Dec 17, 2013
@ 7:32 am

Reputation Management in an Era of Distrust

Whether they measure perceptions of the government, corporations, or other big institutions, there’s one recent trend in polls: distrust.

A recent Gallup poll that measured perceptions of institutions found very little confidence in big business and in organized labor, in public officials and the news outlets that cover them, in the criminal justice system and the courts.  A drop of faith in institutions has had an impact on how Americans view each other.  According to a recent AP-GfK Poll, “only one-third of Americans say that most people can be trusted.

Corporations have faced this crisis of confidence for some time.  An ABC poll found that only 23 percent of Americans express confidence in corporations, a number that has been largely unchanged over the past two decades.

How can organizations communicate in a meaningful way when their credibility is under attack? Or to put it more simply, should you bother to speak if nobody’s listening?

Understand and Engage Your Audience

In a time of information overload with an increasingly fragmented media, launching a communications campaign without first identifying your audience is as productive as shouting into the wilderness.  Whether it’s a market analysis to determine the best opportunities to expand your customer base or an analytics strategy to find the people most likely to engage your brand, a targeting strategy should always serve as your starting point.  

Once you’ve identified your audience, you must then build an inclusive engagement strategy.  Customers expect the ability to publicly engage your brand on the promises you’ve made and service they expect.  Cranking out press releases without any opportunity for feedback will turn you into just another unresponsive, out of touch institution. 

Offer platforms through which your customers can engage like digital ads or social media campaigns.  Don’t just make your executives available to the press – find ways to make them available to your customers, from industry conferences to online discussions.  Demonstrate that you’re a learning organization by making adjustments based on the feedback you’re receiving.

Set Expectations, Meet Achievable Benchmarks

One of the big drivers of Americans’ growing distrust in institutions is failure to meet their expectations.  Whether it’s government infighting, poor customer service or products that got oversold, they’ve been disappointed too many times to assume you’re telling the truth.  And growing concerns about their economic future is only heightening their anxiety and skepticism. 

By setting public expectations and exceeding them, you can begin to establish credibility.  Just as your investors expect you to set and meet growth targets, tell your current and prospective customers what they can expect from you and use this as an opportunity to distinguish your brand. 

How can they measure your customer service?  What type of employer do you strive to be?  How will you preserve your culture and values as you grow?  What do other companies get wrong that you’ll make sure to get right?   By committing to and meeting simple, achievable benchmarks, you can become a trusted voice. 

Find Compelling Validators

Brands struggle every day to determine their best spokesperson.  Some CEOs decide to serve as the face of their brand themselves.  Others use out of the box ideas – talking gekkos anyone? – designed to make you remember them.

Given a rising level of distrust, finding a credible validator for your brand has become increasingly necessary.   There will be a growing skepticism about – and outcry over – decisions like using actors to promote fake testimonials about your product.   Find a validator your audience knows it can rely on – avoid overpromising.

Don’t Overproduce It

Traditional television advertising, targeting a general market audience, may be producing diminishing returns.  Working on the President’s reelection campaign, we found that millenials in particular have a distaste for traditional television advertising.   If you look like you’re hawking something, they’ll tune you out.  Delete slick from your lexicon.

All Is Not Lost

A loss of faith in big institutions doesn’t have to mean a loss of faith in your organization.  But it does heighten the need to distinguish yourself as a reliable, authentic, and credible voice that understands and engages with your audience. 

Assuming that your brand will be left intact if you remain disengaged is a significant risk in 2014.  Managing your reputation is a daily campaign.

We’ll have more thoughts on reputation management – and who is handling it effectively – to share with you in the new year.

Ben LaBolt | Founding Partner