Interview with Crisis Communications Expert Deborah Fiorito

Deborah Fiorito, President of 20K Group in Houston, Texas is the latest crisis communications expert to join us at the Online Reputation Management blog. Debbie was executive vice president and chief communications officer of Dynegy, Inc., and before that, she was senior vice president, Public Affairs, Chase Bank of Texas (now JPMorgan Chase). In addition, she has held senior-level communications positions at Apache Corporation and Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. (now Devon Energy).

What is crisis communications?

Communicating reactively immediately after, or in the hours or days, following an incident that threatens your organization’s reputation or ability to operate. I would draw the line between when that communications is “reactive” and strategic—that is, when the outbound communications becomes part of an overall plan to influence customer or stakeholder thought and/or behavior about the organization or company.

What are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with the media?

Do we have 400 pages here? The list of mistakes I’ve made, my firm has made and that ALL organizational communicators make is endless, mostly because the risks associated with making choices about how, when and what to communicate are so high during the stressful, chaotic hours following an incident. But, if I had to list the top few, they would be: failure to “weatherproof the brand” before the incident occurs so that the company will have established a platform of good will among stakeholders; refusing to answer media queries at all; lack of clear lines of authority and accountability within the organization so that decisions about when, how and who will communicate can be determined quickly (if they weren’t pre-determined by drills and regularly updated plans); panic (and I mean, internal panic); failure of senior communicators to speak up and assume a knowledge-leader position within the management team structure; and lack of a monitoring plan, i.e., the resources in place, either internal or contract-based, to start monitoring web and social media coverage of the incident for new facts, perceptions and/or misperceptions and stakeholder attitudes.

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How important is social media to our reputation management strategy?

Critical, critical, and, did I mention, “critical?” It is just as important, if not more important, to connect with stakeholders and potential advocates and monitor their interactions before, during and following a crisis to acknowledge those audiences, recognize their voices, and increase the frequency of the company’s own message to balance the groundswell of negative, informal, and often anonymous commentary posted via social platforms.

What is the first thing a company should do when there is a PR disaster?

Breathe. And then marshal forces. Calmly.

How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputations?

The CEO is the face and voice of the company/organization—the star of the show, the lead, the prime minister of that particular small-to-large nation state, for-profit or non-profit. We, the people, will believe or not believe in the sincerity of that organization in direct proportion to the inherent credibility and charisma of the CEO, and we (and that includes the board, employees, investors, community stakeholders, and the general public) don’t cut her/him much slack. What has changed is that the CEO is no longer a pretty face who can be one person by day, another by night. He/she must live the corporate vision 24/7, speak the truth (often) and take responsibility for all of the above (trust). Then the rest is easy.

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