There are great benefits for organisations in building up deposits in the stakeholder ‘relationship bank account’, with one of the most important being to mitigate how a crisis impacts on reputation and brand. It’s a straightforward equation: simply proactively communicate and – this being the really interesting aspect – ensure the organisation (operationally and culturally) listens, learns, interacts and evolves.

Public relations deposits for issues management

The result of this will be stronger organisation-stakeholder relationships and an enhanced reputation. It will be an enriched organisation better able to meet stakeholder expectations. And it will help the organisation achieve its mission and objectives.

One dimension of relationship bank account saving schemes relates to how important marketing communication can be in building reputations, but a recent study in the highly credible Journal of Public Relations Research (JPRR) has also ascertained the key finding that:

“maintaining positive relationships with stakeholders may be more important than individual crisis strategies.”*

A sub-text of this finding is that issues management is the best solution for crisis management. The only problem being that issues management, of course, needs to occur before a crisis occurs. The upside of having to make an issues management investment is that it generate benefits additional to that of helping out in a crisis:

  • It helps sell products and services
  • It makes it easier to enhance and forge new relationships with key stakeholders
  • It will help retain and attract excellent talent (i.e. employees).

So we now have two dimensions to aid in crisis management before the crisis hits:

  • Marketing communication
  • Issues management.

Public relations, issues management and reputation

Believe it or not, Brown and White say that there have been few studies illustrating how the quality of the pre-crisis relationship between and organisation and its stakeholders can impact on reputation impacts of the crisis. An implication of this is that most research into crisis management has focused on what to do during a crisis and following a crisis.

It seems obvious to purport that a negative relationship history impacts on perceptions towards an organisation during a crisis (Coombs & Holliday, 2001). Elements like trust, openness, investment and commitment have been identified by scholars (Bruning & Ledringham, 1999; Bruning & Galloway, 2003) as being important to building organisation-stakeholder relationships, whilst the following dimensions exhibit positive aspects of an organisation in these relationships:

  1. Demonstrating likable human qualities (anthropomorphism)
  2. Professional benefit/expectations
  3. Personal commitment
  4. Community commitment
  5. Comparison of alternatives.

A challenge to two-way symmetrical communication?

An interesting corollary of this research and its assertions is that organisational change is not necessarily included in excellent organisational behaviour. This contradicts some elements – the most important ones? – of two-way symmetrical communication, which describes best practice public relations involves changing the behaviour of both an organisation and its stakeholders.

Purely from as issues management and crisis communication perspective, I still would have thought that identifying issues and evolving the way an organisation operates is the best way to mitigate crisis risk and potential reputation and stakeholder relationship damage.

So is the research saying that organisations don’t need to change the way they do things to create stronger relationships? It would seem so, which is entirely feasible. My view, however, that the best way to make a positive impact on relationships is to change, so the organisation operates more in line with its stakeholders’ needs and wants.

Of course, in a commercial environment, certainly one of the most pressurised and conflicted operating environments (others include community, health, government, NGO and more), the depth of change that will occur to meet stakeholder needs and wants faces a significant degree of challenges. And due to this the role of public relations professionals is extremely difficult if organisational change is an objective.

Human feelings are intrinsic to public relations

Of the five points noted above, it is also interesting that four of the five dimensions have a strongly humanistic and/or personal element. Only the dimension of ‘comparison of alternatives’ is a mechanistic one. Each of the others involve creating or presenting a ‘human face’ to the organisation and it behaving as a human being, rather than an edifice or machine with no ‘soul’, feelings or personality.

The implication of this seems obvious: organisations, whether they like it or not, have an emotional role to play with their stakeholders. Marketers have long appealed to the emotions of their potential customers. Untold amounts of marketing is predicated on consumers creating an emotional attachment – a relationship – with brands.

This is something that PR professionals would do well to pay heed to and learn from our marketing brethren.

Relationships trump crisis management

An important finding of Brown and White’s study is that, “maintaining positive relationships with stakeholders is more important than any individual crisis response strategy.” (There are various approaches that can be taken during a crisis, such as apologising, denial, blaming a scapegoat, justifying, creating an excuse and more.)

“Positive relationships trump [crisis response] strategy,” say Brown & White.

One slight exception, or value-add, to this general finding was that taking a “bolstering posture that seeks to build a position connection” between an organisation and its stakeholders results in less negative impact on the organisation. Bolstering means to accept responsibility but connecting a positive aspect of the organisation.

The dubious amongst us might be tempted to define this as spin, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It could simply be an attempt to add balance. An example is that whilst responsibility for the crisis is accepted, pointing out the positive record of the organisation, especially but not necessarily in the context of the crisis topic, could be very relevant. It provides a reality check for those taking a negative approach to the organisation. “Bolstering postures…remind stakeholders why they became involved with the organisation from the beginning.”

People and organisations make mistakes. Nothing in life is more certain. An aspect that separates the also-rans from the leaders is accepting this and trying to improve and evolve…which in itself continues the essential narrative on which Brown & White’s study and this discussion is based:

  • Listen to stakeholders,
  • Learn from stakeholders
  • Evolve to better meet stakeholder needs and wants.

This will improve stakeholder relationships, enhance organisational reputation and create a deposit in the reputational bank account which provides protection when a crisis eventuates.

[A future post will explore links between marcomms and issues management.]

What are your take away thoughts from the study discussed here? How much have organisations you have worked with invested into the relationship bank account? How profoundly are an issues management and two-way symmetrical approaches inherent in the way they operate?

*The Journal of Public Relations Research article on which this post is based, and from which quotes are pulled, is Organization-Public Relationships and Crisis Response Strategies: Impact on Attribution of Responsibility, Brown K.A. and White C.L., Volume 23 (1) 2011.