In an age where anyone can voice an opinion about a company with a quick message, post, or tweet, the perception of a brand can rapidly change. Companies of every variety are now beholden to consumers who can swiftly change their opinions of a brand in response to that brand’s marketing campaign, political stance, or recent news event. More often than not, these perceptions are influenced for the worse, significantly impacting a brands’ ability to succeed.

To explore how this new media landscape and how the news about a company can affect consumer behavior, Clutch surveyed 1,000 consumers in the US to evaluate the way they use media, how they make purchase decisions, and how the latest press coverage of top-name brands impacts their perception of those companies.

Our Findings

  • 52% of consumers spend the most time using social media, allowing for opinions to change and news to travel quickly
  • Nearly 20% of consumers are wary to make high cost purchases from brands with negative press
  • News stories about companies have an impact on the way those brands are perceived by consumers—In fact, 46% of consumers who identified United Airlines as a brand with negative press also have a negative perception of that brand

We walk you through three case studies of companies that have had recent negative press—United Airlines, Pepsi, and Chick-Fil-A—to show how the media conversation impacted consumer behavior. We also explore how the public relations (PR) teams at those companies reacted and how PR teams in general must adjust to the new media environment.

The Media Landscape is Changing

It’s 2017, and the digital era has taken over. Media has taken many new and different forms, expanding from just print and TV to blogs, websites, and social media.

In fact, 52% of people identify social media as the media type that they consume the most.

Most Commonly Used Media Outlets

Increased activity on social media has provided a platform for a new generation of consumers. These consumers now have the ability to broadcast opinions and buying habits on global platforms.

Social media also allows for news stories to travel rapidly to every corner of the globe. From a PR standpoint, this can be an encouraging way to spread the message of a brand quickly and effectively to a target audience. It can also be, however, the quickest way for a brand to plummet in consumers’ mindsets.

Additionally, 75% of people consume media between 1-6 hours per day, giving consumers quick access to witness and respond to news stories that spread online.

Daily Media Usage by Consumers

As people spend more time consuming media, and social media in particular, the amount of time that brands have to respond to any negative press coverage dramatically shortens. David Kippen, CEO of Evviva Brands and industry expert in PR and branding, sheds some light to this phenomenon.

“Social media has dramatically shortened the window of time that organizations have to respond to reputation issues. At the heart of good public relations management is getting out in front of good events fast, and getting out in front of bad events even faster.”
David Kippen, CEO, Evviva Brands

PR teams are now required to be constantly vigilant of promoting clear, transparent, and positive messaging to consumers.

Media Coverage Shapes Consumers’ Perceptions of a Brand

As salient news is brought to consumers’ attention, opinions of those brands change.

To measure the correlation between press coverage and consumer brand perceptions, we provided a list of 10 brands to survey respondents, 6 of which have been featured negatively in the news recently. After asking respondents to identify the brands with the negative press, we also asked them to select those of which they perceive in a negative light.

Brands Identified to Have Negative Press vs. Brands With Negative Consumer Perceptions

The results indicate that the top brands that are negatively perceived in consumers’ minds are all of the brands that have recently had negative press coverage.

Perceptions of a brand also feed directly into consumers’ likelihood to purchase that company’s products. The way these opinions change is conducive to many factors, and it even varies between low and high cost purchases.

While simple word-of-mouth referrals suffice in convincing consumers to make low cost purchases, high cost purchases require a bit more research, including an awareness of any news stories about the brand.

Sources that Influence Purchase Decisions

When considering a low investment purchase, like a meal or an article of clothing, consumers rely the most on referrals from friends and family members, online product reviews, and advertisements on TV.

The recent news about a company only has an impact on 9% of consumers, indicating a slightly lesser influence of recent press coverage on consumer purchase decisions of cheap, single-use products.

Conversely, double the amount (18%) of consumers indicated that the recent news about a company has an influence on their decision to make a high investment purchase, like a car or a computer. Upon making a more serious purchase decision, a larger amount of consumers admit to being influenced by the recent news about the brand in question.

David Kippen supports the notion that high-risk purchases increase the amount of concern a consumer has with a company.

“The bottom line is, if I’m making a high-cost investment as a consumer, I’m generally buying a durable consumer good or investing in a future event. If that’s the case, then I’m going to be much more concerned about the future status of a company in which I’m making the investment.”
David Kippen, Evviva Brands

Even the slightest indication that a company is at risk of downfall can dissuade consumers from investing their money in that brand.

This data is significant because it points to the importance of PR in repairing a brand’s image after its reputation has been damaged in the news. If the press features a company as appearing weak or at risk of failure, then consumers will be dissuaded from purchasing its products or services. With a solid PR team, companies can avoid the negative press exposure and will thus avoid the risk of losing any potential customers.

Three case studies show how news cycles shape purchasing decisions

News stories about brands have an influence on consumers’ purchase decisions, for better or for worse.

Although there are millions of companies that populate the news every day, there are three top-name brands that stand out as pointed examples of how PR teams have adjusted to today’s media environment.

For Pepsi, United, and Chick-Fil-A, the latest negative press they generated all came as a result of a deliberate marketing campaign or intentional policies put in place. They are not responding to an unfortunate circumstance, rather they are the cause of their negative press coverage.

At the same time, however, each case presents a different report of how consumers change their buying habits in response to unfavorable news about brands and how PR comes into play once the damage has been done.

United Airlines experiences a loss in consumer base with latest PR mishap

United Airlines serves as an example of the direct relationship between a brands’ presence in the media and its perception by consumers.

As recently as this year, United Airlines has experienced a wide range of PR mishaps, landing them in the press in an extremely negative light. Their greatest failure pertains to the mishandling of their security team in taking an unwilling passenger off of an aircraft after refusing to give up their seat to a United crewmember.

The negative news has had a direct impact on the perception consumers have of United, 53% of which say they are less likely to purchase United plane tickets in response.

In response to United Airline's recent news events, I am:

People are now changing their behavior when purchasing plane flights because they are aware of United’s actions and react in disagreement with their policies.

When asked to select a reason why they are less likely to buy United plane tickets, 52% of consumers say it’s because they believe United did not handle the situation correctly.

Why are you less likely to purchase a United plane ticket?

Due to their failure to implement an appropriate policy, United has lost a significant portion of their consumer base, according to our survey findings.

From a PR standpoint, United has quickly taken tangible actions to remedy the situation by changing their policies and increasing the amount of money they will reimburse passengers who may need to be relocated in the future.

But, the communications team at United still has some long-term work to do to rebuild their brand reputation. Buck Banks, the Vice President of NewmanPR, a public relations agency representing some of the country’s largest luxury cruise lines, points to the longevity of the public relations industry as the most stable method of ensuring a solid brand image.

“The thing about public relations, especially in the case of United, is that it’s a long game and not a short-term fix. You have to look at how, over time, you can continually put out positive messaging that addresses consumer concerns, tells them that you are listening, you care about what they think and feel, and that you’re responding to that.”
Buck Banks, Vice President, NewmanPR

Investing in a long-term PR plan to maintain the reputation of a brand is the most secure way to ensure a company’s success.

The United case study shows that their immediate PR strategy to address consumer concerns is smart, but that they must also be vigilant about maintaining concern for their consumers and consistent positive messaging in order to regain the trust from individuals who may have lost respect for the brand.

The Pepsi brand remains unwavering in the eyes of consumers

Pepsi’s latest PR crisis is very different from that of United. Although Pepsi suffered from a negative news event, consumers were generally unaffected by the news about the company.

In Pepsi’s case, their marketing team made an error by issuing a commercial about police brutality that many viewed as insensitive.

In response, 77% of consumers indicated that they felt “unaffected” by their commercial and are not swayed to change their behavior in purchasing Pepsi products.

In response to Pepsi's latest commercial, I am:

Buying habits did not change dramatically in response to Pepsi’s negative press coverage. The reason, however, is that consumers’ brand loyalty to Pepsi outweighs the brand’s marketing mistake.

Why are you unaffected by Pepsi's news coverage?

25% of consumers who said they were unaffected by Pepsi’s latest commercial say it’s because they are a loyal Pepsi customer.

The concept of brand loyalty as it pertains to PR is a curious relationship. Brand loyalty directly contributes to the value of a brand, which is the ultimate responsibility for a PR team to manage and grow. To do this, PR teams must voice brands in a way that emphasizes their values, positively and confidently.

However, when an event occurs that threatens to weaken a brand’s customer loyalty, PR teams are required to step up and admit that what they did was wrong. David Kippen explains:

“When things go dramatically wrong, the job of the PR team is to get out in front of them. Often, the message the PR team have to give is, ‘I’m sorry. We were wrong. We’re going to fix it.’ That’s a terrifying message because that goes straight to the heart of brand trust and brand loyalty.”
David Kippen, Evviva Brands

Admitting to wrongdoing seemingly could weaken the trust customers have in a company. However, the ability to concede to such a downfall is actually what makes a good PR team and is what drives a company’s success.

By quickly and openly admitting that their marketing tactic was a mistake, Pepsi still saw an overwhelming negative response from consumers who disagreed with the message of their commercial. Yet, the perception of their brand remained firmly positive in the minds of consumers who are too loyal to the brand to change their buying behavior.

Committed to their values, Chick-Fil-A generates an even stronger consumer following

The case of Chick-Fil-A is different from that of both United and Pepsi. Their negative coverage in the news actually generated a positive response from consumers.

Chick-Fil-A’s press coverage has transpired over time now, making it the least recent case study out of the three selected brands. However, their reason for being featured negatively in the news is possibly the most controversial as it pertains to their conflict with the LGBTQ community.

In response to their openly religious values, 25% of consumers say they are more likely to buy a meal from Chick-Fil-A.

In response to Chick-Fil-A's openly religious values, I am:

Though the news has instilled a change in consumers’ buying habits, it did so in a positive way for the Chick-Fil-A brand.

The reason, as expressed by 45% of consumers, is because people respect Chick-Fil-A’s right to express their values.

Why are you more likely to buy a meal from Chick-Fil-A?

Despite Chick-Fil-A having a strong, public opinion on gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues, their overt and transparent messaging tactic actually worked in favor of the brand.

The reason why this behavior makes sense is that the communications teams at Chick-Fil-A had a strong PR strategy, taking a clear and transparent approach to standing up for their beliefs, no matter how much disagreement it sparked.

Just as how brand loyalty directly contributes to brand value, the commitment Chick-Fil-A has as a brand to remain true to their values is what not only maintains their brand loyalty, but has even driven an increase in consumers’ likelihood to buy their products.

How PR teams can adjust to the new era of media

Moving into the future, media is only going to become more omnipresent. Consumers’ exposure to news coverage about a company is bound to increase and in response, PR teams must make adjustments to meet the needs of restoring a brand’s image and value.

For advice on what PR teams can do to keep up with the changing media environment, Clutch looked to the experts to weigh in.

According to Buck Banks, the rise of social media has changed the way PR teams need to approach brand messaging.

“When we do social media for our clients, there’s a certain tone and sensibility to it that reflects the brand. It’s a certain voice, and if that voice is authoritative, contains the brand, and expresses the brand in a positive light, then it’s effective.”
Buck Banks, NewmanPR

Containing the voice of a brand is key in public relations, especially when managing social media because those platforms are where consumers are most likely to build their strongest familiarity with a brand.

Additionally, responding quickly to negative press is vital for PR teams to maintain the reputation of the firms they represent.

Brianne Miller, Director and New Business Manager at Landis Communications, an award-winning public relations firm in San Francisco, weighs in on the significance of a brand’s reaction to being featured in the news.

“If you’re a brand and you’re in the news, whether it’s good or bad, it’s going to have some sort of influence on your brand image. In a lot of ways, how quickly you react to a bad situation can raise your brand awareness if it’s done properly. If you have good news associated with your brand, you hope that glow persists and allows consumers to think highly of your product and services.”
Brianne Miller, Director and New Business Manager, Landis Communications

When a brand is featured in the press, its image will inevitably be altered in the eyes of the consumer. To ensure that the image remains intact, PR teams serve as an invaluable support system for any brand.

Brianne Miller also highlights the importance of internal PR, a tactic for companies to look within their own organization and amplify the standards of their employees and internal policies.

“[Companies] really need to make sure their employee communications are solid, and that they empower their employees to do the right thing every single time.”
Brianne Miller, Landis Communications

By centralizing the focus of a company’s internal team to have a universal understanding of their brand first and foremost, companies will have greater success in avoiding the negative limelight.

Four Strategies to Persevere

With the media landscape constantly evolving, PR teams must adjust to ensure a brand remains positively accepted by consumers.

The takeaways of Clutch’s survey all point to the importance of having a solid PR team as a support system for brands as they traverse the ever-changing media environment.

First, because consumers use social media more than any other media outlet, PR firms need to be fast in responding to negative press so as to take control of the conversation consumers have online.

Second, because consumers have a negative perception of companies that have had negative press coverage, PR teams need to be vigilant in promoting consistent positive messaging that contains the voice and values of a brand.

Third, consumers will change their purchasing behavior in response to news events, as evidenced by the three case studies of United Airlines, Pepsi, and Chick-Fil-A. As a result, PR teams must know when to admit to a mistake in order to regain trust from consumers who may be hesitant to continue purchasing from that brand.

Finally, a brand’s value is arguably the most important component of a successful company. To protect this brand value in both the short and long-term, it’s the responsibility of a solid PR team to ensure consumers associate positively with a company and ultimately choose to remain loyal to that brand.

Clutch surveyed 1,000 consumers above the age of 18 and located in the United States.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Clutch blog; reprinted with permission.

Jenna Seter

Jenna Seter

Jenna Seter is a marketer and content developer at Clutch, a B2B research firm in the heart of Washington, DC. Connect with her on LinkedIn, or feel free to reach out with any questions, comments, or concerns at jenna@clutch.co

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