Tag Archives: reputation management

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.)

Harvard study says BP’s “greenwashing” paid off

I greatly object to the obvious bias in this report on the value of “greenwashing.”  According to Wikipedia “greenwashing” is “spin” and deception.

The real point and value of this study about the impact of BP’s pre-spill advertising on its sales and reputation after the 2010 Gulf oil spill is that building reputation equity makes a huge difference when you encounter a major crisis. This is an extremely important point. Not because it supports buying expensive advertising, but because it supports the value of working hard to build reputation and trust before an event.

I call it reputation equity and liken it to a bank account. It’s a fund of goodwill and positive perceptions that will be extremely important when/if you ever face a major reputation crisis. In my other blog at emergencymgmt.com, I suggested that my emphasis in 2014 would be building that reputation equity and suggested some ways to start thinking about that. This report provides academic credence to that position and further encouragement to continue to focus on that part of crisis communication.

Crisis communication is primarily about preparation. If you’re not prepared to deal with it and communicate effectively, it’s almost a matter of just stick your head down and ride out the storm or succumb to it (like Freedom Industries in WV). But preparation is not just about putting a good plan together, creating message maps and all that–those are extremely important of course. Preparation is above all , analyzing your risks and redoubling efforts to prevent bad things from happening and then, working hard to build the trust in your key stakeholders that will be essential if/when you do face a problem.

This study doesn’t provide any information on the relationship building with key stakeholders that I think is the core of a reputation equity effort. But it does show that working hard to communicate who you are with the public prior to an event happening can pay off big time when the big event happens.

About “greenwashing.” I can understand why many believe that BP’s ad campaign “Beyond Petroleum” was deceptive. In one way it was. I don’t think it communicated, as I see with other oil companies such as Shell, that alternative and renewable energy sources are one part of the mix and that petroleum would continue to be essential. But I think this is judging the past from the perspective of the present. Even just a few years ago we were facing “peak oil” and renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal were the future. Nuclear was even getting a new look. Then fracking happened, and Fukushima and now nuclear is once again off the table and the US (amazingly) is set to become an energy exporter–at least until the rest of the world starts getting serious about natural gas. When the Beyond Petroleum campaign started I believe it was aspirational and forward thinking telling the world what BP was and that it was going to be about far more than oil. Is that greenwashing? For some, no doubt, but I think the researchers doing this study are showing their bias. It’s noteworthy that their own conclusion is that the government needs to get involved in investigating environmental claims made by companies.

Yeah, right. Because we little people are too stupid to see through the “greenwashing.” Give me a break.

 

What advice to give those involved in reputation wrecks?

Yesterday I was interviewed by NPR for a program airing this weekend about PR and reputation problems caused by racism. It’s always good for someone who helps others prepare for media interviews to do a real one themselves to bring some lessons home. I wasn’t too happy with the interview despite having prepared by thinking through key messages.

In case you catch the story, and some of what I said is included, here is how I intended to answer the question.

1. It’s always about credibility.

While there isn’t a denial, or he said/she said in this case, people are still looking at Paula closely to see if she is to be believed. No doubt trust and respect for at least some has been shaken by revelation of her past attitudes and behavior. Now they are looking to see if she is telling the truth and can rebuild trust. Sincerity is everything. Sadly, I think Paula is very much lacking in this right now with bungled apology, standing up the Today Show, a rocky performance there, and as far as I know, no real action taken–just words. Sincerity and credibility, like all things trust related, are judged more by actions than words.

2. Admit wrong and fix it.

Speed is essential in responding to such a situation. Speedy response often requires identifying the risks in advance and preparing to respond. Deen and company did not do that although the risks following the deposition should have been very obvious. Yes, she admitted wrong, in goofy sorts of ways, but sincerity demands serious action. As we have seen over and over again, the public is at once highly sensitive to character flaws–particularly where dishonesty and lack of sincerity are involved–but also very forgiving when they perceive genuine remorse and commitment to change.

3. Direct contact with key stakeholders.

The news is filled with stories of corporate sponsors abandoning Deen. This could have been anticipated. In this case, direct communication that included an apology and a clear plan of action to address the wrong may not have been enough. Brands are very sensitive to negative press and reputation wrecks (see next point). However, the overall lesson is that the most important people to communicate with in a crisis are those whose opinion about you matters most for your future. If you let the media control the storyline, the results are predictable. Managing the firestorm means engaging with these important people at earliest possible opportunity, finding out from them what they see as needed or expected and responding quickly with firm action.

4. Understand the climate.

This is the only issue that I discussed with the reporter. The  the cultural climate determines the nature and degree of reputation crises in many respects. We see it everyday (eg. Chick-fil-A CEO was back in news today for posting a “sad day” tweet about Supreme Court decision re gay marriage). We have a high level of political correctness (determined largely by major media positions on social/political issues), and also a great deal of pluralism or diversity. Some issues demonstrate deep divisions: homosexuality, abortion, gun control, energy policy, etc. On some issues there seems to be a strong social consensus: child abuse, porn, molestation, sexism, racism–and gay rights issues are quickly moving into this realm). The impact on reputation is determined in part by where the issue fits on the continuum of consensus vs. division. But it also depends on the passion and social engagement of those on one side or the other of the issue. So the seriousness of the reputation wreck and strategies for recovery are based on an analysis of the climate as well as how the story has been covered so far.

5. It’s about character.

Ultimately, reputation is about perceived character. For companies and organizations, its about how the public perceives the character and integrity of the leaders. For celebrities, its about their perceived character. Paula Deen has a significant problem because the deposition revealed a significant gap in who people perceived she was vs. who she was revealed to be through the deposition. If she has a chance of recovery it will be based on how people perceive her character in dealing with this gap. Understanding this focus on character is critical to reputation crisis prevention, as we discussed on The Crisis Show the other day. Those responsible for organization reputation have to take very seriously the character and integrity of those who represent and make decisions for the organization.

So, can Paula recover?

Seems she’s taken a major step in retaining Judy Smith, a well-known reputation “fixer” who is also African-American. At the same time, hiring someone with such profile in working with major reputation problems (Marion Barry, Michael Vick and so on), leads one to question sincerity of anything coming out now. I don’t think Deen’s situation is nearly as bleak as a Lance Armstrong (whose character problems seem so deeply embedded and the gap between perception and reality so stark). Some would say Tiger’s reputation has recovered. While Forbes proclaims Nike’s sales increase a success for Nike hanging with Tiger and demonstration of his reputation recovery, I would say every tournament in which his petulance, impatience and self-absorption are so obvious is judged in light of his past behavior. If Paula does recover, it will be like Tiger’s I suspect. Never again will she enjoy the level of adulation she once did, nor the level of sponsorship.

One last note–what to make of Paula’s surging book sales? Does this call into question this analysis of her reputation problems? I don’t think so. It’s a reminder of that old truism dating back to early days of publicity: “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.” She is enjoying a surge of awareness–perhaps curiousity–coming out of all the news coverage and social media chit chat. Long term, its reputation that matters, not mere publicity.

 

ABC News’ $1.2 billion “pink slime” lawsuit may affect journalism for years

ABC News slimed the beef industry, and producers of “lean, fine-textured beef” (LFTB) in a series of news reports about the product made from beef trimmings and used as an ingredient in much of the ground beef supply. I highlighted it in several posts because it was in my opinion a classic example of scare tactics and false reporting aimed at ratings that resulted in real harm–not just to the company, but the public. As such, it was an example of the kind of media coverage that I think is hurting us as well as an example of what the food industry overall is in for.

Personally, I was very happy to see BPI, the company nearly bankrupted by the attacks, fighting back with a defamation lawsuit against ABC News. A lawsuit that could conceivably cost The Disney Company, owner of ABC, $1.2 billion. This article from Reuters does a great job of exploring in detail the claims and counter claims involving this case. I think it is one that crisis communicators need to be watching carefully. Here are some key issues:

- our laws protect the news media against defamation to a very great degree. This is great giving our high value on free speech. This case has more potential because of state law designed to help protect agriculture. While news media can do just about anything they want, they need to be careful about intentionally saying things they know not to be true. This is largely where this case will hang.

- The tweets of ABC reporter Jim Avila are critical to BPI’s case. So there is going to be an important question raised here. In those tweets he said in effect that pink slime was not meat. But he knew it was meat. But, he didn’t say it wasn’t meat on the air. Is there a difference in defamation between a tweet and an on-air broadcast? This will be very important to watch.

- There is much the ABC reporters did not say that would have contributed to the balance in the story. One example: the prime former BPI employee who they used to attack his former employer lost a wrongful termination lawsuit and the company got a restraining order against him for his threats against the owner. He threatened to find another way to get even. None of this was included in the ABC report–instead they treated him as having high credibility.

- The core question is, is name calling defamation? It’s interesting to read the Reuters article to see how opposing attorneys are using dictionary definitions of “slime” to bolster their case. The law protects the media against name calling, so calling it slime in itself would be protected speech. But to knowing say that something is harmful when you know it isn’t constitutes defamation. So, if somebody says to you, “don’t eat that, it is slime,” is that saying to you it is harmful? I think so, but I am clearly biased. The point however is how cautious journalists need to be in labeling something they are covering. And I think journalists all over are watching this and the result will be a little more caution about the use of “rhetorical hyperbole” which ABC’s lawyers are using to justify their coverage.

Whether the Roths win this case or not, I for one am grateful that they brought it forward. There is far too little accountability on the damage done by journalists. There is a trend developing here, such as Elon Musk and New York Time’s John Broder’s nasty review of the Tesla. Where there was a great imbalance in power in the mainstream media, that power is shifting. In part it is shifting because of irresponsible ratings chasing that has resulted in extremely low trust ratings But the biggest reason is that the monopoly on information distribution and sharing has been forever broken.

 

State of the art of sentiment analysis and why important for crisis communications

So you’re sitting in your crisis communications operations room, crafting and distributing messages intended to honestly tell the story of your disaster, or, for the PR cynic, put lipstick on a pig. The real question is, what are all those people thinking out there? How are they feeling about your organization, the job that is being done, the messages being received.

Understanding that the success of the response is largely tied to the summation of these opinions and the long-term effect of them, it becomes very important to have a good handle on what people are really thinking. The greater emphasis on interaction and engagement improves this because the communicators are actually talking with those folks or engaging them via digital communications .

Sentiment analysis is vitally important. It’s important to journalists as well as part of their job is understanding and reflecting how people are responding to events and issues of the day. This report from Nieman Lab gives a good idea of how journalists deal with the issue of sentiment. Where many have relied on pundits, or supposed representatives of a group, there is increasing emphasis on statistical sentiment analysis using algorithms to review social media conversations. But, as you will see in this article, these systems are far from fool proof. Just like us humans.

 

Trust keeps falling–most think our leaders are liars

Only 18% of people trust business leaders to tell the truth–globally. And less than 50% of people trust businesses to do the right things, even less for government. These are some of the findings of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer--one of the most important studies in communications.

There are lots of stories out in PR newsletters right now about these findings and what they mean. Here is Bulldog Reporter’s take. Here is the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Here’s the PR Daily story. It’s important to note that while there was some significantly declines, there were also some signs of modest improvement.

What I’m focusing on is the strong belief that most are liars. Think about it for a moment. Most crisis plans include putting the CEO or some other senior business leader out there in front of the cameras, on YouTube or wherever and telling what is going on and what the company or organization is committed to doing about it. If there are 100 people in a room watching your CEO talk, 82 of them are saying either to themselves or out loud: Liar, Liar!

The chart from the Edelman slide deck below (link above) shows who is most and least credible. Think about this. NGOs are the most trusted institutions, academics or technical experts from your organization are far, far more trusted than CEOs. So are regular people, people like yourself.

So, when credibility is on the line (and when isn’t it, particularly in a crisis) who should you have speaking for you? In my book Now Is Too Late I talked about the concept of borrowed credibility. I commented that the crisis communication game is primarily about credibility particularly when there are black hats and white hats involved. It’s a game you cannot afford to lose. But, say you lose all credibility–fairly or unfairly. Your CEO or Chairman becomes the equivalent of a Tony Hayward or Lance Armstrong. Then what? You have to borrow the credibility of others. You have to find those who have high credibility among your target audience and have them speak on your behalf. Of course, if they have high credibility it is because they have proven themselves to be people of character and honesty. They will not be co-opted. That’s a good thing because if someone with high credibility starts speaking on behalf of a seriously damaged organization, the first thing they are going to have to say is that they have not been co-opted, induced, forced or any way gotten involved in a way that damages their credibility.

But, maybe we should be thinking far in advance about who has credibility and should or could be speaking on our behalf in a crisis. Again in Now Is Too Late I talked about putting reputation equity in the bank–you may need to cash those checks. One of the best ways to do that is by making friends with those you may need to rely on in a crisis. Let’s say you are a company with some past environmental conflicts. To have a leading global or local environmental group and leadership engaged with you in getting your act together, being open and honest with them about what you are doing, getting their help in thinking through some of your dilemmas just may pay huge dividends when push comes to shove. Sure, could be very risky because I’ve had one who when it did come to shove turn on me and my client taking full advantage of my openness to hurt us. So, I am suggesting you think about it with some real caution.

The point is clear–in this environment of lack of trust, we need to think about the best ways to build credibility for our organization in times of crisis. To do that, we need to be very realistic about the environment we’re operating in.

 

Lance, Oprah, Manti T’eo–a weird dishonest world we live in

The last couple of days make me think we are all living in a reality show. Maybe one of those candid camera shows and we are waiting for the “reveal.” Are you kidding me?

-Lance Armstrong–hero to millions, cancer survivor, amazing athlete, founder of a foundation that inspired millions to “live strong,” is nothing but a scheming, pushy, bullying liar who used the courts of law to fiendishly pursue enemies and pretend to be innocent. But, we as a society love to see our icons fall of their pedestals and crash into a million tiny pieces so even though everyone knew he was confessing (finally) and that he is a serial liar of almost the worst sort, the crowd still wanted to see him wiggle around in front of us.

- Oprah Winfrey–desperate to save her $300 million she invested in OWN, and perhaps more important, her reputation as a failure-proof entertainment impresario, “stoops” to feeding the hungry crowd the spectacle of Lance admitting to the world that he’s not worth all the attention he’s been getting. My question: what did she have to offer Lance to get him to help her rescue her failing network?

- Catfishing–a new term to me, but apparently a common activity on the internet of pretending to be someone else to pull cruel, inhumane tricks on other people, such as Notre Dame football stars, and through them, the whole university athletic program.

Manti T-eo, the newest reality TV star and football player who now even the smartest of our journalists can’t figure out if he’s the victim of or perpetrator of fraud, or both. Clearly, even if he is the victim of catfishing, as right now appears to be the case, he is also no victim as he has been caught lying repeatedly about “seeing” his girlfriend and being with her. He may be a victim of cruel hoaxters, but he is far from innocent himself.

This is all too bizarre. There is one common theme to all this. Lying. What strikes me is that the interest shown in these stories show how conflicted we as a society tend to be about the issue of telling the truth. We live in a time where honesty, transparency, truth-telling are held as nearly ultimate values. We are appalled at the sheer degree of lying that someone like Lance Armstrong participated in for many years. He told Oprah he did not think what he was doing was wrong, bad, cheating, or anything like that. In the meantime, he is treating others like dirt and forcing them into similar behavior. This man seems to have no character–yet we seem to be fascinated by him. Oh, the books and articles and blog posts and movies about to come. If he is the scum back he professed to be, why can’t we just leave him struggle with his legal problems in peace?

And catfishing and computer hoaxes. I heard one commentator on the ABC news clip linked above saying in effect this is a natural result of the anonymity of the web–as long as we can hide behind our screens people are going to do that. Yes, but in a time when we demand such an incredible level of honest and transparency from everyone else? What is going on here?

So, we hate lying, we hate liars, but we are endlessly fascinated by them. And the very people who are so outraged by the lack of transparency of the big and powerful are in some cases making a mess of other people’s lives by misusing the anonymity of the web. Maybe I’m the one confused, but this is just not making sense to me.

 

McDonalds (Canada, any way) gets transparency right

You may remember back in June there was a bit of hubbub over Mcdonald’s Canada answering very transparently a question from someone about how and why they doctor the advertising images they use to sell hamburgers. They did a great job on video of walking through the photo shoot process–and dispelled a lot of myths and cynicism along the way.

They are continuing in this vein with this new video about french fries. A McDonald’s supply manager (clearly Canadian with his pronunciation of words like pro-cess) answers questions about whether McDonald’s fries are really potatoes, whether or not they are formed or cut, and why there is so much salt on them. The video walks us through the whole french fry process from farm to customer. In the pro-cess, answers from customers are provided, offering reassurance.

Certainly there are those out there who don’t think anyone should eat fried foods. And so they will say, look at all that horrible frying. Well, if you don’t like fried foods or french fries this video isn’t going to convince you otherwise.

The point is that here is a lesson for the entire food production industry. Be transparent. If there is any part of the way you do things that will not stand up to this kind of video presentation, you had better start changing it now. Because while McDonald’s is featuring a pleasant looking supply manager (who maybe has eaten a fry or two too many, just like me), a video about your process may wind up on YouTube without you doing it or knowing about it. So much better for McDonald’s to be telling their own story, even if some won’t like it.

Great job McDonald’s Canada.