The Power of Headlines in Reputation Management – By Godfrey Adejumoh

It might be a struggle to defend this statement empirically; ‘perception is reality’. Irrespective of your position, what you must not take for granted is your perception. You must be deliberate to orchestrate your desired perception from your stakeholders by matching your words with actions.

Do what you say and say what you are willing to do.

As perception is to physical appearance or brand positioning, so is a headline to the narrative and ultimately perceived reality of a product, service or personality. The headline of a narrative is the decider of how it will be received, decided on and perceived. Headlines induce negative or positive reactions to a narrative. It also influences the behaviour of stakeholders to the brand, whether good or otherwise.

I can say to a certain degree that over 50 per cent of stakeholders who come across a story read only the headline. There are not too many who have the patience to dive into the details, especially in a clime where the reading culture is dwindling so fast.

In this social media age, we have seen how institutional or personal brands are torn apart because of a sensational headline that may not be true.

The virality of the sensational headline is like a wildfire that burnt down a forest at the speed of light; a carefully calibrated and crafted reputation built through hard work and diligence is pulled down over time. In a twinkle of an eye, all that effort is brought to nothing because of sensational headlines.

Sadly, not all brands recover from this. They leave scars for those that managed to stay alive after the crisis. Headlines are the decider of what your stakeholders think, say, or know about you, to a large extent.

As strategic communications practitioners, understanding the power of headlines, how they work, their influence and potency to orchestrating behaviour to the point of impacting investors relations, and stocks in the capital market is a must-have skill.

This is not a one-off skill or an elementary understanding of the power of the headline, but a continuum on the line of duty from start to finish however short or long such career might be.

The practitioner must wake up everyday to face the challenge, the fluidity and dynamic nature of how the media cast headlines that can make or mar organisations. In the event of headlines that mar an organisation’s reputation, the road to recovery could be a marathon, rarely a sprint.

Many cases exist where some brands did not survive the devastation while, in the others that survived, the damage and impact may never be undone.

While one will acknowledge that in some cases the headlines that marred the organisation are false and mischievous, others may be factually true. The case of the oil companies and oil spillage in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria are both sensational and true.

Either by desk research or on-ground sighting, the region, particularly Ogoniland, the damage of the oil spillage to the socio-economic life of the people remains a pain point to the entire nation.

In other cases, headlines may both be sensational and true, especially for companies quoted in the capital market. The reality is that no company has it all rosy through its lifecycle of operations.

There could be operational challenges beyond their control, not because they do not have the right strategies in place or competent management, but, in a VUCA world like ours with port congestion, COVID-19, national social unrest, heightened foreign exchange volatility, logistics challenges, supply chain and general unease of doing business; the impact on the organisation’s performance despite concerted efforts to remain sustainable to provide and protect jobs is adverse.

Certainly, in these circumstances, the sensational headlines by analysts about a company’s performance are true to a large extend because figures do not lie. Sadly, this impacts the reputation of such businesses.

Whatever the headline of a narrative, especially when it is negative, irrespective of whether it is true or not, it hurts the reputation of the brands and the organisations. The question is: when this happens, what can brands do to cause-correct the narrative or even avoid having negative headlines?

One of the strategies to getting your headlines right from the get-go is for you to own, lead and drive the narrative. This implies that you orchestrate what goes out about your brand. It is not done in a haste. Instead, it is planned and deliberately delivered to lead the discourse, influence perception and narratives in your favour.

This does not rule out the fact that it is vulnerable to the backlash, but it gives a certain degree of assurance that reduces the negative trajectory of your brand narrative.

I like to add that there is a science to planning and orchestrating headlines to illicit the desired feedback for your brand to build, retain, and improve on its reputation and at the same time attract investors and remain enduring to stakeholders across the spectrum.

That science includes using the right language, tone, and wordings in your content. It does not have to be lengthy to achieve this. It should acknowledge issues and challenges where they exist genuinely, a position as a solution to the challenges without dissipating or boring people with the issues in a VUCA operating environment like ours.

Above and beyond the preceding suggestions, adequate steps must be taken to seal, sign and deliver on these strategies to achieve your desired narrative.

Leading this is identifying the appropriate channels that give the best value for quality narrative in coverage and reach for your stakeholders. If the headlines from this channel are in your favour, chances are that they could go viral even if not as much as the negative headlines.

A sister strategy for identifying your content deployment channels is the speed with which the channel can deploy your message. In this new normal, speed is the new currency of business. No matter how well-intentioned and crafted your content, if it fails the test of speed, all your efforts may be in futility.

As practitioners, we must be deliberate to understand how the media and headlines work as this will enable us to own, lead and drive our narratives in shaping perception and building the right reputation for brands and organisations.

This is a lifelong strategy. Practitioners must be on guard to master the art and science of using headlines to build and manage reputation. This is what distinguish us in the profession as strategic communications business leaders and experts who build brands that last, are future-proof and configured to stand the test of time.

Your headline is your story. Do not miss it!

Adejumoh is a Communications & PR Strategist based in Lagos Nigeria (godfrey.adejumoh@gmail.com)

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