Content as Damage Control

By David Burda  |  October 11, 2016

Content as Damage Control Image

My roots are in investigative business journalism, and those roots have grown pretty deep in the healthcare industry that I’ve covered for nearly 30 years as a reporter and editor.

I’ve made a career of searching for numbers that don’t make it into press releases, numbers that don’t add up and numbers that tell a different story than the one corporate marketing wants to tell.

One of the triggers for pursuing a story was finding numbers that I didn’t know before—numbers that I presumed my readers didn’t’ know, and numbers that I thought my readers should know. Assuming that’s a common character trait among my fellow journalists, the best protection a brand has against people like me is reputation and transparency.

If it’s all out there on the table for the world to see, and your brand put it there and put it there before anyone asked about it, you’re going to avoid a lot of negative publicity. That’s a tough sell to corporate executives whose default position is staying quiet for as long as possible, hoping that it will all blow over. Step two is deny, deny, deny until the brand is forced into step three, which is finally to come clean.

But consistently telling your story honestly and first always is the best strategy for any organization. That is one of content’s most important roles for a brand—avoiding, mitigating or diffusing a crisis.

I was reminded of that important role for content after reading two recent studies.

The first study, which appeared in the Journal of Business Research, examined consumer reaction to negative publicity about an organization. It found that if the brand “self-disclosed” the negative information before the negative publicity, consumers were more likely to ignore the negative publicity. If the brand didn’t take this action, consumers paid more attention to the negative publicity, particularly if they were personally involved with or loyal to the brand.

My suspicion is, consumers are willing to give a brand that they’re loyal to the benefit of the doubt if it beats the press to the bad news. But if they read about the bad news first, they probably feel betrayed by the brand they long believed in.

The second study, done by market research firm Peer60, looked at the brand awareness of leading healthcare systems across the country. The firm asked 350 C-suite executives, mostly from hospitals and health care systems, to name a system that came to mind as a model for providing “high-quality medical care at sustainable costs.”

Of the dozens of healthcare systems mentioned by the C-suite respondents, the top five were:

  • Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California
  • Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota
  • Cleveland Clinic
  • Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pennsylvania
  • Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City

The top five in terms of “very favorable” brand reputations were:

  1. Mayo Clinic
  2. Cleveland Clinic
  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore
  4. Kaiser Permanente
  5. Intermountain Healthcare 

The brand attributes that placed these health systems in the top five for high-quality care and brand reputation, according to the study, were:

  • Pushing the boundaries of quality of care
  • Most intuitive model
  • Best overall value
  • Most visionary
  • Elite leadership

If you know these healthcare systems, you know they’ve mastered the art of storytelling. Through content, they’ve built their reputations among their peers, patients and policymakers as centers of clinical excellence and innovation.

When you put the two studies together, the lesson for leading health care systems is clear. If you’ve got bad news—like a bacterial outbreak in the intensive care unit—break the news first. Peers, patients and policymakers whose loyalty you’ve built up through content will cut you some slack. If they hear about it first on the local news broadcast, they will be particularly peeved.

The same is true of any brand in any industry. Build your reputation and brand loyalty through content and immediately come clean when there’s a problem. Don’t let someone like me find it in a footnote in lengthy SEC document and break the story—and your reputation.

Content is your ally in a crisis.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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