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Building 'residual goodwill'

By Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

The general news media are more impressionistic than didactic. It's more likely that a person will walk away from a news story with an opinion of, or attitude about, the subject matter rather than with a compendium of facts, figures and process.

Most Canadians, for example, will have formed, revised or re-enforced their views of Pierre Elliott Trudeau following the extensive media coverage surrounding his death. But as deeply held as these attitudes may be, very few of us would be able to recite chapter and verse of Trudeau's policies and actions. To get the facts, you must dig deeper than radio, television and newspaper accounts.

This is not to minimize the role of the media in developing public awareness or furthering the process of public debate in a democratic and pluralistic society. On the contrary, the impressions generated or solidified by the media can - and often do - have a significant impact on the fortunes of virtually all organizations and their stakeholders.

That impact is shaped by what I call "residual goodwill" or "residual illwill."

Here's how it works. We get constant exposure to the actions of and opinions about individuals, organizations, professions and issues. This exposure occurs not just through the media, but in all facets of our daily lives. You encounter a rude salesperson in a store, a friend praises the swiftness and fairness with which an insurance claim was settled, the mail carrier always greets you with a smile.

Over time, these experiences settle, like sediment at the bottom of the sea. Their memory may grow dim or be lost, but each additional exposure to the store, the insurance company or the post office roils the waters and rekindles, perhaps not the exact memory of the experience, but almost certainly the attitude that the experience engendered.

The sum total of these attitudes constitutes the residual goodwill or illwill that we harbour, and that goodwill or illwill plays a significant role in generating our response to new developments. In this way, we will tend to support the good deeds and apologize for or forgive the bad deeds of those we like, and we will tend to condemn both the good and bad deeds of those we dislike.

The purpose of ongoing proactive communications is to build up as much residual goodwill as possible. This goodwill is the shield that protects you in times of crisis by ensuring that your key publics will be receptive to your side of the story. It's what makes reporters and editors willing to publish or broadcast the "good news" stories about you or your organization. And it provides the foundation upon which your reputation is built and sustained.


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