Why Is Trust Essential to Emergency Communications? (Part 2 of 3)

With Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, western wildfires, and other natural disasters fresh in our memory, we at Breck are thinking about those affected, and are inspired by the many organizations and volunteers who have stepped up to help. We are thinking about the roles that marketing and communications play in emergencies and for nonprofits and charities as they solicit donations and volunteers. In the second of our three-part series, we’ll discuss the role reputation and brand play in emergency and crisis communications.

In our blog, Breck has discussed and of crisis communications, with companies and organizations coping with scandals and bad news. With recent natural disasters in mind, crisis communication takes on a new meaning. People need swift, accurate information about safety and measures they need to take. There’s far more to crisis communication, however, than saying the right words at the right time. In times of emergency, the most important tool for a government agency or a nonprofit is its reputation for trustworthiness.

Lessons in Trust from Business

Many in Texas were inspired by how the largest grocer in the state, H-E-B, worked tirelessly to support its communities during Hurricane Harvey. The astonishing work, planning, and commitment it took to keep stores up and running with essentials during the worst of the flooding serves as an inspiration. It also shows the power of reputation and trust for any organization. Scott McClelland, president of the chain's Houston division, talked about that trust:

“I do the commercials for H-E-B in Houston, so people know who I am. So, as I walked in the store, people would come up and hug me and thank us for making the effort to open because the Kroger across the street wasn't open. The Walmart down the street wasn't open. One woman walked up and started crying and she hugged me to thank us for being open.”

How can this be replicated? The answer: There’s no quick way. Trust and reputation build upon years of good work.

Considering Credibility

To put it bluntly, for messages to be trusted people need to trust their source. Nonprofit and government agencies at all levels entrusted with crisis communications must protect their reputations. And a trusted reputation isn’t just about branding, although brand and reputation can go hand in hand.

Credibility is a priceless asset that enables organizations to carry out their missions. The best emergency response—credibility risk management—happens long before emergencies happen. Credibility risk management is a continuous process that safeguards that asset. Reputation is all about perception, and when the public has a negative perception of an organization’s character or results, it poses a risk to brand and reputation.

So, how can organizations reduce that risk?

Reputation Risks

An organization’s trustworthiness can be impacted in multiple ways. Fair or not, justified or not, reputation risks can arise quickly and create damage that takes years to repair. What are major risk areas to monitor?

  • Policies and programs, and their public perception. If promises aren’t kept or missions are carried out poorly, reputation takes a hit.
  • Members or employees of the organization. Irresponsible or harmful actions or words damage the whole organization and its messages.
  • Outside influencers. Talk and news, including social media, moves swiftly. Is your organization ready to respond?

Protecting Your Reputation

Enhancing and protecting an organization’s credibility and reputation involves strategic communications planning, branding, and outreach. However, it’s important to remember than communications alone cannot protect credibility. This begins with maintaining trust with stakeholders, fulfilling promises, and adhering to strong ethics. Here’s what’s involved when it comes to managing risks to an organization’s credibility:

  • Self-assessments of policies and programs, and how they are perceived
  • Engagement and honest communications with the public and stakeholders through multiple channels, including social media monitoring
  • Social responsibility as a policy, not a photo opportunity
  • Accountability for individuals within the organization at all levels
  • Sound, transparent governance policies and leadership

Mitigating Risks, Fixing Damage

Effective communications can build and enhance credibility with stakeholders and the public. When there is a perception of mistrust, effective crisis communications can help restore credibility. A plan for crisis communications and responding to emergencies is critical, but, more importantly, nothing can beat protective risk management strategies, as discussed above.

How can organizations assess credibility risk, and ensure that their messages and their brand inspire trust and confidence? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers the RiskSmart™ tool to help assess reputation and credibility risks, among their many excellent crisis communications resources. When it comes to communications-focused work, professional communicators can help you analyze and respond to risks, develop plans, write press releases, and monitor social media channels. In the third part of this series, we will discuss messaging and branding specifically for nonprofits. Credibility risk management means that vital messages are trusted—and a trustworthy reputation is an investment with an incalculably high return.