Build Trust and Credibility with those Affected by Crisis

When you collaborate with other individuals or organizations to mitigate large, complex or ongoing crises, an important component of your communication is community involvement. Among the many facts that need to be disseminated to affected stakeholders during and after any crisis are the risks involved and how an incident management team is handling them.

The good news? The more people or organizations involved in the incident response and recovery, the more potential community spokespeople you’ll have available.

Trust and credibility are two of your most important commodities when mitigating a crisis. If your stakeholders already trust you and believe that you’re capable of getting the job done, your goal is to maintain that goodwill. When stakeholders don’t trust you, or feel like you’re not up to the task at hand, you have to change the emotional course they’re on before you can get through their mental noise and actually pass important facts.

Before you collaborate, you should know that an individual’s profession or an organization’s mission affects public perception of trustworthiness and credibility. When given the opportunity to choose people to speak to community groups, a little homework now can make the choice easier when you’re in the recovery phase of crisis.

Paul recently wrote about the qualities he looks for when selecting the right media spokesperson in a crisis situation, and he and I have both written pieces on collaborative crisis communications. Knowledge of both topics is important, and so is an understanding of how stakeholder perception works.

Gallup’s periodic poll results for the U.S. public’s view of which professions are most honest and ethical, and Edelman’s global poll results of which types of organizations people trust, are both good primers. Specific regions, or groups of stakeholders, may feel differently than the general population, so you may have to drill down further to determine who may be viewed as most trustworthy and credible before he or she even opens his or her mouth at a community meeting.

How do you determine if Gallup’s and Edelman’s “most trusted” lists apply to the region in which you’re mitigating crisis? If you or a member of your team is a member of the affected community, you’ll have a good idea of who people trust. If you’re working far from home, you’ll need to seek people out to verify who the best speakers will be (more on that in minute). If you know from the Gallup results that people trust medical professionals more than lawyers, and you have both on your incident management team, the choice of which one should speak at community meeting is clear. If you know from the Edelman results that workers from NGOs are more trusted than government employees, the choice is once again easier if you have potential speakers from both types of organization on your team.

Why is this so important when collaborating?

Noted risk communications expert Dr. Vincent Covello coined the terms credibility transference and credibility reversal, to illustrate the phenomenon of how public perception can work during times of high concern. Covello posited that if you align yourself with an individual or organization that has more credibility, your credibility increases (credibility transference). The opposite, of course, is when you align with a lower credibility source – your credibility decreases (credibility reversal). So, for example, if you align with a local politician who is in the midst of a scandal, it could jeopardize your credibility; or, if you collaborate with well-respected member of the community, you’ll get bonus trust and credibility points, and people will be more willing to listen to what you have to say.

Another benefit of active community relations during incident recovery operations that many people overlook: an informed public is necessary to help you spread the word. Trusted opinion leaders in the community, armed with the facts you’ve provided during open houses or small group briefings, offer invaluable third-party support and provide a little more credibility transference to you or your incident management team.

While planning for community engagement a few years back, to discuss a chemical risk to citizens overseas, the team I was part of consisted of military members and civilian employees from both the host country and the U.S. We had engineers, health experts, public information officers and pollution mitigation experts in the mix. We worked closely with the host nation ahead of time to determine not only the best way to package our information and the best formats for delivering it, but also who in our group should deliver each message, based on trust and credibility. We had to consider how each potential speaker’s background and organizational affiliation would be perceived, and also consider roles based on gender, because the host nation had some cultural separation of men and women.

We were far from home, so we worked closely with host nation government leadership, as well as local influentials. We were surprised to find, among other things, that U.S. spokespeople would be more trusted than officials from the host nation, and that the level of sophisticated messaging could be higher than what we had originally planned. We did our homework to prepare those speakers who would be perceived as most trustworthy and credible, and it worked — people were more willing to listen to what we had to say.

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