“Trusting customers, employees, unions, suppliers, voters and Qantas passengers will be your allies in tough times if you treat them with respect. But the detail of being respectful is something of a dark art, an art surprisingly quite unknown to many organisations, and a lack of respect is usually what is uncovered in the rubble of a trashed reputation.” – Barbara Sharp, Pax Populus
“Reputation is hard to earn and easy to lose. Most crises start from within a company and could be prevented by early identification and action, so it is imperative that companies regularly and honestly appraise both their internal systems and their outside reputations.” – Sam North, Ogilvy Public Relations
Whether it is a blessing or a curse, the saying ‘may you live in interesting times’ is the catchcry of the crisis professional. And at some stage in their career, most communicators will need to work through an unexpected, detrimental situation or event, also known as a crisis. Some industries and organisations are more issues rich and accident prone than others, which make for interesting case study analysis and learning for us all.
Next Friday, 18 November 2011, two of Australia’s leading crisis experts: Barbara Sharp, Managing Director Pax Populus, and Sam North, Media Director Ogilvy Public Relations, will lead a session on the fundamentals of crisis and reputation management at The Wheeler Centre.
Participants will be invited to join a facilitated discussion exploring a number of high profile crises, including the Qantas dispute, Gunns Limited and whatever-reputation threatening situation or event may be dominating headlines next week.
In this closed session, we will discuss different communications approaches, examine how various organisations have weathered their crises, and unpack some of the key lessons in how to manage through a crisis as well as call out what not to do.
IABC Professional Development/Events Chair Kim Lovely spoke with Barbara and Sam for this preview ahead of the event next week.
Kim Lovely: By way of background, from what philosophical view point or experience base do you approach crisis and reputation management?
Barbara Sharp: My philosophy is that people are fundamentally sensible, and are well able to deal with truth, so tell it to them. Just don't be dumb about how you do it. Trusting customers, employees, unions, suppliers, voters and (Qantas!) passengers will be your allies in tough times if you treat them with respect. But the detail of being respectful is something of a dark art, an art surprisingly quite unknown to many organisations, and a lack of respect is usually what is uncovered in the rubble of a trashed reputation. I learnt through fast taking on my feet for too many years that truth telling, and understanding people's right to know uncomfortable facts is the best long-term communication strategy.
Sam North: Reputation is hard to earn and easy to lose. Most crises start from within a company and could be prevented by early identification and action, thus it is imperative that companies regularly and honestly appraise both their internal systems and their outside reputations.
KL: What is your mental checklist for preparing to advise a client or senior management team?
BS: What do you want to achieve in the long run? Who's most important to achieving it? What would a good outcome be? What haven't you told me that the media will if you don't tell me first? My advice will use the answers to these questions as the way through to a good outcome. I will listen first, talk later.
SN: If the crisis is in full bloom, the first questions to ask are: who are our stakeholders, what do they need to know and what’s the best way to inform them? Each group – and there are a surprising number involved with any organisation – needs different information.
KL: Managing through a crisis and managing reputation are linked, but how are they different?
BS: Managing a crisis is like fighting a fire – limit the damage and frantically put out spot fires. Managing reputation after a crisis – or after it has been run down to ashes in ordinary business – is more like fire recovery, a slow rebuild of infrastructure and public confidence.
SN: I like Barbara’s analogy – although it must be remembered that how you manage a crisis really affects your reputation – witness Anna Bligh during the Queensland Floods and, on the other side of the coin, Christine Nixon in the aftermath of the Victorian fires.
KL: How important is speed when managing through a crisis? Can you move too fast or too slow?
BS: You can't move too fast to be seen to respond to a major threat. But knowing what to say, and how much in the first hours, is critically important. Say only what you do know and what you are expected to know. This means only available facts that are the responsibility of your organisation to know, and be conscious that families might be involved, and a police investigation might follow. Update with regular accurate morsels, rather than feed the hungry media appetite demanding the whole plate at once.
SN: Speed is vital. The first response often dictates how the media and the public view the entire process. The 24-hour news cycle is truly relentless and if you are not able to fill the vacuum then others will.
KL: What are some of the most spectacular case studies in what not to do in a crisis?
BS: Surely it would have to be Bill Clinton and, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" … Hey, don't lie. Don't blame, don't obfuscate, don't treat the public like idiots.
SN: Two spring to mind: Tiger Woods and BP (Gulf of Mexico oil disaster).
KL: How has the rise of social media in recent years changed your approach to crisis and reputation management?
BS: Social media are just another message stick – so use their wild-fire capacity to get ahead of the rumours and speculation by getting your message out, and dousing the spot fires. They are an opportunity as much as a threat, but stick to your knitting of good, respectful information control, and you will ride the waves. The principle of respect for those who most matter (families, authorities, board and employees, e.g.) as the first guide, will hold you through the wild-fire of speculative tweets and rumour-mongering posts.
SN: The rise of social media has caused a fundamental change to crisis and reputation management. Social media is now an integral part of the media and companies have to be involved – that’s the operative word. Companies speak of ‘’managing’’ social media but they really need to be ‘’involved’’.
Be prepared for a lively and entertaining session at Be There – Crisis and Reputation Management.
Friday 18 November, 12.30-2.00pm – The Wheeler Centre, 176 Lt Lonsdale St
Working lunch provided. Places are filling fast so register here >>
IABC members $50, non members $75