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Interview with Crisis Communications Expert Richard Levick – Part 2

Expert Interviews

We continue our in-depth conversation on the Online Reputation Management blog with Richard S. Levick, Esq, President and CEO of LEVICK and a leading voice on the most complex communications and reputation management challenges facing corporations, countries, and major institutions. Click here for Part 1 of our fascinating interview.

How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?

Obviously, the face that a CEO presents to the world, and the language with which he or she publicly articulates the company’s value proposition and corporate good citizenship, is important. Just as important, however, is what the CEO does internally.

CEOs should understand the dangers of silos when corporate reputation is at risk. Input should be solicited, in fact demanded, from multiple quarters: legal, HR, corporate communications, financial, etc. It is then the CEO’s job to ensure that these advisors work seamlessly and disinterestedly. It doesn’t do any good to put five executives in a room, with each one trying to seize turf in making the decision on what’s to be done next. That is why it is so critical, particularly now, in the Internet Age, to integrate silos. Make sure legal knows digital, and that corporate communications knows the crisis communicators. In a crisis, all rules change. Better to know and understand the team when you hit the iceberg.

CEOs need to take the heat, if necessary, when a sacrifice is demanded (e.g., a person, a product, a brand, a fine, etc.), especially when that sacrifice involves a single-quarter loss to ensure longer-term viability and performance. That may mean communicating respectfully but in no uncertain terms with the board and with shareholders. The CEO must be able to define the specific loss that lies directly ahead, why that loss is necessary, and why the recovery further justifies the strategy.

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CEOs need to take a very personal interest in how resources are budgeted. We mentioned the analytic tools needed to constantly assess a company’s reputational exposure and opportunities. That’s the sort of specific investment that CEOs must insist on (and one that is seldom included in the current budget of any one silo). More generally, CEOs need to assure state-of-the-art digital expertise that can inform crisis management no less than brand development – and perhaps even lobby shareholders on behalf of a board candidate with solid digital expertise and background. After all, digital professionals can’t be nearly as helpful without a fuller understanding of business. One wonders how boards can make decisions without digital insight and an understanding of the digital world.

What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

There are no more effective brand evangelists than a company’s own employees. Conversely, no one can savage corporate reputation more than employees telling bad tales out of school, especially in the social media. But if they believe in the company, it will show, more credibly so than in any marketing collateral.

Generally, companies are well-advised to encourage their employees to talk about the company in the social media without feeling that Big Brother is looking over their shoulders. The very fact that you have encouraged them to do so sends a very positive message of respect and trust. The more liberal the company can be, the more employees will be inclined to respond in kind with persistent positive stories that have the particular virtue of being and sounding spontaneous.

What can companies do to better prepare for a public relations crisis?

Use peacetime wisely to build confidence and loyalty when there is no crisis occurring. The more of that “brand equity,” as we call it, the greater the likelihood that the media will believe you when there is a crisis. Often they’ll want to believe you because they know their own audiences want to believe you. It’s a predisposition that can prove decisive when an actual crisis hits, as it inevitably will.

Companies should have a crisis team, or create one if necessary, in which they repose unequivocal confidence. Importantly, the team members must get to know and trust each other now because, when a crisis strikes, there will be critical decisions to make and difficult steps to take – which cannot be made or taken if the individuals involved do not absolutely trust the judgment and selfless integrity of their colleagues.

Constantly monitor the Internet for all relevant mentions of the company or issues with which it is critically involved. This can’t just be Google Alerts. There are sophisticated analytic tools that are fast becoming indispensable, that don’t just list mentions but yield critical data about the venue itself. But note that, as we’ve recently seen, even the humblest online venue can cause an earthquake. Instinctively we tend to care mainly about “high-authority, high-risk” blogs or channels and to discount all others. Yet there’s such a thing as a “high-risk – low authority” venue, as Penn State painfully learned by ignoring the student boards that were long rife with rumors about the abuse. Had the university seriously heeded those postings, maybe it might have taken its institutional head out of the sand and started dealing with the problem that ultimately engulfed it. Risk is risk, whoever poses it.

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