Surviving Brand Killers

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Two of the best forms of advertising have always been positive word-of-mouth from members and positive commentary made by the press. Incidentally they are also two of the most economical ways of promoting practically any business including your credit union.

Unlike television and radio commercials or print ads, positive PR doesn't require an inordinate deployment of resources. Furthermore, these comments are spoken, or supported, by an objective source. These aspects lend to PR's power and credibility. This is also why, on the flipside, negative PR can be extremely damaging.

Since negative PR can be so detrimental to the image and brand of an organization the best practice is to manage it before it even happens. Prior to making statements in public think carefully about how words can be misconstrued. most of us, including myself, wish we would've heeded that advice many times with our spouse. As professionals we should all get into the habit of contemplating certain situations and reviewing mentally what we would say. This can be easily done in the car on the way to work. Think of it as a mental exercise routine in the morning. Then when you are faced with a difficult situation, or when a tough question is asked, you may have already rehearsed the proper response in your mind. In this day and age of political correctness and a camera and microphone on every other corner it is necessary to think this way.

It's also wise for organizations to develop a PR policy. These guidelines can be included in an overall branding plan or the employee handbook. This document should list specific individuals responsible for talking to the press during crises or similar situations. Typical positions that take this responsibility are usually the chief executive officer, president, chief operating officer, vice president of marketing, vice president of human resources, and/or vice president of public relations. All others within the organization should refer the press to these officers. This will help to ensure not only that a member of the management team will be representing the institution but also that comments consistent with the brand image will be made. Plus, this gives employees that may become easily flustered an easy out when bombarded by reporters during a crisis. The PR policy should detail various do's and don'ts as well as sample comments for various situations. Granted not every circumstance or scenario can be covered but at least it will give the management team some clear ideas of what to say as well as the overall tone of the responses.

Even organizations with the best of images, policies, and intentions find themselves in situations when they have to deal with negative PR. The best plan of attack is just that - attack the problem immediately. Deal with the facts and get your credit union's story out to the press immediately.

If the negative PR was the result of a problem truly caused by the organization, the best practice is to admit it and apologize. Everybody has made mistakes, so most people can understand and appreciate an explanation coupled with a sincere apology. The worst policy, written or implied, a company in this position could possibly adopt is to try to cover up the problem, deny it, or ignore it and hope the problem goes away. Negative issues almost always get uncovered once they have been alleged. Fortunately there is usually someone willing to tell the truth when the truth is denied. And as much as some of us would like them to, ignored problems rarely go away and invariably get much worse over time.

In many instances organizations become victims to negative PR that is erroneous. The cause is generally misinformation in the public, a vindictive competitor, a disgruntled ex-employee, or a combination thereof. Again, these comments need to be squashed immediately with truthful statements and by detailing all the facts. If a portion of the negative PR is true, then address it. Then refute the erroneous information. Don't try to drag the source of the information through the mud, especially if the source is a competitor. Fight negativity with specifics and positive comments. This will make your organization look like it's above all of the negative press. Besides once the truth is out, everyone will know who the bad guy really is anyway.

PR can be one of the most powerful tools available to build the company brand but it needs to be managed properly. If not, that power can annihilate the very image you are trying to create. When it comes to PR, as in most cases, an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. And if negative comments do rear their ugly heads, attack them as if they were a cancer.

Ken Bator is president of of Bator Training & Consulting, Inc., Naperville, Ill. For more info:

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