5 Questions to Measure a Scandal's Impact

imagesCA7A4Z0IMany clients ask what is the potential impact of a crisis. How long will it last? When will the scrutiny die down? How does it compare to other scandals or crises? How much will it impact my reputation? When should we start the recovery process? The New York Times' insanely smart Nate Silver who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog had an interesting post yesterday on which political scandal -- the IRS targeting of conservative groups or the Benghazi attack in Libya -- would be longer-lasting and possibly impact the next election cycle. Silver chooses the former (the IRS scandal) and explains so in his article. More importantly for my interests and for those that follow me was Silver's five questions that he developed on whether a scandal "has legs."  He credits Bill James' Keltner list for the initial questions. To determine whether reputational injury will be enduring, these questions are a good place for companies, leaders and others to start: 1. Can the potential scandal be described with one sentence, but not easily refuted with one sentence? Using the 140 character Twitter test is one good way to see if the scandal has legs. Can you say it in 140 characters. Or try it with as few as 16 words which if you recall is all it took to sink former President Bush in 2003 when he said in his State of the Union Address, "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantitites of uranium from Africa." Silver's argument that if it cannot be easily refuted in a similarly short string of words, you have a problem on your hands. I might add that it could be even less than one sentence...it could be a video or photo today.

2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate's brand?  The word candidate could be substituted for company or CEO. In this case, a company that proclaims transparency but is caught doing damage to the environment behind the scenes or engaging in financial manipulation is going to lose its credibility 1-2-3. Think about Enron and their much heralded reputation for innovation at the time. It turns out that their innovativeness was in their financial shenanigans, not in reinventing business processes that led to success. Even though Enron was long recognized by Fortune as one of the most admired and innovative companies in the world, the scandal essentially decimated that impression. In fact, it took its leaders from pinstripes to prison strips.

3. Does the scandal reinforce a core negative perception about the candidate? Or company/CEO in this case. As Silver says, "A scandal can be equally dangerous if, rather than undermining a candidate’s strengths, it reminds voters of what they like least about him."  I think that Congressman Anthony Weiner's late night racy Twitter sexting reminded people of his unlikeability and brashness. Perceptions that confirm what you already thought of a person or company are hard to shake loose. Another example would be BP's then CEO, Tony Haywood, who at the time said that he wanted his life back while oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the general perception was that BP did not care about the damage being done to the environment by the oil spill and the CEO's statement only reinforced that negative reputation.

4. Can the scandal be employed readily by the opposition without their looking hypocritical, risking retribution or giving life to a damaging counter-claim? Most competitors in business do not take advantage when their peers are knocked down by scanal. Companies today easily recognize that a scandal for one company affects all and impacts the entire industry. The question for company reputation is "Can this scandal spread to peers and further damage the industry sector that might already be struggling?" Not a perfect example I fear but an example that comes to mind might be the quality issues that emerged years ago in China when lead paint was supposedly found in children's toys. That perception continues to linger for products manufactured out of China today. I was recently in a children's store when a customer asked the cashier where a T-shirt was made because she only bought children's clothing made in the USA.

5. Is the potential scandal occurring amid an otherwise slow news cyle? This is a good question to ask when a potential reputation disaster emerges. There are countless examples of company reputation debacles that get drowned out by other news that draw the media's attention. I always think about how some recalls get scant coverage when bigger business stories are erupting. Or how some stories are not uncovered until the cycle is very slow and investigative reporting resumes.  Silver mentions how the crude measure of a Google search shows that today, American's appetite for political news stories is at an eight year low. So President Obama and the Democrats might just avert the sting from the IRS scandal because it's not the tantalizing subject for readers as it might have been eight or nine months ago. Perhaps when the Dow is reaching 15,000, some stories just fade away.



Getting the Message Across Loud and Clear

Just caught up with my November HBR. There is an excellent article by the CEO of Siemens, Peter Loscher, on how to use a scandal to activate change in an organization. There is a section in the article on Loscher's first 100 days, a favorite topic of mine.  He says that he was the first chief executive at Siemens who came from the outside and mentions how it actually worked to his benefit because he brought an outside perspective to his early start. In the article, he mentions that one of the things he wanted to do in year one (post 100 days) was to get the organization more focused on customers. And then he proceeded to explain how he did it. I thought it was such a cool idea that I wanted to share it. Here is what he said:

"In my first year, I tried to find other ways to emphasize to the entire organization that customers should be our primary focus. Once a year, our top 600 or 700 managers gather for a leadership conference in Berlin. Before my first one, in 2008, I collected the Outlook calendars for the previous year from all my division CEOs and board members. Then I mapped how much time they had spent with customers and I ranked them. There was a big debate in my inner circle over whether I should use names. Some felt we would embarrass people, but I decided to put the names on the screen anyway.

The rankings were a classic bell curve, with most people in the middle. I was number one, having spent 50% of my time with customers. I said to the people at the leadership conference, “Is this a good sign or a bad sign? In my opinion it’s very bad. The people who are running the businesses should rank higher on this measure than the CEO.”

I put the rankings up again in 2009, in 2010, and in 2011. And now things have changed. The curve has shifted. Some people have passed me, and most are near me at the top of the distribution—because everybody knows this matters and that names will be up there at the next leadership meeting. With this simple approach we have achieved a much, much stronger emphasis on customers in the top management echelons."

What a smart way to get management  focused on being customer-driven. As he concludes, "But if you want to change a big, complex organization like Siemens, you have to make your agenda known, and you have to communicate in simple terms." I'd say taking stock of everyone's calendars and tallying up the time spent on customer activities, sent the right message, clear as a bell.



Globalization and Bottom Line Consequences

Globalization. Everything is different and everything is the same. In an interview with the Dean of Harvard Business School, Nitrin Nohria noted: "When I came to Harvard Business School in the 1980s, the vast majority of people were interested in studying America, because this is where they hoped to have job opportunities. As late as 1988, when I joined, less than 5% of our case [studies] were outside of the United States. Last year more than a third of our cases were global." Similarly, Fortune's Most Admired Companies survey used to be broken into the America's Most Admired and World's Most Admired lists as if they were two different beasts. Fortune now combines them into one big list of the World's Most Admired and rightfully so. As we are seeing with the ups and downs of the stock market, we are all interconnected. The reputation of UBS or Sony or Procter & Gamble matters the world over.

Global everything is on my mind because I am off to Asia to give a speech on reputation and how to build it, safeguard it and defend it. I've been catching up on how reputation plays out in Asia Pacific so that I can be a bit more relevant to my audience. As I am preparing, an article I found struck me as a good example of how things are the same and yet different.

As a keen observer on how reputations get damaged in a crisis, I am always on the lookout for estimates of that damage.  A recent article provided me with some valuable information on how Chinese companies perform when scandal touches them. Scandal plays out slightly differently in China and on their balance sheets than it does in the US and Europe/EMEA. An academic study examined hundreds of scandals linked to companies traded on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges between 1997 and 2005. Revelations of financial fraud and various other similar crimes, such as embezzlement and kickbacks, definitely impacted share price as it does in the US.  The researchers found, however, that to really create a cataclysmic collapse of a company's stock among Chinese companies, there had to be an additional element. "The study found that companies caught up in mere accounting scandals saw their shares drop by an average of 8.8% over the six months on either side of the incident. In those involving the bribery of government officials or theft of state assets, on the other hand, the stock fell by almost a third." As they conclude, "In China and other less developed markets....business is done on the basis of political and social relationships, not numbers."  Companies are all impacted by financial scandal but if you undermine the government in China or any of its officials, expect that your financial damage will be compounded by losing discounted financing, access to trusted suppliers, loss of customers, land acquisitions and other benefits that can come with good government relations. Thus, being on good terms with government is critical to success in China. In many ways, this is also becoming the norm in the US as government plays a more visible hand in business affairs.

Replaying Reputation Woes

  The trading scandal at UBS brings to mind the long journey that companies undertake to recover and restore reputations. UBS is now back at square one as they deal with the recently revealed $2.3 billion rogue trading. This reputation disaster brought me back to the days of the Societe Generale SA rogue-trading incident three years ago. If you recall, Jerome Kerviel managed to lose $7.2 billion on his derivatives scheme. The reputation drag on SocGen's reputation today and on UBS tomorrow is quite real. The SocGen scandal has not entirely faded in the past three years. In fact, everytime one reads about what happened last week at UBS, the SocGen scandal gets replayed. This is unfortunate for those who go down the path of reputation recovery like SocGen. SocGen's recovery program was quite extensive when you look at it from a three year vantage point -- they dismissed Kerviel's bosses, demanded that the bank move slower as new security systems were put into place and launched an internal controls program called "Fighting Back."  In addition, other measures were set forth such as spending on new IT security, starting a newly independent accounting group, beginning a SAFE (Security and Anti-Fraud Expertise) program to oversee financial operations and training 7,800 employees about fraud. Ultimately the CEO and chairman stepped down one year later.  All these remedies for recovering reputation came from an article in yesterday's WSJ and I was glad to be able to list these steps for other companies contemplating what to do when faced with sky rocket type scandals. Yesterday morning started off with an email to me from Netflix's CEO Reed Hastings. I immediately went to the Netflix's CEO apology on the blog.   What confused me however was the tone of the video. Although I am a loyal customer and fierce advocate of what Netflix has done for delivering movies to my home, I thought that the video apology was abit too cheery (outdoors in sunny California. albeit a parking lot) and efficient.  Maybe too rehearsed is the right word. I did not get the sense that this was a very repentent CEO who had seen his stock value decline 52% since the change in pricing occurred. But what really threw me was that he did not share the stage alone. In the video, CEO Reed Hastings had the new head of the DVD spinoff, Qwikster, Andy Rendich, joining him.  I always say that CEOs get all the credit when things go right but all the blame when things go wrong. Why did Hastings deflect some of that blame on this poor soul. I cannot remember the last time (if ever) I witnessed a CEO apology tied to the announcement of a new spinoff. I sincerely doubt that was a good launch plan for Qwikster. My sense is that there's more apologizing to come. This poor guy Andy looked like he too was somehow responsible for the communciations debacle.

Despite these ramblings, the article on the Netflix problem in today's New York Times made me smile. The authors wrote, "But in the short term, the risk to corporate reputations is palpable."  It is not often that I even see the words "corporate reputation" in a top tier publication. Usually it is referred to as brand health or brand reputation or positioning.  It is fairly rare to see corporate reputation used as a commonly understood concept.  My two cents is that short term feels like long term these days when you are in the spotlight. As someone said to me, it's like a nuclear assault whether it is 6 days, 6 weeks or 6 months. Ultimately, Netflix will be forgiven but like the SocGen example above, reputation damage takes its toll and lingers longer than most CEOs care to imagine.