Are reputation crises as bad as we think they are?

A question has been nagging at the back of my head for some time. Are crises really bad for companies? Seems a dumb question, doesn’t it. We have a whole industry (including me) which seems to exist to first scare the crud out of leaders about the devastating impacts of reputation crises, then offer solutions to minimize the damage.

But, is there a connection between bad PR, big-time reputation crises and company or organization success? The question was raised by PRNewser in their review of the biggest PR losers for 2014. Here are a few examples that raise legit questions:
-the NFL–certainly had a bad year for PR, yet ratings for NFL games were higher this year than last
-GM — Congressional hearings, more recalls, reactions to exec salaries–but the company the best November in sales since 2001
– Sony cyber security–Sony was hacked and demonstrated a pattern of lack of data security. Despite most theater chains refusing to show the Interview, the film has already brought in $15 million in digital only channels
– Uber had about as bad a year PR-wise as can be imagined. But it looks like it isn’t having too much of an impact on its fundraising efforts which are valuing the company at about double its value since June.
 Microsoft–New CEO Satya Nadella made a huge politically incorrect booboo when he suggested women should rely on good karma for raises. At the end of November, Seattle Times reported Microsoft stock was at a 14 year high, nearly double since start of 2013.
– Congress–11% approval ratings, 95% re-election rates (explain that one!)

Beyond these headline grabbing examples, there have to be hundreds if not thousands of smaller crises affecting businesses and organizations large and small that don’t get the attention or traction of these major stories. In many, if not most of them, while intensely scary at the time, most of the organizations that I am aware of recover quite nicely and quickly once the furor and attention have died down.

However, and there is a very big however, things do not end so happily in all cases.

– Here are a few clear cases and some questionable where bad PR is causing serious harm:

– Police–already two NYPD officers have died in retribution. The well publicized examples of questionable (at best) killings of African-American young men is causing a serious problem for law enforcement–problems of trust and confidence that may affect community relations, recruitment and police safety for years.

– Cosby–I agree with the assessment, sadly, that one of America’s favorite dads is and should be gone from the public scene, and perhaps from the public streets.

-CIA specifically, federal spying generally–from Snowden, to the NSA’s late recognition of likely illegal behavior, to the global discussion about prosecution of American officials for torture, American spies–once the guardians of freedom–are quickly becoming the focal point of moral outrage and distrust around the world. Hard to say what it will take to recover from this.

This review creates a bit of a dilemma. Can it be that crises, at least some crises, are really not so bad for the company and bottom line? Why is it that some crises can be absolutely devastating while others seem to flit by the radar screens at ever accelerating rates?

I need to think on this some more, but a few initial thoughts:

– Crises are not such big news anymore–many of them anyway, partly because there are so many they are almost routine, and that in part is because of hyper-sensitivity. It’s hard to say much of anything these days without offending some person or group. Outrage (like most emotion) is viral fodder. The desperate need of the media for the headline not of the day but the hour, drives them to jump on the least offense and magnify it so that other hyper-sensitive types can jump on board and the two of them can declare a reputation crisis.

– Only big violations of common values really hurt. The Satya Nadella story is a case in point. His comments were clearly communicated out of context. The reality of equal treatment of women was made clear and Microsoft looked good in that respect. If his offense had been a clear and documented case of bias against women, Microsoft in general and Nadella specifically would have paid a much higher price. Cosby on the other hand, assuming of course the accusations hold, has violated on numerous occasions commonly held values. We will not tolerate people in high power who use their power to abuse others.  Nor will most of us tolerate the idea that torture is ever justified, or illegal spying by our own government against ordinary citizens. And clearly, unwarranted killing of anyone–regardless of color–can never be allowed. These are significant violations of not just law, but of deeply and commonly held values.

This conclusion needs much more testing and I offer very tentatively here. But, if it proves correct, it is important in responding to crises. The number one rule of crisis management is don’t make a bad situation worse. That often means don’t bring to attention what otherwise would not be an issue. But that has to be balanced with the need for transparency, honesty and being the first to tell bad news about yourself. An over-reaction to a perceived serious reputation crisis can fit into the category of making it worse. An under-reaction, or more commonly a too-late reaction–can also cause serious harm.

There is great judgment needed in deciding if a crisis is going to blow over quickly and leave little damage in its wake, or if it is going to fester, balloon and overwhelm an organization. How does one get that judgment? It seems it is more important than ever to understand at a very significant level the public perception and communication environment. I guess that means, there is still a need for those experts who can help provide that guidance.

Whew, I’ll breathe a little easier as we go into 2015 now.

 

 

 

Is news now conversation?

I had an interesting conversation/interview with David Bain of Digital Marketing Radio–the podcast available here.  As you learn in media training, you are never sure the “sound bite” the interviewer will use. You can talk for an hour, but find one comment gets highlighted.

In this case, I have no complaints. I was uneasy talking about digital marketing as I am far from an expert on all things SEO, social media for promotion, so-called “content marketing” and all that. Folks will laugh when I say my favorite digital marketing tool is a blog–I’m so 2005.

However, giving credit where credit is due, the thought of news as conversation came from son Geoff, busy developing a “conversation management” tool. It wasn’t the first I heard of this concept, but maybe first time I really pondered it.

It’s true I think. We live in a global water cooler. Someone with something interesting to say, or some first hand view of a high interest topic (such as plane crash or police victim) starts the conversation, sharing what they know or simply their thoughts. (Amazing how often their thoughts consist of little more than four letters, starting with an f.) That is just the start. Folks around the water cooler start to chatter. They get loud, that draws more folks. Everyone’s got an opinion, even if it is just to twitter on about what someone else has said. Someone listening in has a loudspeaker. They get on that and soon a much bigger crowd has gathered. The noise is deafening. Some of it good and important stuff, mostly just chatter, repeats, or more f words. And so it goes…

The conversation goes on until people tire of it (quickly it seems) or there is another conversation of higher interest on a nearby water cooler. We hear a loudspeaker going off next to another water cooler and get drawn there. We look around and there are all kinds of water coolers many of them filled with noisy people.

So, sometimes you just want to shut it off, go find a quiet corner in Starbucks and have a grande. But, no, that’s another water cooler.

 

The biggest crisis comm obstacle: high level ignorance

There are a great many challenges to overcome to prepare a sizable organization for crises, emergencies or reputation disasters. But one seems nearly intractable: the ignorance of those in high places. The very ones who will make the big decisions when push comes to shove. The lawyers, the CEOs, the regional execs, the Incident Commanders, the chiefs, the directors, the presidents.

If the ones who call the shots during a response do not understand the water they are swimming in, the effort is doomed–despite all the preparation that communication and public relations leaders may put in place.

A week or so ago I had the privilege of presenting to the Washington State Sheriffs and Police Chief’s association training meeting. Chief Bill Boyd and I were to give a four hour presentation to these law enforcement leaders. Bill did the bulk of the work on the presentation, but had a medical emergency and couldn’t present with me. One item he had gathered for this really hit me–and those present. The Boston Police radio message from the Incident Commander on the scene just after the bombing occurred included the calm but clearly adrenalin-filled IC’s details on what actions the police on the scene were taking. Then he said, “And I need someone to get on social media and tell everyone what we are doing.” That’s correct. One of the top priorities of this Commander was to inform the public of police actions and the way to do that he knew was through the agencies social media channels.

The fact that this is a police agency who gets it at the highest level was made clear by the incredibly effective use of Twitter Boston Police made during the subsequent manhunt. The video I prepared called NanoNews presents their success and the surprising reason behind it.

Despite an understandable reluctance to dive headfirst into digital communications, I was very pleased to see the effective use of these tools by many law enforcement agencies in Washington State. And was thrilled that about five or six chiefs signed up for Twitter during the training and several came up and said, proudly, “I just did my first tweet!”

The last couple of days I’ve had the opportunity to present virtually to a number of communication leaders around the globe. I was struck again by the savvy of these communication leaders about the challenges they face, a savviness these seems far too often missing from those above them. Global communicators face many or most of the same problem as those in North America, but the good old USA seems to have an extra burden: lawyers. I was pleased to learn that lawyers in at least some other countries seem to have a far better understanding of the need for communicators to get information out fast and consequently willingness to allow some freedom and trust. In the US, this seems to be far less likely.

The issue of gaining senior leadership’s understanding of the need for speed, for freedom to use the channels that today’s media and audiences are demanding, was brought to light in one discussion. A major event that happened in one country demonstrated to the lawyers, Incident Commanders and senior leaders what happens when communication is not allowed to flow. Social media became filled with a narrative negative to the responders. That story was never challenged by those responding. The senior leaders asked: why are they allowing this happen?

Bingo. Lights went on.

There are many who will disagree with me on this one, but I deeply believe the great tragedy in this country called Ferguson is above all the tragic consequence of a failure to communicate. And that is no doubt because of the ignorance of the senior police leaders in Ferguson. An ignorance of the news environment they live in, an ignorance of their own community and the sensitivities and need for information. The narrative of the shooting of the young African-American man was seized by those who witnessed it and saw what they saw. Others, who testified in the grand jury, saw things quite differently. But it was only one story that was told, one story that was believed, one story that drove the community to take action.

I don’t presume to know the truth, the full story. But I do know that when untruths are repeated often enough, retweeted enough, network-effected enough, they become the truth. Failure to counter at least to indicate that things are not always what they seem, can be disastrous.

Would the world we live in today be a little different if the Ferguson police leaders understood the world we live in today? I think so.