The proposed merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA is another reminder that the car industry is in the throes of seismic change. In the stampede to achieve technological advances at lightning speed, it may gain them ground, but risks losing any sense of personal rapport with the customer. The larger an organisation becomes, the harder it is to maintain a human face, in an age when social media has made things so much more about how everyone is feeling. Skillful corporate communications as the story unfolds will shape the way governments, media and customers react. Never has the need for the right tone mattered more.

There is a school of thought that suggests that good products will sell themselves, but that a business will stand or fall on its corporate reputation. Whilst esteemed colleagues have jostled for the privilege of sitting on the product communications side of the house, it has always seemed to me that the thornier issues – manufacturing, investment, headcount, crises of all flavours – are where the thrills lie.

There is much subtlety to corporate communications. Whilst the product teams might be dangling cars from bungee ropes in the Grand Canyon, it is the corporate communications folks who will be gently persuading a reporter that this spend had in no way inhibited the latest investment plans for the factory.

The corporate communications team is there to guard the fragile treasure that is reputation. They will act to restore balance where a negative story has broken cover or to quietly distract attention from an inadvertent revelation from the CEO. Nowhere is the hand of PR more invisible, where success can be when a story does not appear at all, yet it is the careful handling of the reputation that gives the company heart.

I began my career in the nuclear industry. When Chernobyl happened, the Press Officers of a nuclear fuel manufacturer became fair game for the aggression of a furious and frightened public. For fun, I joined the company’s voluntary Speakers’ Panel, spending delightful evenings talking to audiences about nuclear power. This required grit and clarity in the face of regular savaging. I did once fear for my safety as the WI looked set to thrash me with my own props. (It was the full-sized Magnox fuel rod that had me worried.) It taught me two important lessons; deliver your positive message calmly in the face of fury and recognise that you cannot convert everyone, but if you can understand their rancour, then you have a fighting chance of giving your side of the story. When we opened the Sellafield Visitors’ Centre, many people came with protest banners, but they still came.

This philosophy matters more than ever in an age where social media amplifies the outrage of the ill-informed. Without empathy, a response can be a damp squib. For years, Ford has used a ‘Third Age Suit’, restricting the movements and eyesight of designers to mimic life for an elderly unfit person. Insight into why others react as they do is an invaluable tool in shaping communication.

Too many company statements are still written primarily for the approval of the CEO. He or she may not be there in six months time, but if the issue is not handled well, then the customers will be elsewhere too.

In the automotive industry, Safety Recall Committees often include a corporate communications representative. In many ways, they are the conscience of the organisation, as they can be the only one not focused on their own bailiwick. The discussion works through the cause, the revised part needed, how quickly it can be manufactured and brought to the line in bulk and then, crucially, how speedily enough parts can be amassed to enable dealers to fix existing cars.  The potential impact to the reputation is great but the tone, timing and simplicity of the supporting communication can go a long way to calming the fears of drivers, and bringing about tolerance and understanding in an otherwise emotional situation.

Increased consolidation in the car industry will make it harder for the customer to feel that they know a company personally. If they are to trust that they will be sold quality products, by people who care about their experience, they need to feel that every contact they have with the company – direct or otherwise – leaves them with a good feeling.

Sincerity and integrity can make a much deeper impression on public opinion than a sideswipe from a Magnox fuel rod.

About the author...

Kay Francis is a freelance public relations consultant, with experience in the automotive, forensic science and nuclear energy industries.