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.

High resolution reputation

Abstract big speech bubbleThe Arthur Page Society just issued a new report on The CEO View: The Impact of Communications on Corporate Character in a 24X7 Digital World. The 20 interviews with global CEOs reveals many insights on the evolving role of the CCO (corporate communications officer) in companies today. What is special about this report is that it provides a view from the very top, from the CEO himself or herself. In a section on what's expected from CCOs in this brave new always-on world, one of the findings caught my interest because of the reputation angle. They refer to it as "High-Resolution Measurement." The report states: Today, CEOs expect their CCO to deliver an accurate, data driven picture of their company’s reputation at a level of detail that is often very granular. Some CEOs report measuring as many as 30 different brand attributes as experienced by as many as 15 discrete stakeholder groups. While the levelof detail and timeliness demanded by CEOs vary, the new emphasis for 2013 is the demand for hard data.

It sounds to me like CEOs want it all because they now understand that the single employee loner or the most vocal customer detractor or the regulatory body in another country or the evolving patient group launching a new website or the members of a NGO group can easily harm the company's reputation within seconds and make the damage last days, weeks or months. Instead of just worrying about how reputation is faring among a set portfolio of key stakeholders, CEOs now expect CCOs to be on top of those peripheral stakeholders that can rise up and reap havoc. Hard data has the potential to answer many of these questions. I always say that managing reputation by anecdote does not tell the whole story (or even some of it).

There are many more insights worth discovering in the report. Give it a read to understand how the role of the CCO is changing and how vital that position is to the company, the CEO and to the reputation universe.

Politicizing reputation





One of the trends I talk about when it comes to reputation is how politics is no longer a strange bedfellow to companies.  Companies and their leaders now find themselves taking sides on climate change, same-sex marriage, immigration, gun control and a host of other issues. Company reputation is far more politicized that it used to be. Years ago when I first got into public relations, it was made very clear to me that companies did not air their political leanings or take sides on political issues. Today, political issues are now the business of business.

That is why I was particularly interested in an article about a Starbucks in Newton Connecticut.  I copied and pasted the newspaper photograph into a powerpoint slide for safekeeping. I'll want to be able to remind myself when I need a good example of how politicized reputation has become and how tricky it is to walk a fine line.

Nothing is ever simple these days when companies live in glass houses. There's always two sides to every coin. Here's a snapshot of what happened. Two days ago, gunowners declared Friday "Starbucks Appreciation Day." Unfortunately, this nationwide Appreciation Day was also being celebrated at a Starbucks in Newton, Connecticut, home to the mass killing of some two dozen children and teachers. Why appreciation day for Starbucks? Reason is that Starbucks has publically supported the Second Amendment in states where it is allowed and which grants people the right to keep and bear arms whether those guns are carried in public spaces such as the ubiquitous coffee chain or not.  However, because of the glaring sensitivities surrounding the hideous Sandy Hook killings, Starbucks found themselves at ground zero for pro- and anti-gun supporters even though gun carrying is allowed in Connecticut.

What did they do? At the Newton Starbucks, they closed the store five hours early and put up this sign:

Dear Customers,

At Starbucks we are proud that our stores serve as gathering places for thousands of communities across the country and we appreciate that our customers share diverse points of view on issues that matter to them. We also believe in being sensitive to each community we serve.

Today, advocacy groups from different sides of the open carry debate announced plans to visit our Newtown, Connecticut store to bring attention to their points of view. We recognize that there is significant and genuine passion surrounding this topic, however out of respect for Newtown and everything the community has been through we decided to close our store early before the event started. Starbucks did not endorse or sponsor the event. We continue to encourage customers and advocacy groups from all sides of the debate to contact their elected officials, who make the open carry laws that our company follows. Our long-standing approach to this topic has been to comply with local laws and statutes in the communities we serve.

Thank you for your understanding and respect for the Newtown community.


Chris Carr

executive vice president, U.S. Retail

For Starbucks, there's no winning on this issue but I respect the fact that they behaved according to their conscience and in line with their corporate character . I also was impressed that the EVP of US Retail signed his name to the letter. There was no darting the issues. However, I think it is important to recognize that company reputations will find themselves regularly tangling with political issues and they need to shape their reputations with that in mind.

CSR Viewed Cynically but Not Always

FRONT-PAGECSR is definitely a key factor in reputation building. However, the public remains cynical and skeptical about whether it is a pure public relations play (as research from INITIALS says, not me) and nothing more. A survey from INITIALS Marketing in the U.K. found that 68% of consumers will not buy from a company with a bad reputation and nearly one-third (31%) regard company corporate citizenship as no more than a stunt.  They are suspicious of corporate citizenship that does not jive with the company's reputation. The dissonance keeps them from buying certain company's products and services and remaining uncertain about selecting brands. Despite this skepticism and reticence, shoppers in the U.K. expect companies to be good citizens and give to their communities. Nearly one-half (46%) understand that companies are needed to help support local community projects, despite their cynicism. Sounds like the classic catch-22. The simple answer is to build authentic programs that serve the needs of both the community at large and businesses as well as the economy. What kind of company initiative do consumers in the U.K. like best? Sponsorships top the list as the most effective form of CSR (72% say so).  Also important is helping people get apprenticeships (60%). I agree especially with the latter. Companies can do better at training less advantaged individuals with internships. Building reputation by helping others learn a trade and join the workforce is a smart reputation-building agenda because it fits a clear need and benefits everyone.

I just learned about the Ladders for London program led by the London Evening Standard. Here is the honor roll of companies participating. The idea is to help unemployed young adults get training in the workplace through paid apprenticeships. The campaign which is working with City Gateway, a charity, is going gangbusters. In 10 weeks from its launch last fall, 200+ organizations signed up and nearly 600 apprentices were hired. The program also works with six universities to provide certification and training skills. Prince Andrew endorsed the campaign as well. They are now on course to get 1,000 young people into jobs in 2013. This is a CSR program that can only build trust and support among consumers.


Reputation Repair for the Church

vaticanBill Keller wrote this fascinating piece in The New York Times about how the Catholic Church could repair its reputation. As he points out, the Church operates just like a business with more than one million workers, one billion or more customers, more outlets than Starbucks, more real estate than Trump and a powerful lobbying arm. And like many companies today, it just lost its CEO and has the opportunity to reset its reputation and restore its luster now. Keller asked several consultants how they would go about advising the Church to repair its reputation as they name a new Pope and move forward. Here are their suggestions:

1. Find the right new pope. One with drive and charisma who is communications savvy. One who is more than a caretaker. A Pope who is dynamic as well as a road warrior with unending energy to persuade customers back into the fold.

2. Manage the culprits out. Out with those who have sullied the Church's reputation. Or as they say, "managing out" the ones responsible for the abuses of recent years.  This would include full disclosure behind how predatory priests were allowed to stay within the institution. And third, hire a highly-regarded compliance or ethics officer who would have full support from the top. Keller quotes Wharton's Michael Useem and his experiences helping to clean up the Tyco mess of years past.

3. Understand the past but look ahead towards the future.  One consultant suggested a big time summit or strategic review that would be responsible for developing a new and improved Church strategy, mission and values with a plan to execute accordingly.

4. Adopt a global/local point of view. The article describes one consultant's idea to let its 220,000 parishes make their own decisions attuned to local customs and preferences. "Rome could encourage the parishes to be laboratories of worship." Interesting idea. Beta labs full of women participating, gays welcomed, local music.

5. Go social. Bring the Church into the digital  I did not realize this until Keller pointed it out but Pope Benedict tweeted as @Pontifex but only 35 times despite having 1.5 million followers. A social media strategy would go far in encouraging meet ups and spreading news and information to the committed. I have just the right document for him too....our research on social CEOs. Perhaps the Church could get some lessons from President Obama's social media machine.

6. Get PR support. Interesting since that's the business I am in. Keller rightfully states: "Its stock response to criticism from without or dissent from within has been to been to drop into a defensive crouch, stonewall or go negative. That can come across as bullying and arrogant -- in other words, not very Christian." Media training and message development would definitely be high on the list here.

What would I add to this list..

7. Build a solid crisis plan that raises red flags when early warning signs show up and design rapid response mechanisms. Figure out how to stop the leaks and understand how it happened in the first place so it does not happen again.

8. Measure the Church's reputation now when it is at its most challenged so that the Church could mark progress as a new Pope begins and reform makes it to the agenda in the year(s) ahead.

9. Commit to a strategic internal communiations plan that engages its customers and followers. Get everyone on the same page. Start by going on a listening tour and asking what needs to change and what can stay the same. Feed back that information and describe how the Church will tackle its greatest problems and improve on its strengths.

10. Build a reputation advisory council that can help restore the Church's reputation for the long-term. This is serious business.

Crisis Lessons to Chew On

Lessons on dealing with a crisis are always helpful, especially when your company's reputation is in jeopardy. I found this list particularly worthwhile because it was written by Sallie Krawcheck, one of the most senior women on Wall Street. I heard her speak at a Forbes conference years ago and really enjoyed her tales of juggling work, family and husband. She was very down-to-earth, approachable and humble. She recently wrote on her LinkedIn page about the lessons she learned from leading through various crises and as she says, watching others make career-ending mistakes handling crises. Here is a brief synopsis of what she advises: 1. Be heroically available. I wholeheartedly agree with her that there are times when executives wish they could just close the door and wait until a crisis fades. We all also know that this strategy does not work and rarely happens. She mentions a colleague who hosted a call for Financial Advisors when investments had gone south and how he said he'd stay on the call until every last question was answered which lasted late into the evening.

2. Allow people to ask real questions, even if you don't want to hear them. We have all been in meetings when no one wants to ask the hard question and most people just throw softballs. Leaders have to create an environment where the hard questions can be asked and there are no repercussions. Sometimes I advise a leader to ask the question himself, provide the answer and get on with it. Once the question is asked, others might have the courage to speak.

3. Frequency matters more than perfection. Krawcheck mentions how her management team had a call at the start and end of every day when the economy was tanking a few years ago. She says that some of the calls were not all that good and packed with answers but at least everyone knew they would be getting an update on a regular basis.

4. On your message: Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. And do in different media. That is dear to my heart because those of us in public relations understand that to reach people who need certain information, you have to reach them where they are. And they are often not where you think they are. Some people read company emails, some ignore them. And as Krawcheck says, some people are readers and some are listeners. Some are in facilities where there is no easy access to electronic information. Make it easy to find out what needs to be known.

5. Bring in people who know more than you do or provide a different perspective. I found this one unusual since so many companies keep all their information and goings-on close to the vest. And rarely do they want to admit that they might not know something. She mentions how during the recent downturn, her company brought in some experts to bring a new voice into the conversation even if they were saying the same thing she was saying. This is good counsel.

6. Let them see you sweat, but don't let them see you tremble. Another piece of good advice and a good way to end this post. It is okay to work super hard and show that you are not home for dinner with the family night after night when crisis is on your doorstep but make sure that your team does not see you scared. Being confident "goes a long way." Yes indeed.

What Not to Do

When I was speaking at the YPO/WPO luncheon in Minneapolis two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was talking about how to prepare for a public relations crisis that can cause reputational damage and what can be done. I always like to find examples that might resonate with an audience and I found this one which I still can not get out of my head. In the checklist I provided attendees regarding preparing for a crisis, I mentioned the importance of establishing a chain of command. It is important that everyone knows exactly what to say and who should be saying it when crisis strikes. This control over a chain of command starts with the person who answers the phone! Two weeks before I arrived in Minneapolis, I had come across an article that described exactly how it should NOT be done. The article was about how some workers at JFK airport filed a complaint with the TSA about how they were being rushed to do their jobs to avoid schedule delays.  And the jobs they get paid to do are important. One quarter of these workers -- security agents -- employed by this small business complained that they were unable to search flights in enough time to discover if there were any weapons, drugs or explosives left behind after the passengers left. These agents are supposed to pull down every tray, check every overhead bin, probe seat pockets and use metal detectors to make sure the planes are safe and secure as mandated by the federal government after 9/11.  Since airlines are very concerned about flight delays and on-time arrivals, these employees felt that they were being given little time to do their jobs. As one employee said, they were being asked to do their jobs in three minutes when the minimum amount of time needed was 25 minutes.

Here's what stunned me. When the company that employs these agents was asked about the complaints, the pr director responded by saying that the employees were lying. "It is impossible for these allegations to really take place." Here is an example of a company caught unaware and responding poorly. Within a few words, the director put the company's reputation at severe risk. When The New York Times calls to find out information about an alleged complaint, the company spokesperson should have said that they would get right back to the reporter with a response and more information. Saying that one's own employees were lying just does not cut it. From what I can gather, the PR director said that the employees were trying to unionize and therefore intent on aggravating the situation. Whatever the reason or excuse, this was quite the example of self-inflicting repuational harm. One for the books!

Business as Political Citizen

I had a particularly interesting and rewarding week. It started in Minneapolis where my colleague and I spoke at a YPO/WPO event on managing a reputational/pr crisis and how to use social media to keep one's reputation from getting tarnished. The audience of over 100 CEOs and presidents wanted advice on managing a crisis in this hyper-connected, turbulent and "gotcha" world. The person who was to introduce us was abit late because he was handling a crisis...which I thought was perfect timing! I hope I made the point that reputation management is a contact sport today.  While preparing for my talk, I was searching for something to say about how socio-political-local issues are more important than ever in managing reputation. I was barely in the state when I quickly learned about the upcoming vote on the Marriage Amendment. Companies are being asked to vote yeah or nay on gay marriage and from what I can tell, it is having a resounding impact on perceptions of business reputations in the state. This event is an extraordinary example of how business reputations are being shaped by their political citizenship. In case you are curious as to how some CEOs are taking a stand, read this entry on the General Mills blog, Taste. Here is an excerpt written by the head of global diversity and inclusion as to his company's CEO, Ken Powell, who addressed employees:

"As readers of this may or may not know, Minnesota voters will be asked to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment in November. If passed, this amendment would define marriage in our home state’s constitution as being between one man and one woman, effectively banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota. If defeated, Minnesota voters would send a strong message about our state’s view of the importance of inclusiveness and diversity.

Ken spoke only a few minutes – but his words spoke volumes.

He voiced our company’s opposition to the proposed marriage amendment, an initiative that makes our state less inclusive and reduces our company’s ability to attract and retain talent.

While, General Mills doesn’t normally take positions on ballot measures, this is a business issue that impacts our employees.

I am proud to see our company join the ranks of local and national employers speaking out for inclusion. We do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interests of our employees or our state economy – and as a Minnesota-based company we oppose it."

Also pretty impressive is that the company left all the comments from those in favor and those opposed to the marriage amendment on the blog on their corporate site.  They are all heart-wrenching and some unbearably uncivil.

I was talking to a few colleagues and came to the conclusion that companies are now mirroring civil society. Many of the issues facing the nation or even the world at large are now the business of business -- education, bullying, civil rights, etc.  The public square and corporate corridor are becoming increasingly similar.