“Glass, china and reputation are easily cracked and never well mended
.” Benjamin Franklin
Last month I was invited to attend a Master class on Reputation Management hosted by the law firm Withers LLP and Hemming Robeson, the Interim Executive firm. Withers is the largest international law firm focused on the needs of successful people, their families and their businesses. They seek to preserve, and where possible, enhance the value that successful individuals have created, nurtured and cultivated and they have done this for over 42% of the Top 100 in The Sunday Times Rich List. It is interesting to note that in the modern world a firm of solicitors such as Withers lists reputation management as one of its services along with employment, regulatory, tax, property and corporate services. Their principal advice is that it is best to think about how you create and protect your reputation well in advance of any problems occurring. They would prefer to keep their clients out of the media spotlight – contrary to received wisdom there is very much a thing called bad publicity – but should a media storm occur, they would be there to help handle it.
One of their clients is Thomas Cook. When the media storm broke about the case where two children died of carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu, Withers was there to advise Harriet Green, the CEO. According to the father of the children he wrote a number of letters to Ms Green and these went unanswered. In the letters he described how the family were made to feel “secondary” by its failure to respond, and accused Thomas Cook of putting its business interests before the deaths of Christi, seven, and Bobby, six. The children were found dead in a bungalow in the grounds of a hotel in Corfu in 2006. They had been on a Thomas Cook holiday with Mr Shepherd and his partner, now wife, Ruth when they breathed in fumes from a faulty boiler.
Mr Shepherd wrote in the letter dated July 2013: “The only thoughts and sympathies your company have is on a piece of paper given to the media as a damage-limitation exercise!” The handling of the tragic deaths of these two children was clearly a PR disaster but consider this: Harriet Green joined Thomas Cook six years after the deaths occurred in Corfu!
So what should you do?
First, set up a crisis team before the crisis. This should consist of senior people, communications specialists, and (yes, they would say this, wouldn’t they?) your lawyer. This team should consider alternative scenarios and prepare statements that could be used in real crisis situations with just minor modifications. I recall getting a call from my Production Director when I ran a food business called Green’s of Brighton. He told me of a serious problem that had occurred in the factory. I said, “Well, Mike, we have a plan for dealing with events like this and we need to put into operation.” Mike replied, “Don’t worry, David. This was a test procedure and you passed it!”
When the ‘s’ hits the ‘fan’ don’t ignore a media call. Any journalist worth their salt will not give up on a good story simply because you don’t return the call. They are more likely to think you have something to hide and will dig a little deeper. Don’t ignore them. Forewarned is forearmed. It is far better to know what the media is intending to publish and to deal with it rather than to fear what they may publish and ignore it.
By returning the call you can use this opportunity as a fact-finding mission. Try to get on the front foot and ask questions rather than answer them. You should ascertain what they plan to publish, and be confident that a responsible journalist and publisher should be prepared to provide this information.
When you do speak to them beware of putting your foot in it. Think before you speak rather than leading in unprepared. Your unconsidered response could well be tomorrow’s headline. Information is power so don’t give it away. The reporters will do their very best to get it from you; that’s their job. Decide on the key points you want to get across. Try to find out what they already know in order to better consider your options and fully brief your advisers. Buy time if you need to, but ensure you find out their deadlines.
Don’t hide behind “no comment”. You might think that if you cannot ignore the media or chat with them, the best option must surely be “no comment.” It is not. No comment, at best, means nothing and, at worst, will be reported as “refused” to comment – to the reader that means you have something to hide.
Politely tell the reporter you will try to respond. Do take and give out office contact numbers. Do consider an unhurried, appropriate response, preferably on legal advice, which should include brief, concise and positive statements and only information which you can substantiate. Do anticipate questions. Doing your homework allows you to collect your information and your thoughts. Do prepare answers and remain at ease. Prepare for the worst, and achieve the best result you can.
By speaking to one journalist or giving a media interview you could be speaking to hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. That could be a fantastic opportunity or a huge disaster. As often as not preparation makes the difference. Don’t go ‘cold’ into a media interview; you may waste a valuable opportunity. Worse, you may be lulled into a false sense of security and relax too much.
Then there’s the old chestnut, “off the record”. In a calm situation where reporters do not smell blood and you are used to giving information to people you know, and may even trust, there is a legitimate use of the convention “off the record”. (See my blog The Chatham House Rule
4 June 2011 http://www.davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=146
) However, in a suspected crisis “off the record” is a dangerous place somewhere out in Never Never Land. If you don’t want to read it in the paper over your morning toast and marmalade don’t say it.
It’s vital to keep control. Up against these deadlines the reporter at the end of the phone will be demanding and persistent. They’re trained to be. The photographer and cameraman outside your office may be irritating. Only those who are survive in this jungle of a job. Each may be asking for a response. Don’t let him have it until it’s fully considered.
It’s also vital to keep calm. Any outbursts will simply give the reporter a headline. He may not have the facts of the case but he’s now got a story that will help his editor sell papers. That’s what they’re in business to do. TV footage of an angry interviewee throwing a fist at the camera does not make good PR. Retain your composure whatever the level of frustration or provocation.
Above all, don’t make threats. A threat not carried through will leave you entirely exposed as a soft target and could potentially ruin your reputation with that media organisation.
How has any of this changed in the digital world? In several ways, not least because a newspaper has always been tomorrow’s fish ‘n’ chip wrapper while an online story stays with us. All of the above advice relates to dealing with the professional media but there is an undisciplined mob out in social media who will write ‘stories’ without bothering to check any facts. Dealing with these is far more difficult but there are some defence measures you can put in place. For example you can set up a Google Alert in your own name or that of your brand or enterprise. You will then receive from Google what coverage it has picked up.
In the recent issue of Market Leader, the quarterly publication of the Marketing Society of which I am a Fellow, the feature article is by Robert Philips[i]
, former EMEA CEO of Edelman who quit because he felt the large consultancy model was broken and has now written a book about trust and communications.[ii]
He tells how three years ago he attended a session of the European Roundtable in Berlin, talking trust with 44 of the 50 CEOs of the largest companies in Europe. “At the end of my talk – entitled ‘You are no longer in control’ – there was silence. One of the CEOs then spoke. “What you don’t understand,” he said, “is that people like me pay people like you to keep us in control.”
Before I could answer, another CEO jumped in: “You can pay Robert as much as you like, but the truth is we are no longer in control. The game is up.” “