The funny thing about a bad reputation is that it often sneaks up on you. You don’t just wake up one day to find that everyone hates your company’s guts; there’s typically a long history of slow-simmering resentments and frustrations that are brought to a boil by one high-profile incident. And so an important part of reputation management is not just avoiding the big incidents but preventing those dormant bad feelings from taking root.
And a good way to do that is to look for small problems before they become big ones, doing what has to be done to fix them early. If you wait until you have an angry NIMBY brigade whipping up a protest at a City Council meeting, even heroic attempts to solve the problem will be viewed cynically. It will be seen as a calculated public relations move, made under duress, and you won’t be given the benefit of the doubt the next time a problem arises.
An example of a small problem that has the potential to grow bigger can be found in a suburb south of Boston called Braintree. The town is having trouble adapting to a new automated waste collection system that the local government recently authorized. The plan calls for a local vendor, Sunshine Scavenger, to implement automated curbside trash collection. Like most automated collection systems, Sunshine’s process depends on customers using custom-fitted waste bins that match the specialized trucks that pick them up.
The problem in Braintree is that, since only specially made waste bins will work with the automated trucks, households are limited to the one bin they are given by the city. If you want a second bin, it’ll cost you $100; this on top of the $100 trash collection fee everyone must automatically pay. If you have more trash than bin space, you can bring it to a nearby transfer station and pay 10 cents per pound. The effect of this one-bin-per-household policy is that some homes, especially ones with larger families, expect to have trouble getting all their waste removed. City officials are fielding calls from upset residents who feel they’re getting the short end of the stick. Changes that have a direct impact on daily life are often the ones most subject to public resentment, and that can provide the spark for a movement to reverse those changes. In this case, that might mean cancelling the contract.
We don’t know how serious the opposition is to this new waste collection plan. But Sunshine Scavenger has a great opportunity to smooth over this point of contention while introducing themselves to their customers. Sunshine could partner up with the city to educate residents about ways they can minimize the volume of their waste output; simple things like composting organic waste or buying products without excessive packaging. In doing so, they’ll reduce the number of households that feel restricted by the one-bin-per-family policy while establishing themselves as a friendly and helpful partner. And by working with the city, Sunshine can shift the cost of this education program onto the municipal budget. In return, city officials can avoid voter discontent with the new solid waste vendor and earn themselves some environmental credibility to go with it.
Without being on the ground in Braintree, it’s hard to say how serious the opposition is to the new plan. But the big movements that cancel contracts and revoke solid waste permits usually start as small rumblings of discontent that snowball into larger and larger protests. For that reason, nipping a problem like this in the bud is important. When Sunshine’s contract comes up for renewal, they’ll stand a much better chance of securing an extension if they’ve kept everyone in town happy from day one.