After a year characterized by fear and uncertainty, the truth can feel like a moving target. We have an incredible amount of information at our fingertips, but many PR and media professionals pull data from an array of sources that present conflicting information. Multiple truths can greatly affect consumer trust.

Division and controversy occur when people cannot agree on a single truth. This can prove problematic from a branding perspective because it forces marketers to distill facts down into pithy and palatable brand messages.

Sometimes, it can be tempting to cherry-pick the facts that present a brand in the best possible light. But when media professionals spin a narrative that omits essential information, brands risk losing credibility. Brands that take this approach can seem dishonest, manipulative, or even opportunistic. And once that sacred trust between a brand and the public is broken, it can take years to rebuild.

How can you help your clients build goodwill and save face in a world of multiple truths? When is it OK to focus on the facts that benefit the brand? And what should you do when one version of the truth gets a client into trouble?

Cognitive Dissonance: The Trouble With Multiple Truths

First, it is crucial to understand why we find the notion of multiple truths unsettling. Modern consumers are savvy and skeptical, yet they do not appreciate being forced to reconcile seemingly inconsistent facts. For instance, breakfast cereal can carry an “organic” label but still be relatively high in sugar. In this instance, it might be difficult for people to accept that a box with an “organic” label does not necessarily contain healthy food.

Multiple truths can feel misleading, in come cases harming consumer trust, but they also trigger cognitive dissonance, which some experts believe leads certain people to seek out sources that reinforce their existing beliefs.

Often, two different narratives are unfolding at the same time — both true. One truth might be embarrassing or detrimental to the brand’s reputation, while the other might be sunnier. Some brands opt to use the latter as window dressing to conceal the less attractive reality, but this can backfire.

Consider Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream empire that is not afraid to stick its neck out on issues that matter. The company is open about where it leans politically; it is pro-social justice and fights transparently for its chosen causes — even if that could cause sales to falter. Similarly, its leadership also admits to being nonpartisan regardless of the causes it backs. It is an open example of cognitive dissonance and wears that badge proudly. That enables Ben & Jerry’s to be a social justice ally with no accusations of hypocrisy.

Yet another example is soap-maker Dr. Bronner’s. Sustainability has been a hallmark of its products since its inception in 1948. Responsible sourcing of its products is part of the company’s sales proposition, and it continues to put its money where its mouth is with commitments to sustainable farming, green packaging, and a goal of “climate positivity” by 2025. Like Ben & Jerry’s, Dr. Bronner’s is transparent about its goals and values, and that commitment colors its actions and brand-story communications.

Consumers can tell when a brand is being disingenuous or “spinning” a story for its benefit. Transparency tends to be a safer bet, but the occasional misstep is inevitable. Luckily, there are concrete steps you can take to guide your client through any credibility crisis:

  1. Gracefully accept responsibility.

Occasionally, content might come across as misleading, insensitive, or even offensive. When this happens, the best course of action is to stand up and take responsibility.

Everybody remembers the infamous Pepsi “Live for Now” advertisement. It featured model Kendall Jenner joining a group of protestors, opening up a Pepsi, and trying to equate that to solving the world’s social justice issues. Just as notorious as the ad itself was the blowback the drink company experienced. Pepsi swiftly pulled the ad and issued an apology, stating that it missed the mark in an attempt to cultivate understanding, unity, and peace.

When marketing goes awry, a sincere apology goes a long way. This is not about being cowed by “cancel culture.” Instead, brands should view this as a chance to have honest conversations about their values and how they extend to customers. Above all, resist the temptation to dodge blame; doing so will only prolong public outrage.

  1. Create an action plan to manage fallout.

After a brand has apologized, one crucial aspect of crisis management is to take corrective action. Reacting quickly and appropriately (before lawsuits and government regulation enter the equation) can help a brand emerge with more credibility than before.

In 1982, seven people died after consuming Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. Most marketers at the time thought the company was doomed. Consumers were extremely fearful, and the Tylenol brand seemed permanently tarnished.

In response, Johnson & Johnson recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol and offered vouchers for replacements. This nationwide recall was a bold move, costing the company about $100 million. As the situation unfolded, CEO James Burke worked closely with law enforcement and the press to inform the public. The crisis led Johnson & Johnson to create tamper-resistant packaging and offer a sizable reward for the killer.

Even though the extent of the problem was not yet clear, there was no escaping the fact that customers had died. Instead of avoiding blame, Johnson & Johnson took corrective action and showed an unwavering commitment to customer safety.

  1. Continue to follow through after the crisis.

Whenever a brand publicly accepts blame, the organization must continue to work toward correcting the problem. This shows that the brand genuinely cares about its customers, and these efforts will be repaid in customer loyalty.

After the word got out about Uber’s company culture in 2017, the ride-sharing company expressed remorse. Knowing that wasn’t enough and that a long-term solution was needed, Uber decided to continue holding itself accountable.

Rather than just paying lip service to its new internal initiatives, the company surveyed its employees to measure how effective its new outlook was. More than half said the culture was on the up-and-up, proof that while things were improving, work was still needed to build trust.

In today’s media environment, it can be extremely tempting to sidestep an inconvenient truth or spin a story while leaving out crucial information. But before you advise any clients to focus on facts that portray their brands in only the most flattering light, make sure you are not misleading customers. Trust and credibility are precious commodities that take years to build, and they can be lost instantly.