Forget The Smoke, Look in the Mirror: The Post-Truth PR Playbook

In an increasingly transparent, connected world, artifice and deception fool no one. In the end, your company's only defense against PR disaster is stakeholders' forthright adherence to your highest values, from top to bottom.
Forget The Smoke, Look in the Mirror: The Post-Truth PR Playbook
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“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave them all over everything you do.”  -- Elvis Presley

With competitors just a click away, gaining consumer trust and loyalty has always been difficult for startups. A bad customer service encounter, incorrect billing or unavailable product has traditionally been enough to send footloose clients racing to competitors, while sometimes stopping to leave a negative online review as a one-finger salute goodbye. However in the post-truth age of ‘fake news,’ values and politics have entered the sphere of business and companies are being judged on a lot more than their service and products alone.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer shows the lowest level of public trust in all four key institutions -- business, government, NGOs and media -- since the project began in 2012. Consumers are not only questioning what they hear and see online and in the media, but they are also looking past products and service at the brands’ where they spend their money. More specifically, they are looking at their values and the values of company stakeholders: employees, founders, investors and media partners.

Thanks to the amplifying power of social media, brands can find that a lack of transparency, or the inappropriate behavior of one stakeholder -- be it the CEO of Uber or a United Airlines employee -- can quickly have a damning effect on consumer trust and brand value. To rebuild trust, brands need to address consumers' fears, and put people, values and transparency at the forefront of their company cultures and PR campaigns. So how can brands look introspectively to maximize their chances of regaining the public’s trust?

Be value driven, don’t hide behind false promises.

“Values are the fundamental beliefs of an organization, the guiding principles that dictate how people should behave and act,” says Craig Cincotta, senior director of marketing at SAP.

Many startups are born with lofty missions and values, which drop off when the realities of running a modern business take hold. It’s easy to sell yourself as a green, sustainable social enterprise, but much more difficult to build a competitive business around these values.

Now, more than ever, staying true to your values is of paramount importance to enterprises of all sizes, and having your dirty laundry aired in public can have real effects on a company’s bottom line and stock value, and its ability to attract the best new talent.

German car manufacturer Volkswagen was hounded in the press in 2016 after the company's ads for “green diesel” vehicles were found to be misleading, leading to a lawsuit being filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This came just a year after the company was caught out for allegedly falsifying its emissions data from certain vehicles, which led to a potential $61 Billion fine for violating the Clean Air Act, causing the company’s stock value to plummet as disheartened consumers jumped ship.

Related: The Biggest Lesson from Volkswagen: Culture Dictates Behavior 

But company values go a lot further than the materials they use, the products they sell or the service they provide. One of the main areas where startups lose track of their values is in the way they treat their employees and their customers. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, states that to keep customer service at the highest level possible, his company maintains an employee-centric policy, which in turn translates into his employees going the extra mile and being passionate about their jobs. 

"It should go without saying, if the person who works at your company is 100 percent proud of the brand and you give them the tools to do a good job and they are treated well, they're going to be happy," Branson has stated.

Companies need to make sure that while aiming towards their big missions, they are also keeping in track with their core values. One of the best ways to do this is by setting internal metrics for employee as well as customer satisfaction. To gauge whether you are meeting these metrics, Officevibe allows employees to share their opinions anonymously, which can then be responded to directly by a manager. Tools like Qualtrics allow managers to keep track of their employee satisfaction metrics over time.

If your company has environmental or social issues as part of its core values, be it reducing global warming, or making it easier for the disenfranchised to find jobs, then encourage your team to find ways your company can make real positive changes to the environment or communities around you. This could involve setting up non-profit projects, investing a percentage of revenue into charity projects or hiring a percentage of your employees from the demographic you are aiming to help.

Lead by example.

Another ‘Uber’ important factor is that founders and managers must lead as they expect the rest of the company to follow.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously shares an open plan office with coworkers, and he donated 99 percent of his Facebook shares to human advancement back in 2015. Meg Whitman, CEO of HP forced high ranking execs and managers to share cubicles with the rest of their colleagues, and also got rid of executive-only parking zones in HP offices around the world, as a means of rekindling employee and shareholder faith in HP’s ‘open door’ policy.

But transparency and equality are not the only core values worth enacting. Slack founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield, who created the communication tool to make working "simpler, more pleasant, and more productive," articulated an unofficial motto in Slack offices: “Work hard and go home.”

While 60 hour work weeks are the norm in early stage startups, Butterfield, as a family man, promotes the mantra that working hard doesn't and shouldn’t mean working endlessly. As such, while Slack expects employees to give their all, and put in the hours, a recent article notes that their offices are mostly empty by 6:30 pm, as staff feel comfortable to shut their laptops and head home after a productive day’s work, without needing to be tied to their desks to excel.

Related: How to Come Home Happy While Succeeding at Your Job

The internet has increased transparency, and in between consumer review sites like Yelp and FourSquare, and employer review sites like Glassdoor, Great Place to Work and Indeed, it is harder for companies who don’t stick to their values to hide.

Understand that every stakeholder is a brand ambassador.

Anyone who needs a reminder of how important it is for CEOs and founders to keep their controversial or unsavory opinions to themselves, need only look at the Lululemon scandal from 2013, in which comments about plus-sized users led to its popular yoga pants being withdrawn from multiple stores, sending stock prices plummeting and prompting the eventual resignation of the founder.

But while Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick has learned the hard way that in the internet age, any misguided comments -- or backseat tantrums -- can reach billions of people in seconds, it is not only founders and CEOs who need to watch their mouths and to portray a positive image.

In the highly politically charged current climate, the individual actions and shared opinions of all of a company’s stakeholders -- founders, employees, investors, partners, media partners and even customers -- can have a real effect on brand value and consumer trust.

American Airlines has had a bad run of it of late. After one of its best years ever in 2016, with 82 percent of flights arriving on time (beating American and Southwest) fewer canceled flights and overall improvements in customer satisfaction, the airline has found itself in PR purgatory due to shocking treatment of customers by employees, and an unapologetic stance taken by the company’s CEO in the aftermath. 

Since video footage of 69-year-old Dr. David Dao being dragged, screaming and bloodied, from his overbooked seat, was shared across the world, any jab at United Airlines seems fair game for the press. In the same week as the Dao episode, another passenger reported being stung by a scorpion which fell from the luggage rack on a United flight. While the passenger received no long lasting injuries, the story was quickly covered across leading media channels, which would not have normally given air time to a story so insignificant had it not been further fuel for the United PR pyre.

However, the real effect has been on consumer trust. Outraged customers are taking their business elsewhere and stock prices declined by 4 percent a week, accounting for approximately $770 million of the company’s value.

This is not the first time that United has taken a hit financially due to unprofessional behavior of its employees. When singer Dave Carroll’s guitar was broken by United baggage handlers in 2008, and the airline refused to reimburse him, he uploaded the song "United Breaks Guitars" to YouTube. The video which now has 17 million views, and the story was jumped upon with glee by media around the world. While claims by the UK Times Online that the video led to a loss of $180M in the company’s value have been questioned, bad press definitely had an effect on the company’s bottom line.

In response, United CEO Oscar Munez has finally apologized, and announced changes to United procedures. Ticket holding customers will no longer be removed from flights to make space for United employees, passengers will not be forcefully removed by law enforcement unless they are a risk to safety or security, and the company will roll out a new training program for gate agents.

Related: The Art of Failing Well

Many will argue this is a case of too little, too late. To protect their brands from PR disasters, enterprises of all shapes and sizes need to make gleaming customer service and respect a part of their core values and company culture. This process begins at the start, with hiring and training policies.

Bring the right people onboard, prepare them for anything.

From day one, employees, potential investors, partners and retailers should be screened for compatibility with core values. For employees at all levels, how to represent these core values in any outward-facing interactions -- with customers or the press -- should play a key role in training.

In a 2015 interview, Slack CEO and founder Butterfield states his company, and in turn its hiring policy, are based around 6 core values. He says his managers are trained to turn away even the most qualified candidates if they are not a good cultural fit.

"We're a hot company right now, so many people want to work for us," Butterfield says. “I can think of people we haven’t hired, who were really unable to say anything about what they would do for us or for the customers,"

For existing employees, companies should regularly bring teams together to consult whether they, the true brand ambassadors, believe the company is moving in the right direction, in line with the enterprise’s big mission and core values.

A good way to reinforce the importance of upholding a company’s values, is by asking employees to sign social contracts: documents that outline how stakeholders will work together, make decisions, communicate, share information and support each other, to promote a culture of trust, encouragement, respect, accountability and achievement.

But there is no reason these social contracts can’t include guidelines for outward-facing client interactions too.

American Airlines recently announced they had suspended a flight attendant who challenged a passenger to a fight during a heated altercation after aggressively grabbing a stroller from a female passenger, hitting her in the face and leaving her sobbing in front of a plane full of shocked travelers. While hanging an employee out to dry is a most obvious, knee-jerk reaction by the airline, and brands should always be ready to distance themselves publicly from the actions or opinions of toxic stakeholders -- be it employee, retail or media partner or investor -- one could argue that with more effective character screening in the hiring system and better training this situation could have been avoided.

We are living in an era where public trust is at an all time low. With accusations of lies and trickery being thrown left, right and center among politicians, the media, and major brands, consumers are becoming more skeptical and distancing themselves from anything or anyone who doesn’t match their personal values. As such, leading brands need to take a look at their own inner workings, and assess the people they associate themselves with, or risk being shamed in the public eye and watching their value and reputation crumble.

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