Effective reputation management–the toughest and most important element

Two unrelated opportunities recently caused some reflection on basic communication issues and particularly reputation management. One came from the Mayor of Bellingham, WA, my beautiful little city by the bay who invited me to speak to her city department heads, managers, administrators and the like. The topic: communication and leadership.

The other came in the form of an invitation to speak at the Global Energy Crisis Communication Summit in London put on by Valiant Business Media. I had to turn down the trip but they graciously agreed to have me participate virtually by means of video then live discussion via Hangout following.

I decided that the key message was the same in both. As I put it to the Bellinghamsters, the hardest and most important lesson in communication (and leadership) is….(drumroll please)…it’s not about you. That’s right. It’s not about you.

How do you say that to a CEO, Chairman of the Board, or even the head of communications of a global 100? If you want to see my attempt at that

here’s a link to my video on “Making Reputation Management and Crisis Communication Part of Your Culture.”

I’d love your feedback. And if you like it I’d really like to hear if you shared this with some of the senior folks in your organization.

Sterling and Bundy–the worst kind of reputation crisis

You can think about reputation crises in a couple of major categories:

1) people think ill of you for the wrong reasons
2) people think ill of you for the right reasons

Number one can be and often is very serious. Bad press. Competitor or activists attacks based on lies or mistruth. Maybe even a bad mistake in which people determine wrongly that it reveals your true character (a series of unfortunate accidents could leave such an impression). But category one is usually quite fixable even though it can be very tough. You can vigorously correct the misinformation. You can show the situation is more complex than it appears. You can apologize for the mistake and work to fix it.

But number two is almost impossible to fix. That’s when the crisis is about an event or incident that is not fundamentally false or misunderstood, but accurately reveals true character. I would argue that Paula Dean’s racist comments revealed in court showed more of the true Paula than was good for her reputation. Similarly, Tiger Woods’ philandering and unfamily life was revealing of his character that seems to be made more obvious by his clearly unpleasant character revealed every time he steps onto the course and doesn’t win.

We have two more such cases in Clive Bundy and Don Sterling it seems. Bill Boyd pretty much nails it I think (though I disagree with his comment that puts Phil Robertson in the same camp).

I’m presenting tomorrow to the Global Energy Crisis Communications Summit in London, via video and follow up discussion. My video is on reputation risk and crisis management–specifically how to build it into your corporate culture. Unsurprisingly to frequent readers here, I focus on the integrity and character of the leaders. Even suggesting that if it is not there, if the lack of character is evident in prevention and preparations (or lack of them), then it will certainly be evident in response and you may be better off finding different employment.

Similarly, if you got the PR job for Bundy or Sterling, what would you do? It seems their problems stem from fundamental character issues that are only revealed in what they said. Can a tiger change his stripes? Pretty dang hard. Best is to quietly go away–and best for a PR person to quietly go away as well.

 

Tesla provides classic example of how to head off bad news

If I had a top ten list of PR models, it would be Tesla and Elon Musk. He got a bum review in the New York Times and his damage control strategy was to demonstrate that the reviewer was less than honest. I thought no way could he win that battle. He did. The US government, typical of government-by-headline, launched a safety investigation against the cars after a battery fire caused lurid news stories. What did Tesla do? Used the opportunity to make it clear to the world just how safe their cars actually are. Lemons to lemonade. (I blogged on these stories earlier–just enter Tesla in the search on this blog).

Speaking of lemons, a “Lemon Law” lawsuit was about to be filed against them, presumably for failure to address a customers concerns. Do they meekly wait for the news headlines to hit, then say, we are very sorry we failed to meet this customers expectations and will do better next time? Heck no. They scewer the guy and his slime ball attorney (I’m making my judgment on this attorney strictly on the basis of the information provided by Tesla.

I would consider their blogpost on this lawsuit to be a classic in aggressive reputation management. It should be must reading for everyone in PR in my humble opinion. (By way, I just asked my broker to buy some Tesla stock. I like how they operate when facing trouble.)

A bad story is coming out…now what do you do?

You got a call from a reporter asking for your comment about an issue you were afraid might see the light of day. So, you know they’re onto it and going to run something.

This is a fairly common situation and unfortunately for PR and crisis comms consultants, this is often when you get the call from the client. No time to lose, but what is the strategy?

My thoughts on this were prompted by PR Daily’s post today on “Five Ways to Respond to Bad Press Before the Story Runs.” I have great regard for Brad Phillips, who wrote the post and the book: “The Media Training Bible.”

Now, if crisis communications was still just about managing the media, four of Phillips’ five suggestions would be perfectly right. But I think we passed that time some time ago. This is the age of the Internet, of direct engagement, of social media, of multiple channels and the more direct the better. This is the age of you are the broadcaster. This is no longer the age of begging and pleading with the media to get it right, and as Elon Musk showed, this is the age when it does make sense to enter a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

So New York Times is going to write a story and you know its not going to be pretty. Now is the time to tell your story straight ahead to those people who matter most to your future. Tell the unvarnished truth. Did you screw up? Fess up. Is the reporter twisting the facts to conform to a pre-conceived narrative (nah, never happens). Then say where things went wrong.

If you don’t have a way of directly reaching those most important to you (phone, email, text, social media) in time to beat the NYT’s press schedule then you should fix that critical problem right now, because, as they say, now is too late.

I’ve been beating this “you are the broadcaster” and “go direct” and “be fast and be first” themes for, oh about 14 years now and most of the time I think, jeez enough already, they get it. But then I see this or talk to a client and realize that while the world has changed, the basic thinking about crisis management has not changed nearly as much.

So, the drum beat continues.

Chevron’s publication of community news causes a stir

“You are the broadcaster,” or “you are the publisher” has been a favorite theme of mine since 2002 when the first edition of Now Is Too Late was published. It is the recognition that the Internet provides the opportunity for those making the news to go direct to audiences and circumvent (to some degree) the traditional media. Media, after all, are intermediaries, and not always so friendly to those making the news. So, go direct.

Chevron in Richmond, California (near San Francisco) launched a community newspaper called the Richmond Standard. According to Chevron’s PR agency leader, the paper was established to fill a void left by the demise of a local newspaper. However, the launch has created a mini-storm of controversy.

This story in O’Dwyer’s notesMM criticizes Chevron for “continuing a disturbing history of using propaganda disguised as news to promote its corporate efforts.”

Apparently there are a number of other publications in Richmond but they tend toward the “progressive” end of the spectrum. And they don’t like Chevron getting in the publication business one little bit: Andres Soto of the Richmond Progressive Alliance puts it more bluntly. “Richmond Standard is a pseudo online newspaper to try to counteract info that’s coming out in La Voz, the Pulse and the Bay View. It’s part of their mass propaganda campaign to try to influence the democratic process in Richmond.”

Reminds me a lot of my hometown. It had (still has) a number of independent publications that were openly and stridently on the left side of the political divide. Even the daily was seen as left-of-center by a very left-of-center populace. Working with a business-oriented group on the other side, we launched a publication called Better Community Solutions. Holy moly, what a stink that was. The attacks got ridiculously personal even though our approach was positive and non-emotional. Of course, the fact that the funding for our publication came from business interests meant to those attacking it that it was tainted by ugly profits regardless of anything wise we may say.

But the question here isn’t one group or the other wanting to stifle the voice of those holding different views (that’s a big topic in itself.) The question is is Chevron’s move a good idea?

I believe it is. Those opposing Chevron and its refinery in Richmond will object to anything and everything said by the company. A community newspaper could become an important and valuable vehicle as a platform for community discussion on important issues. But the success of this, ironically, depends on Chevron not using it for propaganda purposes, not being overtly or heavy handed in any way in promoting its position on specific issues. You can say, then why do it?

The opportunity was well stated by one resident of the community in this article by newsamerica: “It’s obviously an outlet for Chevron by Chevron, but as long as that’s clear—and I think it is—I don’t see a problem with it.” Hunziker said he sees a need for more balance in the papers currently circulating. Unlike Smith, who sees Chevron as the loudest voice in the room, Hunziker said he feels bombarded by progressive messaging. “Most of the yelling is being done on the far left. I think it’s important that people in the center start standing up.”

Stakeholder engagement is and should be a top priority for almost any organization with public license to operate issues (which means almost everyone). Funding and running a community newspaper is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but may be a valuable part of an engagement strategy mix. It will be interesting to watch how long this paper lasts and how it evolves.

Can cyberattacks improve your reputation?

Think Target and the hit it took when hackers stole the private information of millions, requiring many to update credit cards and the like. It’s a disaster that most executives believe will happen to them–not if, but when. So, that makes it even more amazing to find out that most executives think, according a study published in the Economist, that two thirds of CEOs think a good response to such an attack will enhance their reputation.

PRNewser from mediabistro reporting on the Economist story notes that while 66% think they will come out of such an event smelling like a rose, only 17% surveyed say they are “fully prepared.”

Hootsuite, perhaps the best social media management and monitoring tool that I know of, today experienced a hack attack in the form of a Denial of Service attack. One client emailed me Ryan Holmes’ response. The CEO of Hootsuite was fast, empathetic, transparent and almost completely on target. (Only thing missed in my mind was an apology, but perhaps he felt there was nothing to apologize for and he may be right).

A couple of things stand out to me in this new arena of crisis communication:

- CEO’s seem to get the idea that fast, transparent communication can actually enhance a reputation even when customers/stakeholders have been hurt

- There seems to be quite a gap between the confidence displayed and the level of preparation. That is surprising. I would think the confidence would come after preparation, not before.

- The reality (certainty?) of this kind of crisis seems to be quite well accepted.

Now, we will see how it all turns out. My prediction: Another Target-type hacking will occur and the press and social media pundits will be better positioned to blame the company. “They knew it was coming but did not take the steps they needed to to prevent it–it was profits above people all over again.” Then, the crisis communication game really begins.

Oracle’s media access policy in serious need of updating

Shel Holtz blogged today about Oracle firing of social selling executive Jill Rowley who claims she was fired for giving an unauthorized interview to AdAge magazine.  Shel suggests, and I agree, that there seems to be more to this story than an errant interview.

But it raises once again the issue of media access. What’s your policy? Having reviewed dozens of crisis communication plans in the last few years, I have yet to find one that conforms to what I believe is the norm following the media access controversy during Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Here’s what happened as I understand it: Reporters went out on the beaches and where spill response activity was happening and tried to interview responders. They were told they were not to speak to the media. The media understood this to be another of evil BP’s efforts to stifle and cover up–despite the fact that BP was not running, nor involved in the public communication effort at this time. It was the White House dictating media access policy. But when one veteran Coast Guard PIO tried to clarify that it was White House policy, not BP, he was promptly sacked. Pressure grew to the point where National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a media policy carried by all PIOs (which is how I saw it). It said, again as I recall, the policy is to provide maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and with not interfering with response operations. It further said that all responders are authorized to speak to the media providing they restrict their comments to their own area of responsibility.

Previously I had heard from Coast Guard PIOs that Allen as Commandant of the Coast Guard had implemented that policy for the entire Coast Guard. One senior Coast Guard official, given the White House’s desire to control the message, expressed doubts whether that policy would continue to stand. I suspect, but do not know, that it still stands in some form, but with the understanding that the leash is pretty tight.

Given all this, I have advised everyone I know to look at their media access policy in this light. Recognize first of all that if you have the media’s black hat on, there will be heightened sensitivity to any and all indications of cover-up, controlling the message or lack of transparency. When one of your employees responds to a reporter’s question with “we were told by top management we can’t talk to you” that is blood in the water to the shark.  If you do hold to a spokesperson only policy, then make certain you include in your refer and defer training (employee training on how to respond to reporter questions by referring to authorized spokesperson) use of a better response. Such as, “I’d love to help you with that, but I just don’t have the information you are looking for, so let me help you find the person who can answer that for you.” This is a little tough when all the reporter wants is an emotion-laden visual response when he/she asks the question: “How do you personally feel about this tragedy?”

The best policy and one I consistently advise, is to adopt Admiral Allen’s policy of maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and no interference with the response.  Every employee or contractor is a spokesperson–but with the restriction of limiting what they say to their own area of responsibility. That is where much of the focus of media training should be today.

 

Crisis wisdom from Richard Nixon

Dartmouth professor of corporate communications, Paul Argenti, wrote an interesting and useful blog on Harvard’s HBR Blog on crisis communication. Specifically, it looks at GM’s CEO Mary Barra and how she is dealing with the inherited crisis of the current ignition switch recalls.

This is a concise and very useful summary of the key crisis communication principles–some of which I saw put to use to very good effect recently on a situation where I was a close observer.

At the very end, Professor Argenti quotes Richard Nixon from his famous Checkers Speech.  Nixon:

 “The easiest period in a crisis situation is actually the battle itself. The most difficult is the period of indecision—whether to fight or run away. And the most dangerous period is the aftermath.  It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out.”

Not sure truer words about crises have been spoken.

 

The hardest part of communications

Reflecting on some of the most recent crises I’ve been involved in as an advisor, I asked: what am I really contributing?

I concluded by far the most valuable contribution was an outside perspective. Looking at the event and issues from the viewpoint of the customer, the stakeholder, the reporter, the victim, the detached observer. It is often very difficult for even the best communicators who are deeply embroiled in a problem to maintain that outside perspective. It’s the main reason why I think it is probably essential that your crisis communication plan include a qualified person completely outside your organization.

I worked on a plan for a major oil company a few years ago and saw in their plan the role of a Communications Advisor. In their case, it was intended for a specific PR expert who had a strong relationship with the President. But, it struck me as such a good idea I have built that role into almost every plan I have worked on since then. The responsibility of that person is to maintain a 30,000 foot view, maintain contact with stakeholders outside the organization, and represent an honest, objective and uninformed perspective.

I say uninformed because there are always so many good reasons to not do what is needed. We can’t do this because our lawyers say we can’t, because we had such and such problem in the past, because the union leaders would have a hissy fit, because senior management doesn’t like so and so–whatever the reason. They are powerful obstacles but the outside perspective says: it doesn’t matter. It has to be done.

I’ve often said being a consultant is the best job for someone like me because I have so little to lose. Sure, I can get fired, but after about three plus decades I’ve gotten some confidence I can get another gig. I don’t have my future tied to relationships within the organization, to political sides, to protecting anything. Therefore I can be honest, even undiplomatic (which seems to come too naturally to me).

The hardest part of communication is taking a three foot jump from your skin to that of the person or people you are talking to. If you do look at the situation with their eyes, all the “yeah, but…” excuses melt away. All the obstacles that look insurmountable become hurdles that must be bowled over.

The purpose of suggesting this is not to sell my services or even other crisis consultants (I’m plenty busy enough right now, thanks very much). It is rather to point out that the first thing you learn in your very first communication class should be learning to think like the one you are communicating with. But, as foundational as the”you attitude” is, it remains the biggest obstacle to effective communication and the very hardest part of this job.

 

 

Benton County (WA) PUD demonstrates what is expected in admission of error

Admitting you messed up and hurt someone or something is one of the biggest dilemmas in crisis communication. Your lawyers are screaming you can’t do it because its an admission of guilt and will kill you in court. The public is thinking–let’s see what these folks are made of. They messed up and now they won’t accept responsibility or are trying to blame someone else. The media, of course, plays the blame game right from the start and any attempt to duck it almost automatically assures the black hat treatment.

That’s why it is so refreshing to see when the legal concerns are brushed aside and someone just comes out and says, yep, we screwed up and we are really sorry.

That’s the story that is told by Dave Statter of Statter911 about Benton County, Washington, Public Utilities District. A young firefighter almost lost his life because linemen from the district checked the scene, didn’t see a live line, and cleared it for firefighters to enter. The firefighter went into ventricular fibrillation but was rescued by his fellow firefighters and is fine.

I’m guessing (and I certainly hope) that this firefighter understands that the linemen and the District are very sorry, that mistakes happen.  But the sad part about a story like this is that he is likely already being contacted by plaintiff’s attorneys with all kinds of promises about how much they can get him for this accident. The same plaintiff’s attorneys who for years on end have supported candidates who fight tooth and nail to prevent legal reforms that would enable agencies and organizations and doctors to apologize when mistakes are made and not have the apology used against them in court. British Columbia has such a law, some states (Colorado I believe) has a law relating to medical malpractice, and I wish it could be the law of the land.

Would make seeing this kind of apology a lot more common. But, I applaud Benton County for doing the right thing and sincerely hope they do not have to pay for it in court.

 

Innovative thinking on today's crisis communication challenges