Friday, February 13, 2009, 8:43 AM

Daily Record: Business leaders, take note.

Our monthly column appeared in The Maryland Daily Record this morning. You can view it by clicking here or read it in its entirety below. We hope it prompts creative thinking about how to communicate effectively in 2009.

Listen up, business leaders: A message from the public

Henry Fawell
Special to The Daily Record
February 13, 2009

Business leaders, take note. There’s an urgent message in your inbox, sent by consumers in the U.S. and beyond. The message is simple: Level with us.

That’s the lesson from two recent surveys that gauge whether companies are communicating effectively in today’s economic climate. If your company depends on public opinion (hint: that means you), the findings in these surveys demand your attention.

Take a look at the evidence: A January survey by Boston Consulting Group finds that less than a third of consumers worldwide have been contacted by their financial institution about the economic downturn and how it affects the consumer. Not surprisingly, those who weren’t contacted by their bank, insurer or asset manager expressed less confidence in that institution than those who were contacted.

But a separate survey by Siegel+Gale shows that what you say is every bit as important as how regularly you say it. Eight out of 10 consumers told Siegel+Gale they are more likely to trust companies that ditch industry jargon in favor of simple, plain-English messages.

Three out of four said that “complexity and lack of understanding” were major contributors to the financial crisis gripping the economy. It should come as no surprise, then, that more than a third said they are less likely to trust their bank, mortgage lender, broker or financial advisor in the coming year.

Ouch. The moral of the surveys is obvious: Financial institutions that kept their stakeholders in the dark last year — intentionally or not — damaged their credibility.

Let’s be clear: Banks and insurers aren’t the only ones who can learn from these findings. Electric utilities are expected to translate volatile swings in energy prices into simple language the average ratepayer understands when he or she pays the bills. Cable companies are expected to clearly present to customers what exactly they are paying for each month. (The next time you open your cable bill, ask yourself whether they’re doing a good job.)

Health care providers, colleges and universities all risk public hostility in recessions as the services they provide are increasingly unaffordable — but no less important — for millions of Americans.

OK, so U.S. businesses have been communicating poorly. How can a business leader use these surveys to improve a company’s reputation? Here are five quick ideas.

Embrace these findings. The ugly truth about how poorly we all communicated in 2008 can be a blessing for companies seeking to influence public opinion in 2009.

Identify your stakeholders. These may include customers, regulators, elected officials or reporters, to name a few. Your communications strategy must be centered on this group.

Listen to your stakeholders. Understanding your stakeholders’ fears is central to putting them at ease. Focus groups, online strategies and face-to-face interaction give you that opportunity. Take the time to listen. What they tell you may dramatically alter how you communicate.

Give your message a tune-up. If you’ve been ignoring today’s economic realities in your public outreach, you’re probably considered out of touch. If your messages are littered with hedges, qualifiers and jargon, you can sound evasive or pretentious. Jargon is fine for industry analysts and trade publications, but not the consumer. The public wants the facts and it wants them in plain English.

Tear down barriers. For too long, companies have had to rely on reporters and editors who filtered news as they saw fit. While objective interpretation of events is important, the interpreters don’t always get it right. New technologies — such as blogs and interactive social media Web sites — allow for unfiltered conversations between you and your stakeholders. Toyota effectively uses its “Open Road” blog to correct inaccuracies in the press and level with the public in language we all understand. Southwest Airlines connects with the public by posting its own messages on YouTube. One of its YouTube messages has garnered nearly 200,000 views, demonstrating that at least some segments of the public welcome corporate participation in online dialogues. These efforts should complement your traditional strategies of media outreach, e-mail and snail mail campaigns, press releases and public speaking.

There is no monopoly on these new platforms. Any organization with creativity and a plan can harness it to their advantage. One caveat: This freedom comes with responsibility. Successful new media strategies are often centered on candid communications straight from senior management.

The message in these two surveys is a tough one to swallow, but it is unmistakably clear. Candor matters. With two-thirds of Americans saying their trust in U.S. businesses has fallen, we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s time to rebuild that trust, and the time to start is now.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is henry.fawell@wcsr.com.

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