We are very excited to invite Richard S. Levick, Esq. to share his thoughts on crisis communications and reputation management with our Online Reputation Management blog. As President and CEO of LEVICK, Richard Levick is one of the communications industry’s most important spokespersons and thought leaders, helping to manage global communications and brand protection for corporations, countries, and major institutions. Richard has worked on some of the world’s highest-profile campaigns – including Guantanamo Bay; the Catholic Church; the Wall Street crisis; and the Gulf oil spill. He is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Fast Company and has co-authored four books including, The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis; Stop the Presses: The Crisis and Litigation PR Desk Reference; and 365 Marketing Meditations.

What is crisis communications?

Crisis communications is how companies, countries, and individuals tell their stories to the public when life, liberty – and the brand – are at risk and under siege. It’s the art and science of regaining control of the public narrative about yourself when you have suddenly lost, or are in danger of losing control of that narrative, and when the single most powerful thing that defines the value of your enterprise is in jeopardy.

It may simply be the safety of a controversial product. But it can go well beyond that. Consider the ongoing crisis that has beset the Catholic Church for so many years now. The value proposition of any great religion is faith. The Church abuse crisis has directly threatened that faith, at least for a significant number of people. How the Church communicates a sufficiently resolute position on abuse and, importantly, the actions it takes to implement that position, will have permanent impact on whether or not faith can be maintained or restored if it’s been lost. The dynamic is no less relevant to a commercial brand that appears to have broken its promise.

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

I’d single out three mistakes.

First, people and companies don’t use their 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 — particularly including bloggers — will believe you when there is a crisis. Often they’ll want to believe you because they know their own readers want to believe you. It’s a predisposition that can prove decisive when an actual crisis hits, as it inevitably will.

Second, they waste precious time at the moment of impact, when their world turns upside down. Often it’s for want of preparation, or because they’re paralyzed, or because everyone runs to take refuge in their own silos. The media has neither the time nor the inclination to wait for you to get your house in order. There’s an immediate void created that your adversaries will be happy to fill.

Third, they don’t understand digital media, even at this point in time. They don’t understand that digital media is the media, and that media relations requires consistent day-to-day monitoring and response. You can’t just wait for a forcing event to start thinking about what your narrative is, what your message is. The forcing event might be happening right now because of what some blogger you never heard of is about to post.

How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?

Ask Domino’s Pizza after a YouTube showing employees defiling their product went viral and the company spent a full news cycle deciding how to respond. If nothing else, social media like Facebook are where perceptions harden, for better or worse, as untold numbers of your customers exchange and confirm opinions on new products or events affecting the company.

It’s a realm where both brand ambassadors and brand detractors can flourish. At many companies, the only people who understand the scope and impact of the social media (and of digital media in general) are on the marketing and brand development side of the business. But they aren’t crisis-trained and usually lack the instinct for crisis response or reputation management when that reputation is at risk, as well as the critical relationships with legal teams that are so integral to crisis decision-making.

That said, there are many companies that have shown a real understanding of how to use all the digital media, including the social media, to cement public loyalty. For example, Walmart is a pioneer as its mobile payment systems integrate users on a multifaceted online platform. The key word is “integrated.” Once consumers connect electronically to pay a bill, they can be introduced to any number of buying and communications opportunities. Now imagine the implications for crisis management. If Walmart so chose, it could use this platform to disseminate its messages about any of its recent challenges (the foreign bribery inquiry, or the class action employment lawsuit) to the very people who matter most – its customers. Imagine BP in the Gulf oil spill, being able to communicate directly with its millions of customers. It makes companies less dependent on journalists as their information liaisons.

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

It’s not so much a question of what they should do first when there is a disaster; it’s really what they should do before there’s a disaster. And it’s not just one thing; it’s a systematic readiness for crisis management. I’ll cite three of the more important steps to assure such readiness.

First, 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.

Second, they should 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. These tools tell you what will likely happen next.

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” news channels (e.g., when the New York Times or 60 Minutes inquires about a story) and to discount all others. But in today’s digital age, there is such a thing as a “high risk, low-authority” venue, as Penn State painfully learned by ignoring the student online message 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. High-risk, low-authority data may not be instantly actionable, but it informs decisions. It tells you that you are not making decisions in a vacuum.

Third, once a problem is disclosed (either publicly, or about to go public), the company needs to forget about spin and focus instead on solving the problem and making sure that the world knows that it is doing just that. If a drill is leaking oil, cap it. (To BP’s credit, the company tried to do just that. Doing the right thing is sometimes very difficult.) With this approach, crisis immediately presents an opportunity to come out ahead of where you began. After the pet food and spinach recalls of 2007, for example, sales by both industries skyrocketed. Those industries conspicuously fixed their problems and the result was an unprecedented show of public confidence.

[Note: Part 2 of our exclusive interview will be published next week.]