Managing reputation in the shark tank

June 19, 2014

By: John Onoda

You need a stopwatch nowadays to measure the time between an issue arising and some pundit, blogger, third-party expert, politician or garden-variety idiot expressing an opinion either through social media or via some news outlet. The attacks start almost instantly and the truth is often the first victim. Be it an upset election, school shooting, political gaffe, cyber security breach, product recall or industrial accident, you can bet that someone eager for attention is going to start interpreting the event well before all the facts are in, sometimes while the event is still unfolding.

What is a communications professional supposed to do when you are responsible for protecting the threatened brand or corporate reputation? If you are working for a large organization with in-house lawyers, risk experts, significant debt financed by wary investors, government affairs and a sales/marketing organization, there will be a clash of opposing interests. Communications will be in the center of the maelstrom. Lawyers will warn against speaking out before all the facts and legal issues are known. The finance people will want to assuage Wall Street concerns over earnings. Sales and marketing will want to send out the most positive messages possible to avoid a dip in revenues. Etc., etc.

What happens all too often is that communicators, whose instinct is to be transparent and engaged, will find themselves slowed down so that they miss responding in the critical first news cycle and, even worse, stifled for days while the situation worsens and commentators tsk-tsk over the “PR debacle.”

For organizations of significant size and visibility or for players in high-risk industries (nuclear power, chemicals, air travel, etc.) you are best off assuming that there is a crisis lurking around your business like a great white shark circling a swimmer. It’s a matter of when not if it will strike; and it’s going to be bad. So you should prepare yourself.

Here are some things to do:

  • At least determine your top three crisis scenarios and think through what functions and departments are going to be sitting around the table as a response is debated. Different players will have differing degrees of influence depending on the scenario; although legal will almost always have a megaphone. Anticipate their arguments and figure out your strongest response.
    Get to know the key individuals who will be weighing in on a crisis before it arises. Have coffee or lunch with the chief risk officer. Buy breakfast for the government affairs manager who deals with key regulatory agencies. Befriend the person who is going to be fielding the calls from anxious investors. Learn what keeps them up at night and you’ll know the fear that will guide their actions.
  • Lobby and educate high-level executives on the value of corporate reputation so that it isn’t easily ignored or sacrificed when a crisis arises and everyone is freaking out. For many companies, their reputation is their largest intangible asset, worth millions or even billions of dollars, and to surrender that value without careful consideration is reckless or just plain dumb, especially for publicly traded companies.
  • Identify and build relationships with allies who will help you get out your side of the story or point out your company’s good qualities in a crisis. Is there a mayor, senator or congressman who will remind the public of your admirable record of corporate citizenship? Are there any NGOs that will acknowledge how you’ve been working diligently to address the problem before the crisis? Are there board members, retirees, academics, think tank experts or business partners who can credibly paint a balanced picture of the unfolding issue?
  • Establish open channels of communication with the bloggers and other influentials likely to quickly opine about any crisis involving your company. The news media are going to monitor their comments for the duration.
  • Establish yourself as a counselor – not an order taker – before you have to go toe-to-toe with heavyweight opponents. If you’re not in the habit of providing guidance or skilled in giving advice on the major business issues facing your enterprise, it’s time to begin developing these skills.
  • Make sure you are fluent in the language of business advocacy. It’s all about the bottom line, commitments made to the investment community, the plan approved by the board of directors and stock price (if you’re in a publicly traded company). Also be well-versed in the vocabulary of risk management and mitigation, government regulation (if it applies), and political fallout (if governments have a significant impact on daily operations).

When you swim with the sharks, there’s no such thing as too much preparation.

John Onoda, who has led the communications functions at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss, is a senior advisor at Gagen MacDonald, a firm that helps to develop and execute strategies related to organizational change and transformation.