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What to do if you have the worst reputation

Forbes released an interesting article in the past few days that talks about reputation - those U.S. companies that have it, and more interesting for this site, those that don't.  The full Forbes article says a lot about how the public perceive organizations today in our 24/7 news cycle.

The bottom of the list has stayed relatively consistent for the past four or five years.

The 'worst reputation' list is comprised mostly of financial companies that experienced highly publicized problems in 2008 and 2009. As a result, they have stayed at the bottom, and have yet to gain much trust from the American public. These companies also experience very low supportive behavior from consumers, and get very little benefit of the doubt.

The least reputable company on the list this year: Freddie Mac. In dead last, for the second consecutive year, the home mortgage financiers only just above Fannie Mae. Goldman Sachs proves the third least reputable company, followed by Halliburton, Bank of America, Citigroup, AIG, News Corp and ExxonMobil.

So what can we learn? 

First up - it sucks to be in banking. OK, we knew that.  Most of these companies had weak scores before 2008, and when the financial crisis hit, they were unable to weather the storm because the general public had little trust in them to begin with. The persistence of their low rank indicates that once consumers lose their trust in a company, it is very difficult for companies to build back to where they once were, highlighting the importance of good crisis communications.

Now, we've worked with three companies from this list, so we have a little insight. Here are the top three things to protect your company from hitting this list:

1 - Your reputation management needs to be led from the top.  When we have carried out PR campaigns for some of these companies it has been at a project level just because the leaders in these companies do not prioritize public relations or crisis communications.  Of course there are important decision to make and metrics to massage when you're at the top, but any company leader that still doesn't get the importance of PR just isn't going to be a good leader.

You see, crisis communications should be avoided at all costs, and can be if there is an integrated and well thought out public relations long term strategy with professional people managing it. As we constantly reinforce on this blog, preparation is the best way to avoid a crisis comms situation.

2 - How much is bad reputation worth on the balance sheet?  We often hear how hard it is to value a good brand on a blance sheet, but if Coca-Cola can value their brand at $68 billion, IBM over $60 billion and Microsoft over $50 billion, then what is the cost to Freddie Mac of their brand to their balance sheet?

Lets take a stab, think of a number and bring that down by a factor of 50... so lets say the negative impact to Freddy Mac's balance sheet is $1 billion. Putting on our business hats, how much resources would we put into that to reduce that $1 billion hit?

I'll just put it out there, that our fees and the cost to actually do the work to turn one of the 'worst reputation' companies from a $1 billion hit to a positive reputation would cost but one hundredth of that cost... to friends and family we may even come down a little more (or a decimal place).

3 - Creating a media vacume is just as bad as not responding to a crisis situation.  So who is really looking after the response of these 'worst reputation' companies?  Whomever they are, they are either not empowered adequately or do not have the skills and experience to make the right quantity and quality of media outreach. 

I want to be clear that these 'worst reputation' companies are not necessarily the 'worst' companies in the country.  Sure, they mostly did things that we don't like the sound of, some of which we despise, but lets face it - business is a hard place. Not only are there other organizations doing just as bad (if not worse) that don't appear on this list, but I dare say some of the companies on the 'worst reputation' list are actually (now) doing some damn good things.  Certainly some of them must be doing some good work that is newsworthy.

Bottom line - silence is NOT golden; it is worth dirt.


So here's the take home for 'worst reputation' companies:

  • Stage 1 - get senior buy-in
  • Stage 2 - invest
  • Stage 3 - start communicating
  • Stage 4 - call us!



This is Classic Crisis Communication

We’re talking about the Marine scout snipers who posed with apparent Nazi SS symbol.

On the face of it someone has done something wrong.

When you dig a little deeper you find it is pretty unlikely this is anything pre-meditated (lets face it, if this was Nazi motivated don’t you think the people in this picture would be standing somewhat differently…).

But the information is out, and the media have got hold of it… and while that’s all good stuff (if you believe in the freedom of the press), we get to the root of the problem.  The Marine’s have not kept this crisis communication in check.

How come?  Well, it looks to me that they failed on three crisis communication basics:

- Is there a crisis communication plan? There is no sign of a proactive crisis plan in place, which would of allowed them to move quicker in this situation.

A crisis plan would have allowed the Marine’s to use templates and messages that were pre-approved; speeding up their response and suppress the building media exposure. One can only imagine what the chain of approval must be like for those in the thick of the Marine’s PR (my sincere sympathies) so pre-approved templates and messages would have been very beneficial.

-  Proactive? The Marine’s PR seems to be inconsistent in their media coverage which suggests to me that they do not have a proactive PR plan in place.

PR is like a snowball pushed down a hill - once started it will keep on rolling and growing if you treat it right (and if you don’t treat it right it’s like putting a tree in front of the snowball). To keep that snowball rolling and growing you need to be ever responsive to the media (never leave a man hanging) and you need to ensure you fuel the media machine with consistent, newsworthy and relevant information. 

If you start the snowball and don’t feed it then you create a media vacuum – the public have an interest, and the media will feed that interest – but you will not be in control of the message.

- Relationships? The inconsistency also suggests that perhaps whoever is handling the media for the Marine’s does not have the best, most appropriate or most up to date media contacts. 

If relationships were solid this story would have been suppressed at the first sniff.  The media that broke the story would have had a frank and open conversation with the PR folks at the Marine’s and it would have become clear to all that there was no basis for this story… so long as there was trust between the two groups.

We can all learn from these simple mistakes – whether in public office or private enterprise.  The need for a proactive crisis communication plan, consistent outreach to the media and never-ending media relationship development is paramount.


Prepare to use technological capacity and tools

Websites, email and other digital media tools can be employed to help contain a crisis, or work to minimise it. In planning for a crisis, a foundation should consider what scenarios would prompt an update on its website, or which scenarios might prompt an official "statement" to be released to media via email, or if social networking sites and other new media vehicles can be employed.

Speak to your IT department today (in advance of a crisis) so they can help you get prepared.

Consider building a dark website - a site that is fully developed but is not turned on.  This allows you to turn it on at a couple of key strokes, making suitable information available to all.

If communicating to the media via email (and who isn't?) then make sure you have the relevant media lists available.  If you are using a managed online media database, then save the search string associated with this media list, so you can quickly pull the most up-to-date media list in a time of crisis.

Consider social media in two regards.  Firstly, you may want to use SM to communicate during a crisis.  For example, Twitter is a great way to communicate to stakeholders as it get news out in real time to all people at the same time.  Secondly, if your crisis starts on a social media platform you need to be ready to respond on the same platform - you'll need senior manager approval, tools to use that SM platform and of course log-in details.

Technology is your friend in a time of crisis as it allows you to quickly and efficiently communicate.  Use it to the best of your resources.



Power is nothing without Control...

...according to the tire manufacturer Pirelli. And so it is with public relations.  Gone are the days when an organization can fully control their corporate message to the media.

In days gone by, it was normal for an organization’s employee handbook to strictly dictate that no employee could speak to the media without prior approval and spokesperson media training.  No problem.

Then a few years ago social media popped up.  According to a recent piece of research by Altimeter, companies average an overwhelming number of corporate owned accounts – about 178.  That is a bunch of people from different departments and around the globe that are speaking on social media platforms, that the media are seeing.  And that’s before we count the personal SM accounts of employees who happen to mention their job. So what’s to be done?

The Crisis Co recommends three levels of corporate communication development:

1 - Relinquish a mindset of control - instead usher ‘enablement’. In business school we were taught to foster message control and encourage all corporate representatives to stay on message.  Yet today, as multiple business units from support, sales, HR and beyond participate in social technologies, communication is spread to the edges of the company – not just from the PR department.  As a result, PR groups have changed their mindset to safely enabling business units to communicate, based on pre-set parameters they put in place through governance, coordination, and workflow.

2 - Roll out enterprise workflows - education programs at four levels. We’ve found that savvy corporations have detailed workflows, including sample language in which employees should respond. Beyond creating these workflows, they must be distributed throughout the enterprise through education programs, and drilled.  We’ve found savvy corporations have up to four types of education programs spanning: Executive team, social media team, business stakeholder teams, and finally all associates.  Even if the mandate is for rank and file employees to not respond in social on behalf of the company, reinforcing education is still required.

3 - Run mock crises. Lastly, we’ve found a closer relationship with media relations, social media and crisis communications. Savvy corporations are working with agency partners such as The Crisis Co to setup mock crisis drills where they approach a weeklong crises in a number of hours in private.  Not only does this test the mettle of the organization it provides useful training so companies can respond faster, in a more coordinated approach.  We have already witnessed health organizations receiving ‘social-crises-ready’ compliance notices and we expect compliance programs to spread into other industries.

Get ready – take control.


Prepare, practice, then practice, then practive again key messages and talking points

Regardless of a crisis communications situation, company's should strive to communicate consistent and clear messages throughout all of their communications - ranging from printed materials such as annual reports and web sites to speeches, presentations and press releases. In most scenarios, an organisation can (and should) continue to communicate their key messages through a crisis. Underscoring an organisation's key messages, particularly under the potential glare of the media spotlight, can help minimise damage by maintaining a consistent message across all communications.

For this to happen, the company's messages need to be carefully developed, signed off by approapriate stakeholders, recorded and then be made available/communucated within the organization.

Then the key messages and talking points need to be rehearsed, practices, practiced again and practiced until they are ingrained in the spokes person's thoughts and vocabulary.  Only in this way can a crisis communicator (a spokesperson) really be present in an interview allowing for quickness of thought and speech.  If the messages and talking points are not ingrained, then the spokesperson will spend too much time thinking about what to say, which always comes over as a poor interview.