The current series of crises sweeping Australia – floods, droughts, fires, financial, energy - has given rise to several myths about the roles of Trust and PR in addressing the issues.
These are compounded by our mistrust and pessimism of our leaders to give us a sense of optimism about how they will lead the outcomes.
The pervasive nature of our negative outlook is reflected in the Gallup International Optimism-Pessimism Scale for 2019 where Australia is now one of the most pessimistic nations in the world – only 10 percent of us are optimistic and 38% pessimistic; the remainder being neutral.
Adding to the situation is the irrelevance of the media’s ‘gotcha’ crisis questions – “How can we trust you that it will never happen again?” and “Are you going to say sorry?”
Although the physical damage of some of Australia’s crises is easy to assess – millions of dead fish in a parched, once majestic Darling River; thousands of dead cattle in flooded outback Queensland and NSW where once they were dustbowls similar to Eastern Victoria – the invisible erosions of reputation and morale are harder to grasp in the atmosphere of mistrust and pessimism.
This is where people talk wrongly about addressing the issues involved in a crisis through:
Regaining trust – There has always been a degree of mistrust in society about our political and business leaders and for what they are saying and doing. Today, the degree of mistrust is changing markedly. But it is a myth to think that stakeholder trust can be regained by leaders by saying ‘sorry’ in whatever form of its five degrees of sincerity, or by assessing a crisis situation to determine the stakeholders’ response to the post-crisis communication. Trust must be earned and stakeholder perceptions and emotions must be understood, along with the non-word of mouth situation (N-WOM). There can be no sense of certainty, reassurance and confidence by customers and employees if leaders don’t understand the perceptions that have been created, or that they are creating through their decisions to regain reputation and trust.
PR is the answer - This is a dangerous misconception. It can lead to not just failing to achieve what you planned, but also to seriously damaging your company’s reputation. If communication plans are based around the ‘sorry’ and ‘trust’ principles, they lack depth and understanding of their customers and stakeholders. The work must be part of a total integrated communication engagement plan. The goals of PR are to enter a conversation with the target audience, create an information field, and form a reputation. If the organisation has serious perception problems, PR alone won’t help trust, nor restore reputation. For instance, research shows that the news media constantly reframes content by selecting what to include and what to exclude from a story. This affects interpretation, evaluation and perceptions of issues and events. In a crisis, communication managers must understand the potential effects of media frames prior to selecting response strategies within the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act). This is where perceptions and emotions of stakeholders can be influenced by how news media frame an issue.
CEO lead recovery - Another manifestation of good PR solves everything is thinking that you can delegate PR to the CEO alone. If the CEO has been identified as part of the problem and/or is grossly unsuitable to delivering the recovery messages a complete rethink is required. Yes, recovery must be led from the top, but presence and suitability to delivering the message etc. must be through the Board, the CEO and the leadership team – not the CEO alone.
Stakeholder engagement must be foremost - If you don’t have the answers to the questions that are going to be asked and cannot deliver them with sincerity and openness then this exercise is a backwards step. The mistrust and reputational damage already present are just compounded. You must think through, ahead of time, what can be discussed publicly and what should not be. Have a clear understanding of what problematic questions could come and constantly review perceptions, your reputation, the tone in messages and your stakeholders’ mood. Candor, honesty and transparency are key pillars to engagement.
The value of experience and perception and situational analysis is clear in any reputation, trust and crisis situation. Embracing myths will not deliver on expectations. Talk to us about how to address these issues and bring about optimistic leadership outcomes.