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Communicating ‘bad news’: How to engage audiences, drive hope and create impact

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Communicating ‘bad news’: How to engage audiences, drive hope and create impact


Alana Chetner outlines how public relations (PR) must navigate negativity with strategic messaging to effectively engage and mobilise communities.

The role of PR is a powerful one. Not only does it raise awareness around issues impacting our society, but it engages the wider community to be part of the solution by driving specific call-to-actions. This is an enormous responsibility which requires careful strategy to ensure the right tone of voice, sentiment and messaging are used to clearly guide the direction of a business or campaign to reach its target audiences.

Today, information is more accessible than ever before. Social, digital, broadcast and the old-fashioned word of mouth are just some of the ways information is disseminated. When crises happen, hysteria breaks out quickly..

With our platforms riddled with ‘bad news’ stories — from global wars, climate change, COVID-19 to local criminal acts —- our society is living in a haze, in particular the Gen Z generation who have resorted to ‘living in the moment’ rather than thinking too far ahead. A recent study by Secret Sounds Connect showed that over 50 percent of Gen Z claimed that they wouldn’t be surprised if the world ended within their lifetime. More and more people are ‘detoxing’ off social platforms, turning off the news and shielding themselves from being exposed to potentially bad news stories. 

When communicating messages on social impact, how can PR cut through the noise to re-engage the community, retain hope and encourage positive action amid adversity? 

The following points are essential for marketers to consider in PR efforts when effectively communicating impact-led messages, drive action and ultimately, achieve outcomes. 

Build trust 

Being transparent with outcomes and what you are trying to achieve when communicating a message externally for impact or partnering with a cause is extremely important. No matter if you are a charity with a solid reputation in-market or an emerging brand selling sustainable clothing, you need to have a consistent impact-driven and to-the-point message which shows audiences that you are committed to being part of the solution… and for the long-term. 

Very vague messaging will only cause scepticism and weaken the outcome of what you are trying to achieve.

Consider your language

While not all topics are brimming with hope and positive sentiment, it’s important to look at what positive outcomes can result from adversity. To create a hard-hitting headline, you often need to use statistics which reflect the extremity of a situation, but what is the actual call-to-action and how can the community get involved in making a difference? More importantly, what will be the outcome of these actions? Setting a goal is vital in not only engaging a community but also instilling a sense (and vision) of hope that you are making a difference.

Continual doom messaging will only deter from the positive impact you are trying to achieve.

Maximise imagery

It may seem like a basic step to select a supporting image from a diverse image library, but this is essential in PR when communicating your message. An image tells a thousand words. 

During the 2019-20 bushfires, there were so many organisations and individuals  supporting the bushfires by fundraising and volunteering. Working with a prominent foundation during that period, we saw that the most successful outreach and engagement was based on the images used which clearly showed the impact of our commitment to supporting impacted wildlife. Amid horrific vision and images, was an image of extraordinary impact and hope showing a kangaroo escaping the fires, followed by images of recovery and release. This led to essential funds being raised to support volunteers and trained staff to recover from these devastating events — a beacon of hope among the wider community.

Employ a spokesperson

Behind trust, language, imagery and vision needs to be a spokesperson to bring to life these elements to make a serious impact. Investing time in media training the right spokesperson with strong key messages will make all the difference in whether your campaign or initiative resonates with your target audiences. Facts, research and/or statistics to back your news story need to be articulated succinctly and with a very thorough understanding of how this relates to the topic  — this is what builds trust.

Turning a conversation around to build hope is also where compassion, connection and reliability comes into play. Audiences want to align with like-minded values and be part of the solution.

Lifeline Canberra and Narrm CEO Carrie Leeson is a spokesperson who, despite the distressing impact of mental health, will always rally and support a community with actionable outcomes and words of hope while also addressing the facts. She is trusted regardless of whether an audience is only hearing her for the first time and this largely comes down to her compassion and also, personal dedication and values which align with the charity’s vision.

If you don’t have a relatable spokesperson, consider someone external to the organisation who represents and reflects the message you are communicating and aligns with your values. However, in order to build trust, consider this spokesperson for the mid to long-term and not as a one-off opportunity. They are key to building community advocacy and the ongoing recognition of what you are striving to achieve.

Finally, don’t jump on a bandwagon if it doesn’t align with your values or you have nothing to add or action

This may seem harsh, but there have been too many occasions where brands have forced a link to important topics in order to leverage PR opportunities or join the conversation. If there isn’t a noticeable link or if it doesn’t noticeably align with the values of a business, it’s best to opt out. Gen Z in particular are very cluey about the inauthenticity of brands and this has contributed to terms such as ‘green’ or ‘pink-washing’ being created which completely shift the focus of the conversation.

Journalists are also very aware of opportunistic angles pitched which can often lead to a campaign backfiring… and a news story, which may not be what you were hoping for.

It’s important that any message relayed in the media is consistent with marketing materials. The call-to-action from PR needs to be directed to the owned platforms and include what is ‘promised’ in the articles for maximum results. 

Post the campaign push, it’s important to assess if the impact is resonating with the audience and if the PR strategy needs to be tweaked or expanded to gauge the desired response.

Alana Chetner is the managing director of ÉTOILE PR.


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