in Public Affairs, but there are multiple potential scenarios at play: some PA professionals struggle with reputational issues yet only have a PA remit, others can do more far-reaching reputation management beyond Brussels, while others have an excellent commercial reputation which they need to “translate” for a Brussels audience. And within each scenario, there are many nuances: trade association vs. company, for instance.
I ended up focusing on principles and ideas applicable across the board, but shied away from real “reputation management” seen as an exercise beyond mere communications. I also presented a few findings from Fleishman-Hillard’s imminent Authenticity Gap study, which compares how industries are expected to perform vs. how they actually do perform across nine drivers of reputation. Any questions, fire away.
I’m running a session on reputation this week at the Public Affairs Action Day and although it’s a subject I’ve been dealing with for years, I’m always slightly unsure of how to approach it in a Brussels context.
The starting point, we can all agree upon: companies’ and industries’ reputation beyond Brussels is increasingly having an impact on what happens within the bubble.
That’s easy enough, yet the Brussels-based PA professional faces 1 of 3 fairly different scenarios:
- Scenario 1: Poor company/industry reputation but reputation is owned and done (if at all) by someone far from Brussels (and the 2-person Brussels team is overworked as it is)
- Scenario 2: Poor company/industry reputation but Brussels owns (or is a major player) in how reputation is defined and managed
- Scenario 3: Good company/industry reputation to harness in Brussels
Clearly, there are multiple nuances within each scenario e.g. a company can have a better reputation than its industry or vice-versa. Alternatively, a company can have a great reputation full stop, while others have a sound commercial reputation yet are unpopular among regulators (think certain tech giants).
Although there’s always plenty of overlap, each scenario necessitates a different emphasis by PA pros:
- Scenario 1: Here you’re not really doing reputation management in the traditional sense, but rather, tackling reputational issues in your Public Affairs work
- Scenario 2: Is the nuts and bolts of reputation management i.e. ambitious, involving multiple stakeholders and multi-disciplinary (communications and beyond, ideally right to the core of how a business operates)
- Scenario 3: Will centre on strategies that “translate” a great reputation into a narrative that carries weight with decision-makers and will likely involve mobilising or at least harnessing the people that have meant a company/industry has a good reputation in the first place
The conundrum is: do I do all 3 or just focus on scenario 1, which is the most common? My current thinking is probably doing all 3 but with more emphasis on 1.
This statement underlies a significant proportion of the comms briefs which agencies receive in Brussels. The thinking is as follows – “Pressure groups are more effective communicators and have shattered our reputation because we’ve never spoken up. Now, after 20 years of keeping quiet, we’re finally allowed to communicate. Excellent. Once we’ve said that our product is safe because the report we funded says so and/or that our industry employs X million people in Europe, we’ll be fine.”
No you won’t. The myth that misinformation amongst the elite drives policy that damages industry is one of Brussels’ biggest crocks of s***.
First, people – including MEPs or whoever – are entitled to a difference in opinion. Your product may be safe/beneficial, but the alternative is so too and is biodegradable to match. Or cheaper. Your industry may employ X million but the alternative industry employs Y million.
Second, believe it or not, public opinion matters. Sending your MEP a report won’t do if his/her constituents loathe you, even if they believe every word of your report. So the far bigger part of the puzzle becomes ensuring that whoever influences said MEP – constituents and whoever else – changes their mind. That calls for far-reaching reputation management programmes and a lot of perseverance. Daunting, but bury your head in the sand at your peril.
As PA professionals, we know our issues. Intelligence is our lifeblood: we understand the multitude of factors which determine how an issue might progress over time, we know who’s who, and so forth. However, we’ve developed a habit over the years of going straight from knowing our stuff to delivering it. We’ve kidded ourselves into thinking we’re not like marketing, corporate communications or consumer PR folk who need to tell a good yarn.
Meaning what? That our output often isn’t adapted to our audiences. We provide a 100 page document when someone wants 10 bullet-points. We talk about clean air when people would rather hear about the economy. We try to get a meeting when our target audience is looking us up on-line.
So what should we do about it? Learn from the marketers, corporate communicators et al: use insights to better analyse our audiences, differentiate the message, develop a gripping and relevant storyline, test the message, vary the output, vary the channel. In short, develop a content strategy which turns your intelligence into a compelling narrative, and then deliver.