A few months ago I read an article in Director magazine that considered whether hiring a PR firm should be viewed in the same way as investing in private health care. To give you the gist of it – you pay for it thinking you probably won’t need it, but when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, you’ll be glad you’ve got it.
It’s a clever little analogy, but as a colleague of mine pointed out, the author was crudely suggesting that the role of PR was protection and by doing so overlooking its role in promotion. “If you’re purchasing PR services ‘just in case’ for the crisis you might have to manage one day, then you are doing it wrong. Right?”. I had to agree.
She then professed (rightfully) that although a basic crisis management procedure should always be in place, PR is more than just insurance against crisis, and more than reactive reputation management – it can proactively deliver the reputation you get to manage. A conversation about getting the balance right between protection and promotion ensued, but that’s for another post.
Although there is some substance in this, a little voice was nagging in the back of my mind: “but isn’t public relations about building mutually beneficial relationships?”. And by that I mean facilitating two-way communications between a business or organisation and its stakeholders (publics) to earn understanding and support. It may be idealistic, but shouldn’t we be thinking about the practice of PR in this way and basing our strategies and activities on this fundamental principle?
Since we all know that good relationships are based on trust, I’m going to give you an analogy that might make you think about the value of PR a little differently than our critic in Director magazine.
Inspired by Al Golin’s Trust or Consequences, let’s think about a company’s reputation as a bank of trust. If you give something to your audience, you build some relationships, you gain some trust. You make a deposit. Your balance goes up. If there is a crisis, something goes wrong, you lose some trust. Your balance goes down. Got it?
Now obviously, nobody wants to be in the red. And the healthier your balance, not only do you have more security when things go wrong, but you can also get more out of it. You earn interest on your balance.
Over time, good PR can help build new and existing relationships with your stakeholders, whether these are prospects, customers, shareholders or staff. By giving something back to these audiences and building their trust, you are not only in a good position for forgiveness and understanding if a crisis ensues, but you are also more likely get something back in the return – as your stakeholders become advocates and ambassadors for your brand. You can essentially bank good will. Build a good relationship with a journalist and they are more likely to pick up your story. Give your customers that little extra, and they are more likely to recommend you to a friend.
“There is a positive connection between trust and results. It’s not necessarily a short-term connection but one that reveals itself over time.” – Al Golin
So here’s the trust bank in action:
Apple – earning interest
This iconic brand has built up a massive balance in their bank of trust, primarily by building relationships, listening to and understanding their customers – and anyone can see that they get a lot back in return. Thousands of Apple ambassadors support their new initiatives, buy their products and create lots of positive noise around the brand. The press are at their beck and call, fighting to broadcast any message the brand chooses to release. And who remembers the Apple Maps disaster? A sincere apology, and we are all happy to forgive and forget. Interestingly, it turns out that Google might have been the ones to lose out, not Apple. Trust also results in loyalty.
“If you’ve got it, you don’t need to flaunt it.” – Al Golin
Lufthansa – far from bankrupt
When 27-year old Andreas Lubitz purposefully flew his plane, along with 150 passengers, into a mountain earlier this year, it spelled disaster for the German carrier. Although their quick and honest response to the crisis was undoubtedly by the book (and admirable), there is no doubt that a well-established bank of trust with consumers and stakeholders resulted in a relatively forgiving and understanding reception.
Tesco – a dangerously low balance
As what was one of the UK’s top retailers, Tesco had a healthy number of customers. But a serious accounting blunder, a significant drop in shares and the news that stores would be closing was enough to take this giant down considerably – trust in the brand (both with investors and customers) is now at an all time low. It looks like Tesco hadn’t built up enough brand loyalty or trust with investors or customers, so their balance was not able to take the hit. And as we all know, saving takes time and effort. It will take quite a shift to reverse the damage done and a healthy balance could be a long way off…
“Relationships that are tattered and torn – if not broken – split apart during crises” – Al Golin
The true value of PR is not just about a blanket of security for surviving in a storm, it is more about the strong relationships of trust that are built and maintained, and the goodwill that is banked in the process. Isn’t that worth the investment?