PR Training

Building Trust in a Media Maelstrom

Those involved in responding to the Virginia Tech incident reported more than 1000 reporters were on scene. Add to that number the tens of thousands of bloggers, passersby with cell cameras and individuals commenting on news sites who are part of the new army of “citizen journalists.”

For any large and powerful organization, building and maintaining trust has never been so challenging. Most news is now conveyed in the form of a melodrama, with a black hat, a white hat, and some form of the public good (health, safety, environmental harm) serving as the maiden in distress. If you are being accused of putting the public at risk in some way, guess which hat you get to wear when the story is told? The blame game must be played — there is no way out.

So how can trust be built in this kind of negative environment? Remember the three drivers of the instant news world: speed, direct communication and transparency.

Speed. It used to be, “How fast will the news helicopters come?” Now, it is when will a cell image or text message be sent to Fox News? We live in an instant news world and the ability to respond on those terms is essential. This can only be accomplished through preparation. Thinking through in advance and preparing to respond instantly to events is required. —anything less is too late.

Direct communication. Students and faculty on campuses now expect instant, direct notification. But what do your key stakeholders expect? If something happens that affects their investment, their job, their family’s future, their safety, anything precious to them, they expect to hear from you. Instantly. Directly. Failure to meet this demand risks sending a powerful message that they don’t count. Can you afford to send that message in this era of declining trust?

Transparency. If the British government can’t keep Prince Harry’s presence in a war zone a secret, why do organization leaders think they can hide anything? Revealing a widespread cover-up was the dream of any journalist. Now that dream is shared by millions of citizen journalists. If building trust is the goal (as it should be), then being the first with the bad news is usually the best strategy. Do it fast, do it directly, and do it with complete honesty.

By Gerald Baron, founder and CEO of PIER Systems, a provider of crisis communication management technology.He is also founder and president of Baron & Company, and has served as spokesperson during the early stages of the 1999 Olympic Pipeline explosion. Gerald designed a crisis communication technology, which is currently being used by the U.S. Coast Guard, leading oil companies, academic institutions and industry leaders such as Boeing and Allstate, and state and regional Departments of Emergency Management. Baron has written several books, including “Now Is Too Late2”, and has maintained the crisis management and communications blog,

Join Baron along with Kami Watson Huyse for their co-presentation,  Integrating Social Media Into Crisis Planning: Prepare Your Company and Brand in Times of Trouble

About the author

Gerald Baron

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