PR Industry Trends

Shaking the ‘Bad Guy’ Label

Eat this, not that. Love it or leave it. Swipe right. Every day, we’re besieged with messages telling us how to discern the good from the bad.

When it comes to natural resources, the categorization falls along clear and sharp lines. In the fight of good against evil, who wins? Wind power vs. fossil fuels? Organics vs. chemicals? Environmental organizations vs. private corporations? The answers would seem pretty clear.

O'Dwyer's Feb. '17 Environmental PR & Public Affairs MagazineThis article is featured in O’Dwyer’s Feb. ’17 Environmental PR & Public Affairs Magazine

According to Harris Poll’s annual Reputation Quotient Summary Report ranking, the general public’s perception of corporate reputations of the most visible companies in the U.S., the two highest-rated companies in sectors related to clean tech/environmental sciences were not near the top of the list. General Electric came in at #52, Chevron ranked #71.

The problem is, separating the good from the bad isn’t that clear. There are fewer bad guys out there than media and the public might realize. Most energy companies are exploring renewables alongside traditional energy sources. Many mining companies are restoring lands and investing in conservation programs. So why are industries like these still stuck with the bad guy label?

Transforming perceptions and conversations is one of the toughest communication challenges out there. Expectations from companies and industries wanting to achieve change aren’t always realistic. As communications pros, our role requires us to be promoters, coaches, cheerleaders, futurists and teachers. And that’s where it gets interesting.

Put on your patience pants

Over time, good and bad messages become seared in our brains, and trying to get people to think and act differently can be tough — even once they know better.

Growing up in the ‘80s, I learned that fats were bad. I gobbled up truckloads of SnackWell’s®, a brand touting an array of ultra-low-fat snacking options (while downplaying the jacked-up sugar content needed to maintain their tasty appeal). Turns out, fats aren’t really all that bad. It’s a more complex story that requires a little education to learn how some fats are actually good for you. But despite the fact that I now completely understand the awesomeness of avocados and other good fats, my eyes still dart first to the fat content on nutrition labels. I know better — and I still fall back on old perceptions.

Companies wanting to shift public opinion about their industries or operations need to put on their patience pants. Even once the needle of public perception has started to move, it might not be immediately obvious. It can take a long time to discernably shift mindsets. I’ve had clients abandon thought leadership programs after a year because they didn’t feel like opinions had shifted quickly enough. They missed the point.

For companies with multifaceted stories, especially when some facets are more or less popular, it can’t be about a single campaign. Educating people and opening minds has to be a longer-term commitment — something that becomes part of the communications DNA rather than a single page on a website or a few earned media stories.

Don’t act like you’re all that

Authenticity. Transparency. While these are among some of the most overused words in PR and branding, their importance can’t be overstated. But splattering messages about your commitment to sustainability or your progressive exploration of alternatives all over your annual report and website will not automatically earn you an authenticity badge.

Not all clients or companies are comfortable baring it all. In fact, most aren’t. But part of being authentic and transparent is representing who you are — the good parts and the not-so-good parts. Acknowledging and embracing that you’re on a journey to a greater goal can help frame the bigger picture.

Another part of the challenge is self-awareness. Clients and companies often misjudge where they are on the transparency and authenticity maturity scale. I’ve worked with companies that have made huge advances in these areas. Compared against their own pasts, they made tremendous strides and felt like they had it figured out. But compared against peers, competitors or other industries, not so much.

This is where communications can help shed light on reality through measurement. Benchmarking. Share of voice monitoring. Industry association reports. It’s our job to help present the most realistic snapshot possible for them, with big doses of honesty and objectivity.

Measurement can also keep companies from getting too comfortable and sitting on their heels. A watchful eye on competitors, trends, the evolution of policies, regulatory issues and trends can be a strong motivator for keeping companies committed to long-term, reputation-transforming strategies.

Rely on friends and frenemies alike

Remember that kid in high school who tried to tell you how cool he was by blabbing on about ironic T-shirts and the latest obscure bands? Trying so hard to prove his cool-ness is exactly what made him uncool. The kids who were genuinely cool earned their reputations because other kids talked about them.

The lesson here is, get the other kids to talk about you. If you’re trying too hard to impress others with your great story and nobody else is talking about it — not cool.

Customers. Business partners. Media. These are the individuals and groups who can authenticate and validate the positive, progressive stories about a company. With time and frequency, these positive stories, told through channels such social media, video testimonials and earned media, stack up and begin replacing bad with good.

Industry associations can also be powerful allies. When there is a position that needs to be asserted, or industry accusations defended, professional associations can be effective mouthpieces. If you’re working within an industry where the professional associations have earned reputations for complacency or are mired in politics, it’s worth the effort to try to unite the membership and repair the dysfunction. You might not always have a united front, but working to improve an association on the backend can pay off when you need the group’s members to pull through down the road.

This is not to say that you should leave it up to others entirely. Keep pushing out content and telling your own stories. Empower employees to have everyday conversations with friends and family. Activate channels, from the inside out, and outside in, to talk about the breadth of what your company or client is doing.

Nobody’s perfect

No matter how noble the mission or righteous the messaging, every company should prepare for a fall from grace.

Look at what happened to Chipotle – one of the most frequently cited case studies for brand authenticity, still hasn’t fully recovered after a food safety crisis overshadowed all of the work it put behind communicating its personality and purpose.

Last year, the Harris Poll’s RQ® Summary Report noted that consumers ranked Samsung among the top 10 in terms of reputation among the most visible companies in the U.S. Think they’ll fare as well this year?

Bad situations, whether natural or man-made, can set back the work you accomplished communicating your purpose and your stories. Without launching into a diatribe about the value of anticipating and planning for crisis situations, we can all agree that it needs to be taken seriously.

Say ‘good night’ to the bad guy

Maybe it’s not realistic to think that the bad guy label can ever be completely shed. But it is possible to open minds and transform perceptions. Be patient and humble. Be real and realistic. Plan for the unplanned. Not all clients or companies will have the stomach for it, but for those that do, the journey can yield positive outcomes.

About Tina Charpentier:

Tina has honed a broad range of communications skills during more than two decades of work with top-tier integrated communications agencies, but her forte is building highly collaborative and fruitful partnerships with clients. Those companies have included major names in America’s agriculture, food and healthcare industries. At PadillaCRT, Tina serves as the senior vice president of the environmental sciences practice.

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