In the age of always-on 24-hour news, barely a day passes without a scandal, high-profile business collapse or disgraced business executive being dragged over the coals by the media. In this climate, you could be forgiven for believing that a carte blanche refusal to engage with the press is the most effective way of avoiding bad coverage.
But the reality is that things do not always go to plan. Sometimes sales will fall, or the market may be sluggish. While the old adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ may be a step too far, it’s always worth pausing for thought before ignoring or burying ‘bad’ news.
If your only contact with media occurs when times are good, then long periods may pass when you have nothing to say at all. More than this, strategic communications does not mean only talking about the good: that’s called advertising. The role of effective corporate communications is different. Rather than trying to sell a product, successful corporate communicating creates the environment in which sales messages can land with impact and effectiveness. And that environment is one in which an organisation is trusted and understood to be an expert practitioner in their field.
Trust is the key word here. Marketing and communications trade media abound with headlines on the consumer trust crisis, and with good reason.
There’s ample evidence that businesses are failing to win the trust of consumers. A recent study by the Confederation of British Industry found that only 56% of people in the UK believe that businesses have a good reputation compared with other institutions – down from 65% last October. Clearly, there is work to be done, and businesses should seize every opportunity to prove their credentials as experts who can be trusted to lead a business to success.
The level of trust that consumers of media have in a company matters. In 2016, individual investors in the UK owned £251 billion worth of shares in UK listed companies – more than pension funds, insurance companies, the public sector and banks combined. In the information age where investors can find instant news, an absence of trust-generating communications could be the difference between a retiree or a young couple choosing to invest in your company or even broader sector over another. Your visibility and presence as a consistent and expert voice can therefore have a direct impact on the bottom line of a company.
So how do you achieve this at a time when you have nothing positive to say? What do you say if your latest sales data shows a year-on-year decline? Try thinking of what else you can offer, and what your audiences want to know. Why have sales fallen? What insights can you share that shed a light on trends to help readers understand the broader context? And, crucially, what are the solutions and recommendations you can offer to overcome the issue?
For potential customers of a business, transparent communications like this generate trust in the fact that a company knows its industry and can navigate the highs and lows of the market. For a consumer, the brand comes across as human, candid and honest. For a journalist, the value lies in the fact that they can rely on you to provide the information they need in order to do their job.
At MullenLowe salt, this issue materialised when a major staffing firm and client had to land a rebrand in the months following the financial crash of 2008. For an organisation whose job it is to put people in work, a period of economic slowdown and diminished hiring intentions could have been interpreted as reason for silence. Instead, MullenLowe salt helped them establish and communicate the idea of ‘talent being the new capital’, owning the concept from a thought leadership perspective and investing it with meaning. Using the recession to talk about retaining staff during hard times through alternative employment methods – rather than laying them off – the message was that an innovative approach to staffing could give businesses the competitive edge when the recession passed.
Effective corporate governance and positive investor relations hinge not only on an ability to ride the gravy train, but also to navigate a company through rough currents and come out the other side stronger for it. This is unachievable if a company isn’t seen to be communicating their expertise and leading at all times.
Ultimately, markets and industries go through highs and lows, and individual companies and brands are no different. The Apple that nearly went bust in 1997 recently became the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Similarly, the Volkswagen whose future was in doubt after the 2015 emissions scandal overtook Toyota last year to become the biggest-selling car manufacturer in the world. In a world of volatile markets and shrewd consumers, a consistent and trusted industry voice is invaluable.