Safeguarding brand reputation is a people problem

Speak to any comms director in a big organisation and the chances are they're wrestling with one big question: how to protect their employer's reputation now they are directly exposed to public opinion through the growth of the web and social media.

Public opinion: Everyone has a say
Public opinion: Everyone has a say

Senior comms staff find they aren’t facing conventional web problems that can be solved by hiring tech consultants and better kit.

The fundamental challenge comes from the fact ordinary people have mass publishing power for the first time. It’s a people problem, not a web problem.

It’s hard to overstate how exposure to public opinion changes the nature of communications for comms directors. Just a few years ago, the public voice was completely unheard except through polling.

Now it’s the primary influence affecting how organisations are seen by the outside world. 

Organisations find themselves in giant public conversations across social media platforms, consumer sites, blogs, web forums and comment threads.

These conversations have vast numbers of participants and even larger numbers of observers and are so powerful they can totally undermine an organisation’s chosen communications strategy. Reputations are now shaped in collaboration with the public.

Comms directors need to create communications strategies that are overwhelmingly focused on public persuasion and influence.

In doing so, they need to learn the lessons of the best political campaigns – operations that have been extremely successful in affecting opinion amid chaotic and fast-moving public conversations.

Three issues stand out.

Firstly, like campaigns, organisations need a scientific approach to their general communications. This means creating messages that are extensively tested, targeted at exactly the right people in the public conversation and designed to move people on an emotional basis – by far the most powerful way of influencing the public.

Secondly, comms directors need to radically improve their decision-making capabilities. Following the lead of the political world, they should create the equivalent of the campaign war room.

These operations allow organisations to pull in relevant information from conversations taking place about them, to process it, and to take decisions to affect their operating climate. The war room is a brilliant concept for those wishing to influence fast-moving, unpredictable environments. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, organisations should end the tripartite approach many take to communications, where advertising and marketing, media relations and public affairs sit in different teams. Instead, organisations should create wholly integrated teams under a single director of communications.

It makes no sense for organisations to try to use advertising and marketing teams to create a particular image in isolation of the conversation taking place about them. The power of the public voice is such that organisations’ entire communications capabilities need to be focused on leading that conversation.

In Britain, it’s become unfashionable to talk about "public relations". If anything, that’s exactly what organisations find themselves engaged in. The public matters more than ever. 

James Frayne is a communications consultant and author of Meet the People, a guide to public persuasion

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