Coronavirus and the Government’s persistent reputation gap

Let’s talk about trust. Back in early May, trust in the UK Government over Coronavirus was at a whopping 60% according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer – but they also presciently warned that such peaks at times of global crises were usually followed by a huge dip.

And sure enough, when news broke that the PM’s advisor Dominic Cummings had driven to Barnard Castle while suffering from coronavirus symptoms – rather than staying at home and self isolating like everyone else was being asked to do – it was later identified as a moment when public trust dropped and people stopped following the rules themselves.

Similarly, this week’s 10pm curfew on pubs and bars was greeted with cynicism – but when it turned out that Westminster’s own bar was to be exempted from the rules there was outcry, and the Government had to make a swift U-turn.

Whether you think these examples are proof of a “one rule for us, one for them” attitude is up to you, but what they clearly show is the importance of ensuring your words and your actions align – because if they don’t, you’ll end up with a reputation gap.

The reputation gap is the perception that there is a difference between your message and your actions. In a pandemic it can have deadly consequences – but in normal times it can do huge harm to your business too. Take the classic example of the Deepwater Horizon spill, where the difference between what BP were saying and the reality of their processes and actions led to the collapse of their reputation, protests and increased scrutiny. At Enron, fraudulent accounting practices which told one story when the reality was very different led to bankruptcy – and the dissolution of their accounting firm.

It’s a PR pro’s job to manage their organisation’s relationships, and like all relationships these are based on trust. That’s why the first and most simple rule is to make sure that what you say and what you do are the same. It’s not that difficult – try to spin and you open yourself up to the risk of being caught, and the subsequent disappointment factor will blow the story bigger than it ever would have been. Plus, you’ll have lost the trust of your staff, your customers and your stakeholders.

In the case of the parliament’s bars, the original tweet was still doing the rounds today, with people furious about the perceived difference between what the Government said and what they actually did. Even Nigel Farage tweeted that it was a bad idea. Speaker of the House Lindsay Hoyle has said the press were “mischief making” and the story was untrue – which rather begs the question of why it was confirmed by an official government spokesperson. It will be interesting to see if anyone believes him and it’s telling that the Government’s reputation is such that people are willing to believe the story in the first place, and continue to share it rather than the story of the U-turn. The Government’s reputation is one of people unwilling to follow their own rules it seems, not one of people unable to make their mind up. That’s useful information for their opponents to note.

It’s worth thinking about how this little parable is relevant to your own business. Is there a difference between the reputation you have and the reputation you want? And if so, what are you going to do to close the gap?

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