With the explosion of the web – and above all social media – businesses find their reputations increasingly shaped by ordinary people in giant public conversations. Until recently, businesses used top-down advertising and elite media relations to shape their image. Now, anyone with broadband and an opinion can affect this process. Businesses are waking up to the fact that they must prioritise the management of public opinion.
As I speak to more businesses navigating the public conversation, the same question keeps coming up: how can we find out what people really think about us? While some businesses are starting to use opinion research extensively to probe what the public think about issues related to their sector – as opposed to their products – some feel conventional research does not provide sufficient intelligence to chart a course of action. Businesses might know what people think about their sector, but not necessarily why.
Businesses engaged in opinion research have to keep two issues in mind if they want to make the most of their research. Firstly, they have to accept that very few people really care about them or their issues. In other words, they need to keep a sense of perspective. Secondly, thinking about their own personal lives and those closest to them, they need to be realistic about how people form opinions on issues that only touch them irregularly.
The fact is that most people’s views on most businesses, or indeed the issues that affect them, are subsidiary to what they think about other things. Yes, they might have a view on a proposed piece of regulation, but that view will be informed by their general worldview and their feelings about issues that really matter to them. People are not defined by their views on a million issues. They are defined by a core set of values and beliefs – and strong views on a relatively narrow set of issues. For many people, their views on practically everything else can be traced back to these fundamentals.
Businesses that want to improve their reputation amongst public audiences, or to change opinion on issues that matter, need to work out what these fundamentals are and create communications campaigns around them. Perhaps, for example, businesses need to start talking about “fairness”, or “value”, or “decency”, rather than making very narrow arguments that only matter to them.
The growth of social media means that businesses are exposed to public opinion as never before. Their communications teams therefore need to become experts in people – not just in what they think, but in how they think and why. While corporate reputations are now shaped in collaboration with the public, expertise in people will at least give businesses the chance to be the most influential voice in the conversation taking place around them.