Ben Lowndes #viewsoncomms

A perspective on PR, development and life in the South West

Building trust makes complete business sense

This post first appeared on the South West Business Insider blog on 26 March

Businesses in the South West are in a period of unprecedented change, with challenges and opportunities facing every sector.

The impact of technology, political stability, hiring good people and – yes – Brexit are just some big questions that businesses are facing, with varying degrees of success.

All businesses are different, with their own priorities and stories to tell. But research from KPMG suggests that the issue most troubling CEOs is the risk of reputational damage.

It’s long been said in the PR industry that reputations are hard earned and quickly destroyed. It’s a nice line, which has the benefit of being true. Social media’s ability to accelerate that damage makes this a more pressing concern.

Look at what has happened recently to huge names like Oxfam and Facebook, where poorly executed communication exacerbated reputational problems created within their organisations. The impact of such issues can be catastrophic and illustrate why reputational concerns keep business leaders awake at night.

Think these risks don’t apply? It’s worth thinking about what you would do if the public mood turned against your company and customers and clients took flight.

How would your team respond to hostile online reviews which are reported unquestioningly in the media, or hundreds of blistering tweets in response to a badly received product launch?

What would you do if a vocal campaign against your proposed housing development gathered pace?

Does your business understand what its stakeholders really think about it, and the measures needed to maintain or improve this?

If the answer to these questions is unknown or a bit vague, now is the time to put plans in place to address this.

Reputation matters

Building trust is a key concern for businesses because it runs through so many facets of performance.

Every organisation and sector is different, so suggesting a single approach would be impossible.

There are, however, some steps that apply to businesses who want to build and maintain a positive reputation that supports their future success.

Focus on your teams and encourage them to live your values: Any plans to build or maintain trust should start with your employees. Have clear and transparent values and put measures in place that incentivise employees to live by them.

Global PR brand Edelman’s excellent annual Trust Barometer highlights a lack of public trust in senior executives, politicians and some journalists. It also identifies higher levels of trust in ‘people like me’, which are essentially the ‘non-suits’ who sit outside the C Suite. The media has understood for years that ‘real people’ make the best stories because they can convey authenticity in a way that a polished interviewee can’t.

Involving staff at all levels in telling your story plays into the same mindset. Some public bodies have seized the opportunity to do this, with great success.

It’s not without its challenges. But get it right and you are on the way to building a body of advocacy that is engaged and motivated to represent the company well.

Do the groundwork: Every member of the reputation management function should know their role and responsibilities when called upon to act. Those responsible for dealing with public questions should be prepped on how to respond and kept updated as the situation develops. Approval processes must be swift. Queries should be recorded and made available to all team members to enable consistent responses.

Listen and respond: Good communications is two-way. It is based on understanding your audiences, their motivations and problems. To achieve this, you need to listen to what they are saying. There’s an array of approaches available to help you get a handle on what people are saying about a topic, place or brand. I’m a big fan of social listening, which draws in data from the social web to provide insights into trends and emerging issues that organisations may need to respond to. Want to know more about what people are saying on transport in the West of England? There are hundreds of online conversations taking place every week. If you work in this sector and aren’t part of these conversations, you’re out of the loop.

Be open and transparent: Mistakes happen, every day. The speed with which misinformation can travel online can catch an organisation unawares. Saying ‘no comment’ or going to ground will do little to relieve the pressure. If a mistake is made, apologise. Say what you’re doing to put things right, and by when. Make sure the action you’ve committed to is prioritised, acted on and communicated again. After all, people will only trust you if you’re honest about what you’ve done and deliver on your promises to act. Keep communicating, answer questions and demonstrate a commitment to putting things right.

Senior executives are right to be concerned about reputation. With preparation and the right approach, they need not despair.

Does your business have the right measures in place? Drop us a line if you would like a discussion.

* Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash.

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