Even the biggest brand owners can fail to anticipate the full impact that unwelcome change can have. When carefully executed commercial plans attract widespread censure, they are, at first, surprised - then wrong-footed.
With negative local and national media snowballing, the immediacy of social media and the online press means that a story grows well beyond the last article in print - with such a momentum it can dent the reputation of a company immeasurably.
Smart companies recognise that managing this area of comms carefully is important to investors, who shy away from brands exposed to significant environmental and reputational risk. It is also important to regulators, who increasingly measure performance according to customer satisfaction and/or the number of complaints.
For this reason, some of the most important and high-profile PR campaigns that we are involved with have the management of resistance to change at their heart.
It pays to properly consider the spectrum of potential reaction before an announcement, as E.ON's Guy Esnouf says: 'Environmental groups are just that, only interested in the environment. They have no interest in what happens to the fuel poor. So we should have started the discussion that we have to balance the three (the environment, energy prices and security of supply) much earlier.'
Planning for resistance to change always begins with a scan of those groups that will be affected by a firm's actions. This involves lengthy scenario stress-testing to rehearse responses to unexpected outcomes - while time-consuming, it is worth the effort. Even successful brands can become overly confident about the positive reputation they enjoy in their markets. They are successful because they make clever decisions, so their objectives must be in the public interest, right? Well, not always - particularly in the minds of the public, who may resist change simply because they feel uncomfortable or were not consulted.
A local council that introduces new street lighting for health, safety, welfare, cost and environmental goals, but fails to inform residents before digging up their road, is sure to attract censure. A private foster care company that puts teenagers in a residential area without engaging with local stakeholders will face resistance. We have been called in to help with both scenarios recently.
By planning ahead, companies can put themselves inside the heads of relevant groups and think about the form that any resistance might take. This requires empathy and understanding, and a view that extends beyond the company's own commercial ambition. It also involves intelligence gathering and prioritisation - you cannot head everyone off at the pass, but you can work out which are the most important groups and opinion ambassadors to influence.
The next stage is to plan effective comms platforms and channels. What will work best for which group? It could be as simple as writing individual letters to householders explaining the benefits of a new waste collection service or road-parking system, or as complex as establishing multiple channels - including a dedicated digital media strategy to listen and channel discussion on the issue.
This should be a two-way process. As well as pushing out relevant information and positive 'proof points' about the whys and wherefores of a particular initiative, it is important to continue listening to stakeholder groups so their concerns and views are addressed, and fed back into the comms programme.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
Which brand has gained most, reputation-wise, in the wake of the riots?
It has been difficult to glean any positive news beyond the determination of brush-wielding residents to clean up their areas post-riot. But one brand to admire is our client RBS. On 15 August, it unveiled a £10m fund to help London's stricken business owners. The fund provides short-term, interest and fee-free loans of up to £25,000 to firms directly affected by rioters and looters.
Which film title best sums up the spirit of your agency?
True Grit. Citigate has an award-winning cast that epitomises great teamwork, heroic endeavours, boundless determination and brilliant results.