We continue our series of interviews on our online reputation management blog with the top public relations public relations and crisis communications experts in the business. Today, we highlight Gerald Baron, CEO of Agincourt Strategies. Gerald Baron is a 30+ year veteran of public relations and crisis communications, and is best known as the creator of the PIER System, the global standard for crisis communication management technology. He consults with, conducts training and writes communication plans for government agencies and major global corporations and is the author of Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News and the OnePage Crisis Communication Playbook.

What is crisis communications?

All organizational communication should have an underlying goal of building trust and credibility with external audiences. Crisis communication is part of that process but unlike routine communications which are pro-active, crisis communication is in response to a sudden event that poses severe danger to the organization’s reputation and is reactive. But crisis communication, in a time of engagement and hyper-connectedness, is becoming more like proactive communication except the volume, urgency and engagement levels are much higher because of intense external audience focus.

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

The biggest mistake I see is being too media-centric. We can’t seem to get off the old ways of thinking. The media were always there to allow us to communicate one-way to our key audiences. Those are the people whose opinion about us matters most for our future. But today’s technology and audience expectations allow us to communicate and engage (two way) with them directly. When we do that, our dependence on the media to convey our messages becomes much less importance—which is a good thing, given the proclivity of the media to heighten emotion in this time of intense audience competition. Media outlets are still important, but as one of many audiences and their tendency to use the story for their own needs to attract audiences needs to be continually monitored and reporting errors brought to the attention of your direct audiences.

How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?

Very nearly essential. Social media are important for several reasons. It facilitates direct engagement with key audiences with media involvement. It provides for the interaction that is required today. It is where many of your important audiences are and it is important to communicate according to their choices, not yours. But, it is also the first place journalists get the news that they amplify to their audiences. So if you are not there and communicating at hyper-network speed, you will likely be out of the story. All this can be done with websites, email, text messaging and other digital communication channels, but social media is already there, so use it.

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

Implement their carefully prepared plans and preparations. Their plans should incorporate these elements which I’ve included in the OnePage Crisis Communication Guide: event notification, initial statement, assessment, team activation, workflow. It is essential to start providing information within minutes after most sudden events. That can only be done with careful preparation including establishing in advance the contacts with and methods to communicate directly with your key audiences.

How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?

They need to focus on building trust and understand that trust depends on two things: doing the right things and communicating them well. The most important thing in crisis communication is not what we say, its what we do. Trust is based on character, the character of the leaders which are most clearly demonstrated in what actions are being taken. Communicating well means engaging with audiences (including engagement around the actions) so that they understand clearly what the organization is doing.

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

Do their jobs. If it is directly related to managing the response, then work hard to help the company recover. If not, continue to work and support the company through word and action. Not many understand that the old policy of deferring to spokespersons doesn’t work well any more. Employees participate via social media and social media policies need to reflect this reality. Reporters will interview anyone they want and are eager to use policies against employee’s commenting as evidence of lack of transparency. So media policy for employees today should be that they are free to talk to the media but their comments need to be restricted to their own area of responsibility and not speak for the company. They should also be trained that reporters may be actively seeking those who would demean the company and that participating in that may threaten the company’s future and therefore their own self-interest.

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

  • Conduct a thorough risk assessment, preferably using a risk matrix positioning potential events into categories based on likelihood and impact.
  • Prepare a plan or carefully evaluate their plan for suitability based on today’s very different communication demands.
  • Include the four Ps in their plan: policies, people, plan and platform—all are essential.
  • Keep the plan simple—preferably one page like the OnePage Guide.
  • Address critical issues in the plan including response level triggers, initial statements, frequent and continuous updates, speedy approval processes, and use of digital channels for direct communication.
  • Base the organization structure on proven, scalable structures like the National Incident Management System’s Joint Information Center Model which provides additional benefit of enabling coordination with government responders.
  • Thoroughly evaluate and train the team who will respond using realistic drills and exercises.

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