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Steps for repairing your company's fractured public image

Published Aug. 31, 2005

Your company may have played fair with customers and investors over the past few years, but the bad publicity caused by other companies is costing you a tremendous loss of business. Then again, someone in your company might have been involved in borderline activities, but you've corrected the mistakes. Or maybe you're just an innocent party in the confidence fallout that seems to be everywhere. The challenge is to bounce back. How do you do it?

You might consider hiring a topnotch advertising firm to boost your image with the goal of enticing some of your old customers to return. The thinking goes like this: "Maybe they will come back if we apologize for what happened and show what we've done to insure against the same thing happening again." Or you could try this one: "We did nothing wrong, so deal with us." Nope. It won't work. You are going to have to go a lot further if you want to gain or regain your image.

What you need is a comprehensive public relations program to rebuild confidence. While a simple advertising campaign might work, chances are greater that it will probably fail. What you must first do is discover what people actually think of you, not what you think they think. Try using the following five steps to design an image-changing PR campaign:

Your public: Identify just whose opinion it is you wish to change. Who are the "they" of the world in which you work and live? List the different groups whose opinions are valuable to you and your company. Rewrite the list in order of their importance to your bottom line sales. A good starting list might include customers, shareholders, employees, potential customers, the media, public officials, community opinion leaders, CPAs, lawyers, bankers, vendors, churches, health professionals, physical neighbors and the general public.

Image survey: There are research companies out there who will work with you to gather information. If you have the money, hire one. Their business is gathering facts.

If money is tight, consider using a focus group to collect information. The classic way to conduct a focus group survey is to invite six to 15 people from each identified group to an extended meeting at a neutral site with a neutral moderator, then ask their opinions of your company. With permission, videotape the proceedings and, if possible, view the group meeting personally using a one-way mirror wall.

Your desired image: A correctly designed image survey will tell you two important things: what people really think about your company and what would entice them to return. Use the same image identification to entice new customers. Draw a continuum chart from the worst present image to the image desired by your survey participants and chart the position of each group along the continuum.

Analyze and design: Using the information gathered, design a program to change the current opinions of your company held by each identified group to the opinions you wish them to have. Identify the most cost-effective change agent or agency for each group. What works for the bankers might not work for customers, so you have your work cut out for you.

Put price tags on every action you can define, then decide what you can do within your budget. It is at this point your PR firm can be of the most help. They can guide your analysis and coordinate the design of any advertising programs you devise.

Act: Set your budget and, with your public relations study in hand, map out a campaign to change the attitudes and perceptions of your company.