Crisis tips when reputation is on fire

Two perennial crisis-related questions look like they have some answers. How long does it take for a reputation to recover and when in crisis, should companies lay low or communicate aggressively and engage like mad?  

Answer to #1: In research by CoreBrand and Brunswick, it took four years for 16 crisis-stricken Fortune 500 companies to restore their reputations. CoreBrand has an extensive database that has been in existence for 24 years and looks at over 1,000 companies across 54 industries. The four year mark matches with executives' perceptions of recovery time in research we have done at Weber Shandwick. Interestingly, their research added two additional dimensions:

  • It took nearly two years to rebuild perceptions of investment potential ( :( says the stock market)
  • Average time to return to pre-crisis brand equity was somewhat over one year ( :( says CMOs)

Answer to #2: Super fascinating to me. When they looked at the 16 companies, 7 began engaging and communicating with stakeholders soon after the crisis erupted. Yet, the other 9 kept a low profile and stayed out of the news, presumably to deprive "the crisis of additional oxygen" until it subsided. So what does the research reveal about the best route to recovery? Not what you may have guessed off the bat. Here's what they learned. "The low flyer (quiet pattern) companies actually suffered slightly fewer hits to their favorability and overall reputation. And perceptions of management took only half the hit that they took among the engaged ones (classic pattern). At first blush – and ethical considerations aside – it appears that flying low is a stronger strategy. But, there’s a catch. The low flyers appear to suffer a longer downturn in their brand equity. The brand strength of those hunkering down, as measured by CoreBrand, took longer to bounce back. Whereas the engaged group actually began to repair their brand after one year, the disengaged group were still stuck in negative territory with losses in brand equity as a percentage of market cap. The “fly low” strategy has other potential drawbacks. There are greater threats of government intervention as stakeholders demand more accountability, and there are the quiet and negative impacts of corporate silence on internal morale. Even in the age of transparency, disengagement may be a valid short-term survival strategy, but it appears to pose greater challenges to the health of the brand. Silence is not always golden."

These are invaluable lessons to be learned on how to communicate after a crisis. The natural instinct is to hope it blows over, to engage as little as possible and to go radio silent. But these findings show that over the long-term, heightened communications is the best way to go. Perhaps the fact that the news is so transient today and a crisis lingers for only so long before it is displaced by someone else's crisis, the best approach is to go on the record as having spoken up, defended your side of the story and shown that you can be trusted to do the right thing. People will remember that you were not silent and could be counted on when it matters. 

Should be mandatory

When it comes to crises and recovery, I am always all ears. Having written a book on how companies recover and restore their reputations, I am always looking at new advice on spreading lessons learned post-crisis. I just read an interesting way that BP has taken their lessons for others to learn from. CEO Bob Dudley said that they give presentations around the world to policy makers, government officials, industry experts and academics on what they learned from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. As I think of this, this activity should be mandatory when crises occur that are catastrophic like this one was where lives were lost, business closed and economies threatened. The lessons learned should not just be kept internal but externalized so others can learn and refine their own crisis standards and protocols. BP is doing the right thing. Wish I could get a copy. Wish I could have added into my book. 

When qualitative reputation is just as good

There is an intriguing blog post on the HBR Blog Network titled "Don't Trust Your Company's Reputation to the Quants." Considering all the hoopla around Big Data, I was immediately curious about how they would frame an argument about also relying on non-quantitative data when the world seems so enamored of stats and scores. Of course, companies are right to care about making their numbers and the bottom line but there is another side to the story when it comes to reputation risk. "Reputation will always be too impressionistic, and too long-term in its impact, to be left to your Quants. Indeed, if you do leave it to the Quants, it will most likely be neglected, along with other risks that involve intangibles." Quants can often neglect the commonsense solution that protects reputation or overlook how the public might react to and protest a company action. Qualitative insights and experience often adds a dimension to corporate behavior that is not only sufficient but imperative to safeguard reputation. Their advice is for boards and senior executives to listen to the Qualts as much as the Quants. Qualts are defined as those in the organization who "have internalized the values and larger purpose of the organization, and grasp how powerful these are in maintaining healthy connections between the company, its customers, employees, and other stakeholders." This reminds me of an article I just read by BP's CEO Bob Dudley on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Quantitatively, you could say they should have negotiated settlements through the courts but instead they waived the $75 million statutory liability cap and agreed publicly to pay all legitimate claims. They listened to their qualitative side by not delaying acceptance of responsibility and creating long delays before people affected by the disaster received payment. The qualitative side of their character and their focus on reputation came before strenuously litigating from the start of the crisis.

The authors have a good close to their post: "But Qualts appreciate more than anyone else how succumbing to immediate financial temptations can mortgage a reputation, creating reputational debt. They maintain and evolve decision-making models that guide those decisions with clear reputational standards that remain inviolate up, down, and across the extended enterprise." This is where understanding what your company stands for, how it behaves and the value of reputation for the long-term comes into play.

No one is arguing that quantitative inspection is not important. It is just that reputation is not black and white but as someone once told me, plaid. It is very complex and the fabric of reputation is made up of many patterns, colors, threads and how well its owner takes care of it. 

Reputation lessons from space

For those of you interested in crisis, this article on the tragic Challenger and Columbia space shuttles is a reminder of how things can easily go wrong. Even for the best and most revered of organizations. NASA’s reputation never truly recovered from these failures.  We have come to learn, even from pre-Internet days, that the tiniest link or problem can cause the greatest of catastrophes. The article cited the theory of  “normalization of deviance “ from Diane Vaughan, a sociologist, who was on the commission investigating the 2003 Columbia disaster. When I was writing my book on reputation recovery, I read many of her articles about the 1986 Challenger disaster and how some risks became accepted as part of how business gets done. People just get used to or should I say immune to risk-taking.  Vaughan uses the example from the Challenger where the O rings’ erosion had been known on earlier launches of spacecraft and simply became routine, hence the normalization of deviance. As Vaughan says, “They applied all the usual rules in a situation where the usual rules didn’t apply.”

The challenge for companies is figuring out how to not become immune to the everyday risks that go with doing certain jobs such as in manufacturing, food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, automotive, mining, oil, just about everything if you start listing them out like I am doing. This brought to mind what it must be like working on oil rigs and how the risks to safety are there each and every day. How the most minor short cut turn on a dime to be the final blow. How do companies train their employees to not take minor glitches for granted – lives and reputations could be at stake if they ever so slightly deviate.  Another question to ask is how do companies make sure that they listen hard to grumblings from employees? Maybe there is a kernel of truth to be had. Perhaps companies need a Bad News Officer who is Mr or Ms Gloom and Doom. That person could be responsible for bringing all the bad news that no one wants to hear or tell and put it on display for leaders to cope with. The hard truth might be tough to hear but the least expensive way to run a company, maybe even save lives.

 

Getting to Likeable

I wanted to mention this terrific conference I went to last week. It was hosted by PRWeek and featured a stimulating array of speakers. Suzie Welch, author and journalist, spoke about how hard it is for companies to get themselves into the "conversation." She was thinking back to her days as editor of  Harvard Business Review and the many times CCOs would call with what they thought was an explosive idea:  “If you're coming in, trying to be a thought or idea leader, and you don't have the results to back it up, you're just beating against the wind. And it backfires later, because when you actually have something to talk about, you already have the stink on you from having tried to sell yourself too soon.” PRWeek has more on her talk. She mentioned that timing matters, having something uniquely new (Amazon's drone shipments), knowing how to exit the conversation if in crisis, authenticity and "likeability."  Suzie was incredibly likeable herself and appeared very approachable and "real." Seems odd that she is so accomplished but goes by what I presume is her grade-school name, Suzie.  When it comes to thought leadership, she also reminded the crowd of mostly senior pr professionals how critical it was to have the courage to tell your CEO when their breakthrough idea might just not be ready for prime time. After all, as Suzie said, there are very few new ideas in the business today. I think we'd all agree. Of course, she brought up the topic of CEO celebrity. She was right in saying that no CEO starts out saying they want to be a CEO celebrity. It just happens because everyone wants to know about them. Richard Branson was mentioned as a good example of an individual who became a celeb CEO in service of his brand, Virgin.

Dan Roth, executive editor of LinkedIn, gave some fascinating examples on how CEOs were posting on LinkedIn's influential Influencer Program  and how they eventually find their authentic, human voice after some false starts. He used Prime Minister David Cameron as an example of a leader who over time went from third person to first person in his posts. Roth also mentioned how some CEOs were big on asking for feedback when they submitted their posts. His comment reminded me of a CEO who continually asks anyone within earshot how his company was doing in the marketplace.  What was the word on the street? It was a terrific signal that he was interested in hearing as much as talking. Roth ended his talk with some fine advice about the Influencer program -- CEOs should realize that they "are not creating content, they are creating conversation."  We all sometimes focus too much on content and getting our corporate message across and not enough on establishing arelationship or demonstrating how human we might actually be.

Although everyone uses the word "authentic" today, I have to make a case for "likeability," to use Suzie Welch's word. For most companies and leaders, working on likeability would go a long way in making their companies great places to work. It's a good word for reputation-building.

Reputation Resilience

flying-away-umbrella

Reputation resilience is a topic I often think about because it should be on all leaders' minds. How can I build the most resilient culture so that we can withstand a crisis that risks our hard fought for reputation? A new report from Schillings in the U.K. examined UK FTSE 350 and leading private companies about reputation risk and resilience. Respondents were Communications, Legal and Risk executives. Here are some of the findings:

  • All executives surveyed are spending more time on reputation risk management than they did two years ago -- 80% say more time (among risk managers), 68% (among communications heads), and 53% (among legal executives). No one said less time.
  • Only 17% say that there is formal reporting to the board of directors on reputation risk. Clearly, not good enough.
  • The top five threats to their company's reputation are (in rank order): business underperformance, information risk, operational risk, health and safety incidents, and employee behavior. Social media comes in at 6th place.
  • When asked what was the biggest obstacle to making reputation risk management top of mind at the company they work for, 37% of respondents said "CEO/Board removed from reputation risk: lack of focus without a crisis and too much reporting." That is unfortunate.  Companies should not need a real crisis to get them to pay attention to risk management.
  • Fortunately, communciations and legal executives are onto it. They know that their jobs require them to take charge of their company's reputation and any associated risks. A full 72% of communications executives said they feel directly responsible and 63% of legal executives are responsible for their company's reputation.
  • How resilient are companies to facing challenges to their reputation? There is a surprising (to me) fair amount of confidence. 55% are "confident enough," 29% are "very or extremely confident" and 16% are "not at all confident or unsure." Although this bodes well for many companies, I would be wary -- essentially 84% of top executives are confident.  If you ask me, they are not worrying enough about all the possibilities that could befall their reputations. Risks to reputation seem to be coming from all directions today and being over-confident is the wrong stance.

Another interesting aspect of this newly issued report is that Schillings is a law firm. They have rebranded themselves to be all about managing reputation risk. Their tag line is "Law at the speed of reputation." Serious business. What would compell a law firm to switch to focusing on reputation? Here is what they say about their transformation: "To continue to lead at a time of such extensive change, we’ve fundamentally changed our own offering. By combining our unrivalled expertise in reputation law with new risk consulting and IT security expertise, we have been able to create an integrated offer that continues to safeguard the successful businesses and individuals we represent whilst living up to the promise that underpinned our business from day one." It would be hard to name many law firms that have done the same. Reputation is changing the face of organizations all across the globe and some firms see the opportunity ahead. Maybe Schillings sees the risks down the road for them as a law firm and are taking their risk by the horns. Interesting approach.

Risky business for CEOs

Risk-Management  

A new McKinsey survey among board members reports that members acknowledge knowing little about risk. Nearly three in ten (29%) say their boards have limited or no understanding of the risks their companies face. Even more compelling, members say their boards spend just 12% of their time on risk management, an even smaller share of time than two years ago. Not sure about you, but I'd say that the business environment has become more complex and risky, not less complex and risk-free.

This is not good news for executive teams. When it comes to risk management, reputation is high on the list of vulnerabilities that can damage a company's good name. This has me thinking that if board members are not focusing enough on risk, executive teams are going to be held even more responsible for any misdoings and misdeeds. They had better been attuned to crises and risks that are lurking around the corner. CEOs and their direct reports should make reputational issues an A-1 priority on their management agendas.

I received an email about two weeks ago asking if I had information on whose most to blame when crisis strikes. Years ago, I asked that question of executives and if I recall right, CEOs received most of the blame, regardless of whether they knew about the problem or not. The McKinsey research is hinting at the same blame chain. The CEO takes all the credit when things go right and all the blame when things go wrong. The board is looking in all the wrong places. CEOs, beware.

The Three Strike Reputation Rule

threestrikes_1I think bad news comes in threes. Thinking about President Obama and the recent bad news he has received regarding the terrorist attack in Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups and the secretly snatched AP reporters' phone records, it has to be true. It is the culmination and convergence of these three reputation hits that changed the political balance in favor of the Republicans and Tea Party members for a change. Not a full tilt but enough to rain on the President's parade. When I talk to company leaders about what drives a reputation into the ground, I often use the baseball metaphor that all it takes is three strikes and you are out. The first mistake happens to just about everyone these days. The second reputation hit is basically unforgivable but no one wants to put you out of business. The third hit takes you down because it is clear that leadership was absent and judgement was non-existent or negligent (even worse). When I think of the perfect example of the Three Strike Reputation Rule, I think of BP. First, they were tied to 15 deaths when the Texas Refinery blew up in 2005 in the US. Second, an oil leak in Alaska from their pipeline in Prudhoe Bay captured negative attention. But third, and for the final straw, the horrific Gulf of Mexico oil spill that ultimately drove their reputation into the ground, along with their CEO's Tony Hayward. After the third strike, it's time to call it quits.

Yet, from what I've been reading, President Obama's approval ratings have barely budged from their high marks. Perhaps we will see the proof in the pudding at the next election cycle. Hard to tell. And BP, after much soul searching, is coming back again with new leadership, better values and a new heartbeat. The rest is yet to come.