Crisis Communications in an Era of Media Distrust

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In a lot of ways, ours truly is a golden age of communication. Perhaps never before have public relations been so dynamic or so interconnected. Nowadays, it’s not just the PR pros who are talking. 

The customer is talking, too, and not just with their wallets, anymore. They’re talking with their tweets and texts, their posts, and their emails. And that kind of talk gives you an invaluable opportunity to create new relationships, grow existing ones, and even rehabilitate damaged ones.

Customers have always voted with their pocketbooks, of course. That’s nothing new. But today’s customers, and especially millennials, require a bit more finesse. Studies show, in fact, that millennial consumers expect robust, consistent interactions with any company they patronize. They want to be able to communicate with their businesses of choice at any time, in any way, and across multiple platforms.

In other words, doing PR today means prolific and on-going communications with customers in real-time, from public tweets to private texts. But that’s not an easy dance to maintain over the long haul without a misstep at some point. And when your company is already in crisis mode, the challenge is even greater. Because not only are your customers expecting you to engage, they’re asking you to explain. They’re expecting you to help them learn to trust you again, even in an environment where trust in the media, from journalism to PR alike, is growing increasingly thin.

The Erosion of Trust

If you are tasked with managing communications in a period of crisis today, one of the first and most important things you’re going to have to deal with is the public’s pervasive skepticism toward the media. 

Decades of public accusations of media bias and “fake news” by political leaders and others in positions of authority have taken their toll. And you don’t have to be in journalism to pay the price. Pretty much anyone with a public platform or persona, a microphone, or a brand, can fall under the shadow of suspicion. 

There is some evidence that the situation is improving, however, and that the climate of mistrust is beginning to dissipate. For now, though, the fog of doubt remains. And that means that to communicate effectively during a crisis, you’re going to first need to cut through that haze of cynicism.

But How?

When you’re confronted with a crisis situation in an environment where distrust already lingers, it can feel like the battle to win your audience’s trust is lost before the first shot has even been fired. But that’s not the case. You just need to know who your audience is and how to reach them.

For example, it’s vital to understand how your target market consumes news and information and on what platforms. Knowing how to reach, engage, and interact with your customers is imperative on an ordinary day, but it is especially important in a crisis situation because this helps you control the narrative.

If your company, for instance, is the first to acknowledge an issue, such as through a press release across the company’s various social media sites, then not only will you be establishing the parameters of the narrative, but you also get essential authenticity credit. Customers increasingly want authenticity from the brands, and the companies, they support. And there are few actions more authentic than having the guts to admit when you’ve made a mistake or done something wrong. 

Be Accountable

When you’re dealing with a crisis, being the first to own up, instead of being cowed into an admission, is a great first step toward building trust. But it’s just that: a first step only. There’s a lot more that has to be done.

You also have to be accountable. That includes transparency not only about what happened, but also about what’s going to happen. It means being up front with your customers about how things went down, who was responsible, and who was affected.

It also means following through, and communicating that process to your customers. After all, if they’re going to support your business, they have a vested interest in ensuring your brand really stands for what it claims to stand for.

When a crisis comes, it’s not enough to pay a lip-service apology. Wronged parties must be made whole and transgressors punished. To be sure, such actions will probably be outside of your wheelhouse, as a PR professional. But what is within your scope is to communicate to your customers to goings-on that they may not have privy to, but which they have a right to know.

Important Specifics

There is, without a doubt, a fine balance to strike between protecting the company and its sensitive information and protecting your customers. But, in the end, protecting your customers’ right to know is also protecting the company. The more they trust in and align with your company and its brand, the longer they will survive and thrive.

To get it right, you need to have a plan in place before the disaster strikes. Create a crisis management team that can immediately be assembled, whether in-person or virtually, to ensure your company gets out ahead of the story. As your team puts together its crisis response, you’re going to need to determine not only what the story is, but who your target audience is, and what they need and have a right to know. You’re going to need a designated spokesperson and a clear, cohesive, and comprehensive message. The goal, above all, is transparency, accountability, and atonement.

The Takeaway

Doing public relations isn’t easy in the best of circumstances. In an era where trust in the media, from journalism to PR, is depressingly low, public relations pros have significant obstacles to overcome before they can even hope to make their company’s voice heard.

On the other hand, however, the saturated media climate means that there are now more and better options than ever before for reaching the target audience. Young consumers are especially prolific media users across diverse platforms. Best of all, these customers not only desire but expect highly interactive relationships with the companies they support. This provides an important opportunity for engagement, relationship building, and relationship rehabilitation. 

Cover photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash