HOW CONTROVERSIAL BUSINESSES WIN HEARTS AND MINDS
Some companies and organisations have a thankless (but essential) job, for example waste disposal, the department of corrections or property development. If your household generates waste, if you want dangerous people locked away or you’re moaning about property prices (which is pretty much all of us) – you need to stop the stone throwing and pull your head in.
Every day, we read about the Nimbys (not-in-my-back-yard) protesting the establishment of a waste disposal site, the construction of a new prison or plans to build an apartment block that will ‘block the view’. This is followed by a local politician, more motivated by votes than practicality, emerging from the woodwork to lobby against whatever the project may be.
Unfortunately, the hypocrite in us (and the nimby), isn’t about to go away, which leaves the company or organisation at the centre of the storm with a reputation and public relations problem they can’t win. Some companies, and their staff, live with the stress of public stoning on a regular basis even though they’re for the most part trying to clean up the mess we make.
The only alternative is to be like Trump. Love him or hate him, he is a master at redirecting the conversation. If you can’t win, you need to take control of the conversation.
If you are a property developer, don’t take the well-travelled road of defending the development on its merits (with statements like ‘the apartments will blend in with the natural landscape’). A property developer with a Nimby problem would be better served pointing to the wider problem he or she is solving – housing affordability and supply.
Boomers have been in the gun lately. Unfairly to some extent, but as a Generation Xer I get really annoyed when it’s the boomers opposing the construction of an apartment block which will create more affordable accommodation.
Strong social and community feelings like this are there, waiting to be tapped into. It is an opportunity for property developers to point the fingers at Nimby boomers and call them out. It redirects the conversation.
Changing the conversation
A common tactic adopted by organisations who are regularly caught up in controversy is to point to the good things they are doing. The seafood industry, for example, often talks about sustainable fishing practises. The problem is that nobody likes it when you talk yourself up – it doesn’t win hearts and minds.
It’s a bit like boasting. The natural knee jerk response to talking about the good you’re doing is often, “Whatever. It’s the least you should be doing.”
1. Hold up a mirror
Instead of trying to be all things to everybody, state the facts regularly and repeatedly even if nobody likes it. PR people will tell you to be humble and to apologise, which is #@D%^$. Public behaviour has changed, and the PR industry hasn’t caught up yet.
Have a set of key messages and roll them out regularly and repeatedly. For example: “The average Kiwi generates 734 kilograms of landfill every year. When we individually take responsibility for reducing our waste, then perhaps landfills won’t be necessary – but for now we have to do something with your junk.”
Say it like it is. Respectfully. But call it for what it is.
2. Education wins hearts and minds
Education builds trust. If the average Kiwi generates 734 kilograms of waste a year, put together an education programme about how to reduce household waste. Be big, bold and loud about it.
Again, it’s holding up a mirror. There’s no sinners and saints, just people making problems and fixing problems. It’s saying, ‘Don’t be part of the problem’.
Treat your education programme like a cause. Make it a mission. For example: “Our content marketing mission is to reduce average Kiwi waste by half in five years through education.”
3. Make use of ‘wingmen and women’
Telling your good news stories is boasting. So have other people tell it.
The value of running an education programme is that you can use brand journalism to get others to tell your story for you. For example, interview influencers, authors and experts for stories on how to reduce household or commercial waste.
I’ve never met an influencer yet who wasn’t eager to influence. Publish the stories across all owned, earned and bought media. In that way people who are recognised for their work in, for example, waste reduction – the good guys and gals — will be associated alongside your brand.
4. Go beyond a campaign or two
One or two campaigns won’t do it. A programme to change the narrative needs to be a fixture of any business that does controversial work – ongoing and relentless.
When you increase and maintain visibility for ‘good things’, you change the perception of your brand for the better. If, however, all you’re doing is reacting, then get used to being a punch bag.
You must steer, co-ordinate and dominate the conversation.
Colin Kennedy – Director of Strategy and Content
M: +64 27 245 6060