Nothing stings more than public criticism, and the longer it’s sustained, the more damaging it can be to an organization’s reputation. Especially when, despite everyone’s best intentions, something goes wrong, or people are upset about something.
In today’s wired world, the opportunities for people to share their impressions online have grown exponentially, sometimes amplifying negative word of mouth. It can easily become a chronic problem for almost any business. Being ready to address criticism, own up to mistakes, and move forward toward positive outcomes is critical.
Garland McQueen consults as an interim general manager, helping co-ops through transitions in leadership, often helping to stabilize co-op operations. He finds that part of that work sometimes involves restoring trust and the co-op’s reputation in the community. Especially if a co-op is publicly seeking support for problem-solving measures, without good communication to members and community about its plans, the rumor mill can take over.
“If you don’t communicate with people, they make up their own stuff, and sometimes people are actively fanning the flames of controversy. It’s important that the co-op shares information all along and demonstrates that it is accountable. Constantly educate people about things you do.” Sometimes in a crisis it can be hard to see the way forward, especially if the co-op is publicly struggling with financial issues, store image or customer and community relationships.
One of the ways that organizations work through public challenges successfully is to engage with a communication professional or with local public relations services that can help with planning and what to say. “You need to constantly communicate with people that the co-op is there in service to them,” he said. “You do need to answer their questions as well as the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor and offer them something tangible.”
In his experience, McQueen has found that most challenges are not insurmountable when problem-solving and communication are consistently applied. “Usually for the first few months you think you see no progress, but then after about six months you’ll find that things have changed.” He also said that it’s important to share both the “good” news and the “bad” news. “You need to share that information first before people start to hear things elsewhere.”
The role of the general manager as a visible leader is also important. “The general manager has to be seen a lot in the public eye. People like to know someone is in charge.” People who really like interacting with the public and love the co-op will be its best ambassadors in the community.
Marketing consultant Rebecca Torpie said that during a crisis it’s important to “stop and listen.” That’s often when the co-op needs to double-down on finding ways to repair the internal and external relationships that need organizational attention and resources. One of the ways to do this is to strengthen communication systems and channels.
“It’s so important to have a great feedback system and a way to take in data,” she said. “That way you can do an assessment of what is working well and what could be done better.” Torpie also said it’s important to proactively include staff in communication. “What do they see and hear? It can be great to get their feedback.”
“Once you have that information or data you can begin to prioritize it. Reputation management is an ongoing process and you need to recognize that people’s expectations from the co-op will also change over time.”
She also thinks that visible leaders, like managers and the board, need to set aside time and resources to continually stay in communication with members and the community. “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but it helps to think about this as work for the long-term sustainability of the co-op.” One of the ongoing challenges from her perspective is encouraging change and future-oriented thinking about being an impactful organization that embraces the whole community.
“Most people experience the co-op through shopping, and when they believe the co-op is awesome, they become ambassadors for it. That’s why I think implementing strong customer service training and a customer relationship management system is so important.” You can’t fake good relationships, they need to be cultivated—and gaining professional assistance to do it will help a co-op reach its full potential.
“It’s really important now in these times where people don’t trust democracy that the co-op can demonstrate how it can work so that it reestablishes trust in democracy. That’s a really cool space to be in.”
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