This is part two of our conversation with Bob Pickard. Read part one How PR and communications can manage in turbulent times.
When comms pros are pressed into protecting a reputation that’s suddenly facing media, public, or even political scrutiny, what are some of the first steps a they can or should take?
Well for starters, the most important thing to realize is that corporate communicators do not actually control the company’s reputation (if they ever did). That’s a humbling realization for a lot of senior executives, especially the ones whose careers depend on the myth-making of brand marketing.
It is the mass public who are collectively the ones who decide what the company’s reputation is to be.
Communicators must inform and inspire audiences
The question becomes one of how communicators can convincingly inform, illuminate and inspire — at scale — the constituencies; it is their social sentiment that determines the value of reputation capital.
Social media is basically an open public market for reputation capital where the eddies and currents of perception are the most important currency traded, rather than money.
Understand the psychology of persuasion
The first step that any public relations executive should take is to become well schooled on the psychology of persuasion. This means reading the literature: including books like Propaganda by Edwards Bernays; How to win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie; Influence by Robert Cialdini; Contagious by Jonah Berger, and even You Are The Message by the controversial Roger Ailes.
With any kind of conflict or disagreement, a lot of communications pros prefer to see if there is a common ground and work towards reconciliation or even collaboration. But more recently in some environments when the dialogue is polarized there’s a win/lose approach; one party wants to triumph and see the other lose. Can this approach really solve problems, and how do you see it playing out in the long term?
You are asking an astute question: the answer depends what you’re looking for. Is it a win-win business solution? Is it an increase of publicity? Or is it to remove controversy from the news headlines?
Co-operation and accommodation work well with long-term stakeholder relationship management. But sometimes companies have irreconcilable differences with their critics and they will remain intractable adversaries no matter what. Therefore, I would never rule-out depositioning or more aggressive forms of high-contrast communication in the PR playbook.
I instinctively favor reconciliation and collaboration, but sometimes critics need to be unmasked and outflanked through more brass-knuckled approaches.
In too many circumstances PR people come up with meaningless mush, and not enough compelling content communicating a controversial stance, which I think is now the trend as brands take stands on issues before the public. We need less ‘spin’ and much more ‘spine.’
Trust is at a low across so many sectors. What are some of the key things PR/Comms pros can do to support organizations and help regain trust?
I’m bored with the excessive emphasis on trust in the communications consulting industry. That said, Edelman has done a masterful job with its global ‘trust barometer’ and in this market Proof has followed suit with its own ‘trust index.’
Every year these studies seem to find with predictable newsflashes that trust is ‘down’ — and the need for PR services is therefore ‘up.’
There are many more emotions and play right now include anger and fear, but especially envy. It’s time for more understanding about how these relatively understudied feelings are affecting corporate communication in an era of digital disruption.
For the most part, communications is tasked with creating and driving content around the corporate narrative. When done well, this messaging offers strong protection for future conflicts. What can comms and PR pros do to ensure the messaging stays on track? And should they ramp up these efforts for better protection?
I think the most important thing PR pros can do to ensure the messaging stays on track is to ensure that their rhetoric matches the reality. As Harold Burson emphasized, companies that like to ‘talk the walk’ must be actually able to ‘walk the talk.’
Audiences should help shape narratives
I also believe in the participatory imperative of modern communication which means that all messaging should be accessible to people and they should be able to help shape narratives that are being designed to influence their opinions and actions. People will be much more inclined to believe and to buy if they themselves help co-create the messaging.
Bob Pickard, leader in the international communications industry
Bob Pickard is Principle, of Principal of Signal Leadership Communication, a social public relations consultancy exclusively serving senior executives dealing with digital disruption. He built successful public relations businesses based in the United States, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Canada. Bob was recently named by PR Week to its Power Book list of “the most important people in the global PR industry” (and the only Canadian national listed).