Archive for the Communications Category

Aspirational Reputation – Institutional Inspiration

Aspirational Reputation – Institutional Inspiration

Businesses have a challenge. Fortunately, they can fix it and increase their competitive advantage at the same time. The solution is to create an aspirational reputation for your company. Simply help your stakeholders believe in the great potential of your business and you will both benefit. Stakeholders who are enthused about your business will help it thrive. Likewise, you can help your stakeholders aspire to greater things by connecting them with the aspirations of your business. You can accomplish all this through authenticity and by creating institutional inspiration.

institutional inspiration

The Challenge

The challenge is that many American’s have lost confidence in a better life for themselves and their children. This has been reflected in recent elections and is felt despite remarkably low unemployment. Interestingly, you can see this in many other parts of the world, as well. This is both a societal problem and a real concern for businesses.

A disaffected population can constrain the economy and increase costs to society. Concurrently, disaffected populations are gravitating toward stronger political leadership to guide and protect them in more difficult times. This phenomenon was seen in the rise of fascism following the disruption of World War I and during the global depression of the 1930s. Significantly, some analysts see a parallel in the current dislocation of the tech revolution and globalization.

With large segments of the population feeling abandoned or even betrayed by elites, the risks to businesses are real. As businesses respond to growing technological and competitive challenges, the gulf between business elites and the have-nots widens. Businesses need to bridge this gap before they become the target.

Why Business Should Act

If the problem is frustration and resignation, the best defense may be to provide opportunities worthy of enthusiasm. Remember, businesses need consumer confidence, an engaged workforce and enthusiastic stakeholders to do well. Fortunately, developing an aspirational reputation builds enthusiasm and makes stakeholders want to associate with your business. The key is to advance institutional inspiration in communication programs and as a priority for both leaders and employees.

aspirational reputation

Most businesses do much better when public sentiment is positive. This is particularly evident when sentiment about an individual business is favorable. When a business encourages its stakeholders to see the business as a positive force that improves conditions, it builds an aspirational reputation. This is a reputation that facilitates a positive outlook and a belief that association with the business makes those associated with it better.

Aspirational Taglines

Advertising can be a very effective tool for capturing the sentiment of an aspirational reputation. Consider these slogans and you should see what we mean:

  • We bring good things to life
  • Be all you can be
  • I think, therefore IBM
  • Just Do It
  • Think Different
  • We Try Harder
  • The Few. The Proud. The Marines.
  • Don’t be Evil

Of course, there’s much more to a company’s reputation than a slogan or tagline, but they help illustrate the concept. In addition, when a company with an aspirational reputation moves on from a specific slogan that can also indicate a shift in focus that will ultimately change the culture and reputation. Some might argue that GE dropping We Bring Good Things to Life coincided with a challenging period of change for the company.

In most cases, great taglines come long after a fundamental philosophy and culture are formulated by leaders and influencers. In some cases, the actual terms are formulated by leaders and influencers.  For instance, Thomas J. Watson first used the slogan Think in 1911 before IBM was formed and three-quarters of a century before the slogan “I think, therefore IBM” was coined.

Impact of Aspirational Reputation

Similarly, Google’s Don’t be evil manifesto was put forward nearly two decades ago by influential employees. This employee engagement is consistent with its more open and participatory style. Of course, some might argue whether the manifesto is controlling, but you can still see how it affects decisions. Interestingly, their willingness to forgo expediency and short-term gains in the early years may have helped deliver long-term success for Google.

These examples reflect the aspirational reputations of world-class companies, but they are important for emerging companies too. Ultimately, finding ways to inspire stakeholders can yield great value. Motivated employees are more productive, and often more innovative and engaged. Investors are more enthusiastic about the company and less likely to create distractions by finding fault. Customers find products more desirable and show greater brand loyalty. Communities welcome those who bring opportunity and elevate the region’s status.

Institutional Inspiration

How do you inspire stakeholders? Often it starts with the leader of the enterprise. Leaders inspire in many ways and the choices often reflect the leader’s individual style. They can inspire through principles, actions, ideas or even art. If that inspiration causes stakeholders to see the potential greatness of the enterprise, then that will begin an aspirational reputation. The leader may be essential to the effort but is rarely able to do it alone.

institutional inspiration aspirational reputation

Even a cursory study of change management demonstrates the importance of coordinated and consistent efforts to promote change. Since communication and motivation are so important, here are ten steps to help establish institutional inspiration:

  1. CEO presentations to all employees and various stakeholder groups, through video, blog, speech or announcement
  2. CEO discussions with executives to reinforce messages and secure buy-in
  3. Management team presentations to their reports and group meetings
  4. Town hall meetings
  5. Stories in internal publications, video or intranet
  6. Messaging in public speeches, analyst and community meetings
  7. Incorporate messages in web and promotional materials
  8. Consider updating boilerplate, vision and values
  9. Awards and recognition for those who demonstrate the inspirational change
  10. Incorporate in advertising and branding

Comprehensive Aspirational Reputation Program

Reinforcing the message across several channels is important in creating institutional inspiration, which will lead to an aspirational reputation. Furthermore, to resonate with audiences and seem authentic, you should go further than repetition. For instance, appeal to different styles by incorporating several genres into your communication programs. Corporate communications, advertising, and marketing can be important partners in these efforts.

Imagine the president of your company speaking from the heart about your organization’s potential for greatness and then positively reinforcing this with people throughout the enterprise. Now add uplifting theme music such as Classical Gas and people will start associating your positive messages and the uplifting music. Now create visual design and carefully researched slogans that reinforce culturally authentic messaging. The result could be a truly aspirational reputation that makes stakeholders want to be associated with your company.

Authenticity Yields Authentic Reputation

Authenticity Yields Authentic Reputation

Authenticity allows us to like what we like and dismiss what we don’t, without value judgments. It can generate enormous brand loyalty. It has enriched social media influencers. For some, it’s the single most influential factor in determining stakeholder support. Authenticity is that secret sauce that conveys the consistent image that people rely upon. When combined with the real qualities that people attribute to businesses, they create the very powerful force of an authentic reputation.

To illustrate these concepts, we’ve created a story about authentic reputation and its importance to business success. When we finish we will offer five keys to protecting authenticity. We will use two fictional companies and their leaders. Both companies had great brands and their success was envied by many. They each cultivated authentic reputations that ensured strong stakeholder support. The companies, Real Products and Unlimited Energy, were at the threshold of global success.

authenticity authentic reputation

The Calculating Model

Real Products was a closely held company that had methodically built itself from a cleaning contractor to a major conglomerate. The CEO of Real Products was cold and calculating. He brilliantly used data analytics to his advantage. While fully capable of winning in direct competition, he often discretely maneuvered to co-opt the competition.

He used elaborate structures to win over stakeholders. While customers, employees, and communities might not get the best deal from Real Products, it was much better than if they crossed him. He wanted to effectively control his business lines globally. Of course, he cared about money, but power and control were stronger drivers. He had an authentic reputation for winning through careful analysis and calculation. Investors and other stakeholders supported him, so they would not lose to Real Products.

The Bold Model

Unlimited Energy had been the most popular brand in the world with operations in every country. For generations, it was the biggest, best and most widely admired corporation, but over time it faltered. Activist investors gained control and brought in new management.

For this job, Unlimited Energy chose a bold, brash and supremely confident CEO. He had radically transformed several other companies. While a couple of those companies had to be broken up and sold, all his ventures enriched his investors. This new CEO promised to restore Unlimited Energy to global dominance and make all investors wealthy in the process.

Predictably, Unlimited Energy’s reputation morphed into one closer to the supreme self-confidence of their CEO. Investors flocked to Unlimited Energy’s can do, take no prisoners attitude. Unlimited Energy gained the authentic reputation as the company that would always come out on top. It wasn’t enough just to win; Unlimited Energy must dominate.

authentic reputation

The Strategy

Real Products and Unlimited Energy were the most effective competitors in the markets that were open to them. They were first or second in every market. When one of them wasn’t in a market, the other was usually twice as big as the next competitor.

The CEO of Unlimited Energy realized that together they could easily pick off the more profitable parts of their smaller competitors. He decided they should talk rather than fight head-to-head and squeeze each other’s margins. A preliminary discussion between the two CEOs was set while they were both at Davos.

To simplify the story let’s assume they weren’t covered by the Sherman Antitrust Act or other regulations. The activist investors were all crowing about how Unlimited Energy would dominate even these preliminary talks.

The Collaboration

When they met, the Real Products CEO was true to his nature. He had analyzed every aspect of the possibilities and developed a comprehensive plan for absorbing 60% of their competitors. The remaining 40% was consolidated under several allied businesses, to soften opposition.

The plan doubled the business volumes for Real Products and Unlimited Energy. In addition, they agreed not to compete on price. The cumulative effect would triple earnings in two years.  The plan far exceeded the Unlimited Energy CEO’s wildest expectations and he immediately agreed.

authentic reputation

Since they were already at a global forum, they announced the agreement that afternoon. The additional publicity would reward the activist investors and improve the companies’ ability to raise capital for the acquisitions.

At the announcement, the Unlimited Energy CEO tried to cement the deal by praising his colleague. He told participants he was humbled by the brilliant strategy and grateful that the Real Products CEO wanted to work with Unlimited Energy. “Our stockholders will never again have to worry about their investments,” he said. “Real Products has ensured extraordinary returns.”

The Unlimited Energy investors who prided themselves on dominating the market were furious when they saw their CEO defer to his biggest competitor. Then they figured out that the remaining 40% would be owned by companies under Real Products’ control. Instead of an equal deal, their CEO had been hoodwinked into ceding control of 60% of the market to their competitor. They dumped their Unlimited Energy stock and the darling of Wall Street became a paper tiger without any authenticity.

Importance of Authenticity

The lesson is simple. Authenticity must be part of your nature. You need to be honest, open and consistent about this. If you try to deceive, it will be discovered.

In our story, the Unlimited Energy CEO presented himself as a businessman who was very confident in his own ability to control situations. So long as people’s experiences supported that image, it represented an authentic reputation. The challenge came when there was a disconnect. When people saw a deferential demeanor in the announcement it undermined their confidence in his ability to control.

authentic reputation

Authenticity is particularly important in crisis situations. In crisis communications, audiences can be hypersensitive and critical. If they find any inconsistencies in your behavior, they may dwell on them until they become insurmountable problems.

Five Ways to Protect Authentic Reputation

How do you avoid the inconsistencies that undermine your authentic reputation? If you can remain true to five principles of behavior you should be able to maintain your authentic reputation. They are:

  1. Honesty – You and your business should be honest about your true nature from the start. If your reputation still fits your character today, continued honesty should ring true.
  2. Integrity – Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Likewise, stand up for your beliefs. If you find that your organization is changing, then address it as it occurs. Don’t wait for a crisis to advise stakeholders.
  3. Transparency – This doesn’t mean releasing proprietary or confidential information, but there should be a reason to keep information confidential. For other things that can impact stakeholders, transparency should be the norm.
  4. Values – The company’s values should be meaningful and influence behaviors. Use values to guide your behaviors and your authentic reputation will naturally be closer to your real priorities.
  5. Compassion – While it’s not a requirement for authenticity, compassion affects others’ perceptions. If you demonstrate compassion for others, they will be much more likely to show the same for you. If you want to get the benefit of the doubt, you need to give it.

Authenticity strengthens your company’s reputation. Remain true to your values and nurture consistent behaviors, even when it’s inconvenient. This will yield an authentic reputation that will serve you well when you need it most.

Fake Opposition in the Age of Conspiracy

Fake Opposition in the Age of Conspiracy

For many years I dismissed most conspiracy theories as superstitious ramblings of people who mistook institutional incompetence for nefarious intent. Not anymore! If you observed the Strzok hearing or the Russian Indictments last week, you know conspiracy theories are alive and well in the United States. The world has changed, and the pace of change has accelerated. The challenge in this new age of conspiracies is knowing whether it is real or fake opposition, and what to do.

If you are purely reactive, it may not even matter much whether it’s fake opposition. It will feel real to many and that may be enough to spell the end for you and your business. Conversely, you may avoid being a victim by being prepared and proactive. To better understand this conspiracy trend, let’s look at last week’s news and see what it can tell us.

fake opposition conspiracy

In the case of Strzok, many people believe he is a member of the deep state who is out to get the President. For many others, it is an abuse of power by those who will defend the President at all costs.  In the case of the Russia indictments, it could be a case of the deep state manufacturing these charges to undermine the elected President of the United States. Alternatively, it could be a case of a foreign power deliberately conspiring to undermine U.S. elections.

It’s disturbing that many people react just as violently against fake opposition as they do toward real enemies. They may even sacrifice their core values to combat fake opposition. Sadly, if they took the time to learn it was fake, they could have kept their integrity intact. Watch this phenomenon carefully, so you too don’t fall victim.

Communication Conspiracies

Even in years past, we all knew that some conspiracies existed, such as in espionage and criminal matters. Nevertheless, there were limits. For instance, I didn’t believe the Apollo moon landing was faked or that  Area 51 was only a front for extraterrestrial studies. However, I still don’t know what I think about Roswell. Frankly, I also didn’t want to believe that a friend or colleague would intentionally deceive me or fabricate information.

The world has changed. Well-documented conspiracies are already underway. Some of these communication conspiracies are from foreign influences. Other conspiracies are manufactured right here in the good old USA. There are simply too many tools available to create artificial opposition and too much to be gained. It’s not just your imagination anymore.

That doesn’t mean we want you to instantly distrust your best buddy. We don’t want to destroy all your enjoyment by having you obsess over intrusions.  Instead, we want you to be aware and careful to explore who’s telling you what and why, before you act.

Businesses’ Role and Exposure

We are going through a time when the rules are changing, concurrent with the ability to manipulate and distort facts. Economic and social institutions are being massively disrupted, with people lashing out at each other as they struggle for control. Government officials, interest groups, and even religious sects are fighting each other rather than preparing us all to better manage our future.

Increasingly, businesses and executives are stepping forward to try to make things better. Your first reaction might be that people are just expecting too much, but it probably has more to do with businesses’ vested interests.

Interest groups view the current situation as a zero-sum game of “our way or the wrong way.” On the other hand, businesses are all about building the value of their enterprise and want to do what they can to prevent harm. Politicians dismiss an opponent as just “one of them.” In contrast, a business sees that person as connected to scores of others. That one person could use word of mouth to damage or promote the business with thousands of potential customers.

fake opposition conspiracy

The Problem of Fake Opposition

You may have heard of scams where digital calls wait for you to say “yes” so they can charge you.  There are also cases where a scammer uses a fake email address or cell number to mimic a decision maker’s identity. In far too many instances, this allows them to trick bookkeepers into issuing large payments to the wrong people.

These examples show how far people are willing to go for the right financial incentive. In fact, they are quite good at it. Stories and impressions will also work. A news or gossip scam can be just as effective as a phone scam, and far more damaging.  While some are tired of fake news claims, we need to recognize their potential impact.

Consider what would happen if businesses were attacked by fake opposition. Instead of waiting for you to do something wrong, your detractors could just roll out one fake opposition front after another. It’s a nightmare scenario! Don’t wait for it to happen. Prepared now.

What to Do

Whether your business is a direct target or just collateral damage, you’ll probably feel the sting of fake opposition. You want to inoculate your business with a strong, positive reputation. Support your reputation with a robust and effective communication plan that includes strengthening stakeholder relationships. Don’t just store communication tools for an emergency. Regularly test, sharpen and exercise those tools so they are more effective.

fake opposition communication conspiracy

Furthermore, you want to be sure you are using the right tool for the correct job. Be sure the fake opposition problem you think you have identified is the real problem. With the extraordinarily powerful threats of weaponized media and AI reputation stitching we’ve described in previous posts, a dedicated attacker can inflict grave damage. Their communication conspiracy can ruin relationships with your stakeholders.

It may be tempting to launch a broadside counterattack against the local activist group that appears to be your problem. Before you do that, make sure it’s not fake opposition. Delve deeper and learn whether someone more dangerous isn’t supplying them with the information or resources. There are experts who can help you with this. Let us know if you need suggestions.

If you have any reason to suspect fake opposition, you want to know who is really against you. Otherwise, you’re fighting fires that could pop up anywhere. Worse yet, if you try to resolve the issue with the fake opposition, you could find you’re negotiating with yourself. In this age of conspiracy, knowing your real opposition can be just as important as what to do.

AI Reputation Stitching – The Unexpected Threat

AI Reputation Stitching – The Unexpected Threat

If something could destroy your professional reputation or your business in the next few months or years, would you try to avoid it or at least take steps to minimize the damage? If the answer is yes, let’s discuss AI Reputation Stitching, the new vulnerability in corporate and personal reputations from advances in artificial intelligence. Everything from proprietary corporate information to previously discreet or private actions and words are now vulnerable to discovery from numerous sources. Worse still, this AI reputation intrusion is making it possible to stitch together bits from thousands of sources to directly counter perceptions and reputations you may have spent decades building.

AI reputation stitching

Why AI Reputation Stitching is relevant

If you’re not already interested, let me ask these questions. Are you conversant about artificial intelligence or AI? Are you an emergency management, reputation management or corporate communications professional? Do you have several days of emergency supplies or a hurricane evacuation plan? Do you practice risk management or even take it to the next level as a corporate crisis prepper? Are you at all concerned about corporate or personal privacy? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then you have the capacity to prepare for and change the worst outcomes from this unexpected AI stitching threat. Please keep reading.

While advances in artificial intelligence have driven its acronym, AI, into common usage, most of us are more focused on the curiosities of AI vs. human competitions in chess, Go or Jeopardy than the implications of how it will change our lives. Watson’s recent debate demonstrated how the AI platform could study the issues in real time while the debate was underway and successfully match the carefully developed arguments of an expert human debater. Similar AI capabilities can be used to focus AI on sifting through enormous amounts of data and quickly stitching together the pieces to form an accurate picture of you or your company that can serve as an AI reputation alternative to the organic reputation you worked so hard to build.

While this threat has not fully emerged, except in focused and rarified environments, it will likely confront more of us in the coming months and years. We call it Reputation Stitching. As these emerging artificial intelligence capabilities develop into advanced AI reputation stitching, there is an opportunity to proactively minimize damage and even improve the prospects for positive results. The challenge is what to do to anticipate and overcome our all too human personal and corporate flaws.

artificial intelligence

Is AI stitching real?

First, let’s consider a couple of recently published developments in AI stitching. One is the impressive and intriguing machine learning advances by Google in their still imperfect photo stitch capabilities. The other is the enormously promising efforts in healthcare data stitching that are still far shy of their potential.  Despite their flaws and limitations, the potential of these AI stitching pursuits makes it clear that advances are being rapidly achieved and they will transform our capabilities, reputation risks, and understanding of the world.

Google’s AI stitching to produce professional-caliber photos shows the capability is real and can touch everyday life. When healthcare stitching is widely adopted it will fundamentally change the precision and effectiveness of healthcare. Also, since patient privacy is guarded under HIPAA, there will likely be fewer risks than in some of the other emerging AI stitching capabilities, but the consequences could be enormous. With the continued prevalence of hacking and data theft, even HIPAA and the best efforts of everyone in healthcare may not be enough to completely secure this personal information in every instance.

reputation stitching through AI

Reputation Trends and Risks

Now, look at several recent examples of personal and corporate reputation damage from actions taken more than a decade ago. Consider how the #MeToo movement has encouraged people to come forward even years later and the impact this has had on powerful people such as Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey. Likewise, dedicated investigations have yielded prosecution and litigation for actions allegedly taken by Paul Manafort and  ExxonMobil more than a decade ago. These examples show how personal recollections and dedicated prosecution can find decades-old evidence that is still compelling enough to destroy reputations today.

Now if you extend these developments with our thirst for sensationalism, the explosion of surprisingly credible fabricated content (fake news), and the extraordinary threat of weaponized media you should have more than enough to keep you up at night. In this world, the potential for real or fabricated information to seriously damage reputation is enormous!

 

AI reputation stitching

Warren Buffett probably wasn’t thinking about reputation stitching when he said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it,” but he certainly anticipated the consequences if artificial intelligence uncovers and profiles the sins of the past.  A business’ social license to operate is intertwined with its reputation and once you lose one, you will likely lose the other.  This is the reason we are so concerned about the emerging risk of AI reputation stitching.

Sources of Data for AI Reputation Stitching

The same capabilities that can process overwhelming volumes of data and identify the threads that result in an accurate diagnosis and treatment in healthcare data stitching will soon be more broadly available to create AI driven reputation stitching insights into professionals and businesses. Just look at the Enron dataset of nearly half a million emails from over 150 Enron executives that FERC released into the public domain in 2002. These have already been extensively studied and dramatically contributed to the development of AI stitching capabilities for extracting meaningful data from our communications.

artificial intelligence AI stitching

The extraordinary public insights into these executives, some of whom were only guilty of being collateral damage in the Enron fiasco, have likely changed their lives forever. Now add the disclosures about Facebook data being freely shared with researchers and foreign businesses, along with the truly extraordinary volume of data available about our search histories, messages, movements and conversations. You may see how stitching together even a fraction of that information could be used to irreparably damage reputations.

If you find this hard to believe, that’s understandable. Our brains are conditioned to put things in the context of our past experiences and great departures are often difficult to fathom. So, let’s just consider how most personal devices are set to track individuals’ movements and how video surveillance is becoming ubiquitous. Between security cameras, dash cams and our penchant for recording life on our cell phones and then transferring it to social media, there are countless images recorded. With advances in facial and even smile recognition software, we are not far from tracking movements and then identifying what people are doing when they are at those specific locations.

AI reputation

In fact, this is already done with greater frequency than you might imagine, but it is still somewhat limited by the current resources needed to sift through the enormous volumes of data. With the exponential advances in machine learning, we will soon be able to process great volumes of data with enormous efficiency and minimal human involvement. With our new world of artificial intelligence, the advent of AI reputation stitching will soon be upon us.

What You Can Do

So, why are we telling you this? Do we get some perverted pleasure in alarming people? No, it’s because the world of reputation management is about to experience transformative change and you can reduce the risks to your professional and business reputation if you act now. Once AI stitching can decipher a large part of everything we’ve done, it will be nearly impossible to spin a story or manage your reputation without at least some people having the facts to counter the reality you are trying to present. We have long advised against spinning and manipulating information, but soon it may very easy to contradict your spin with compelling facts from reputation stitching.

The best defense will be for your business to consider its actions and behaviors, and proactively work to improve flaws it identifies. You may gain the benefit of the doubt and if you act before the issue is uncovered by others, you might avoid the matter altogether. Any action to address a problem is helpful, but government officials and the public are increasingly demanding that businesses identify their own problems and address them before someone else exposes them. So, act soon.

AI stitching assessment

Your first step should be to conduct a comprehensive vulnerability assessment.  This should be conducted by a third party, which will reduce the risk of bias or underweighting real issues. This vulnerability assessment can be as limited or expansive as you wish, covering media and social media reviews, executive background investigations, or interviews and additional investigation. If you decide to do this, we can walk you through how to protect confidentially and manage the process with appropriate sensitivity. Once you have identified the vulnerabilities, you will want to proactively utilize reputation management and crisis communications processes to work through the range of possible responses, develop a plan to address and message the issues, and take appropriate action.

Those who prioritize the future of their businesses and reputations will understand that any action will be far more effective if you work proactively before someone else uncovers an issue. To minimize the impact of reputation stitching, the time to act is now, before your AI reputation becomes the new reality.

Fake News? Business Political Tactics?

Fake News? Business Political Tactics?

Let’s start with a quick poll. What will be the dominant story this week and the next biggest story? Will they be 1) Kim Jong-un meeting with President Trump, 2) celebrities and pardons, 3) celebrities and suicide, 4) DACA, 5) Taliban ceasefire, 6) opioids, 7) hacking, 8) Facebook, 9) leakers, 10) Putin, 11) China, 12) Mueller investigation, 13) trade and tariffs, 14) Roseanne, 15) Uber and Lyft, 16) Elon Musk, 17) AT&T, 18) Disney, 19) school safety, 20) professional sports, 21) ill celebrities  or 22) something else? Seriously, please comment with your first and second choice. Unless there is an exceptional tragedy or celebrity curiosity, the odds are that the top stories will have political components. These stories dominate our attention as both real news and fake news. We are sometimes fascinated by them, their impact and the political lessons we can glean from them. We might even consider deploying some of these political tactics to help our business.

business political tactics

Whether you are a fan of President Trump or not, you probably marvel at his ability to generate support, shift attention where he wants it and so heavily saturate the discussion that no one seems to have the energy to debate the issue anymore. His approaches (practitioners might call them strategies and tactics) can be very effective if you’re a developer, celebrity or politician. If you are in a major business with major investments, lengthy project payouts and significant exposure such as energy, transportation, chemicals, mining or manufacturing, you may want to put less emphasis on these current trends and impulses.

Have you ever watched a news program and been amazed by a politician or political hack’s ability to avoid the difficult issues being tossed at him or her? Did you find yourself wishing that you could avoid consequences in the same very effective manner? If a reporter calls, would you like to dismissively address all the questions without answering any of them? If activists are protesting your new facility, have you been tempted to say, “throw the bums out”?

If your competitor is capturing the market have you considered exposing their criminal behavior and calling for an investigation of their questionable practices? Have you considered being so sensational in your social media posts and public persona that you draw millions of followers and then convert those followers into paying customers? Do you consider fake news and bots an expedient means of capturing public attention and support?

If you’ve thought about or done any of these things, you’re not alone. It’s likely that there are many other business executives who shared similar thoughts and ultimately chose not to pursue them. But a few still question why we shouldn’t use political tactics to build our business reputation, advance our business and get what we want.

Many companies recruit and utilize political talent in their government relations and communications campaigns. There’s a lengthy history of overlap between government and the private sector in the United States. In fact, when your company is attacked in the same vicious way that politicians, parties and government experience, it can be helpful to bring those political lessons into countering the assault, but you need to be careful how aggressively you use their political tactics.

Businesses and political campaigns have different purposes and measures of success. Most businesses are driven by providing a favorable return to their investors and having a favorable impact on their stakeholders. In most situations, the business intends to do this indefinitely. Things that damage the return to investors and relationship with stakeholders are considered threats to the company, including the company’s reputation and social license to operate.

business political tactics

On the other hand, campaigns are primarily about winning, getting your way, pushing your point of view and locking-in sufficient support to achieve the majority or plurality you need. Political tactics need to bob and weave to respond to a constantly changing landscape and they often use tactics that are vilified by the politicians themselves. While some politicians are very ethical and highly admired as statesmen, they still must win. This puts an enormous emphasis on shaping public opinion over the short periods of time needed to win elections. A politician can afford to offend some people to solidify the support of others and then conduct a campaign that variously creates infighting, alienation, and enthusiasm in different groups resulting in an election victory.

For most businesses, misuse of these political tactics could cause a crisis that must be managed and lasting harm to the brand. Stakeholder trust would erode, people would voice their opposition in government hearings, stockholder meetings and sales through word of mouth. While you can learn political lessons and even use political tactics to support your legitimate business interests, you need to balance this with conducting your business with integrity and a view toward maintaining a positive long-term reputation. Don’t sacrifice your brand, reputation, and stakeholder trust for a short-term, politically expedient fix.

political tactics

Well then, if it OK for businesses to observe politicians and campaigns to learn political lessons, what political tactics should businesses avoid? There are five political tactics that you should either use very sparingly or completely avoid in your business communications and encounters. They are marked by either being excessively confrontational or deceptive. They are attacking competitors, attacking reporters, attacking opponents, spinning stories to manipulate perceptions and deliberate use of fake news:

  • Attacking Competitors – If you attack your competitor, they will likely respond in kind. Also, you are part of the same industry, facing many of the same issues. If you tear each other down, who’s going to give you the benefit of the doubt?
  • Attacking Reporters – The adage of not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel is still true. If you take the time to get to know some journalists, you will find that many are very bright and capable and they are as dedicated to their mission of providing the truth as you are to making money or whatever else motivates you. If you work with them ethically, they can help you share your story. If you try to deceive or hinder their work, they will figure it out and report the full story, including what you did that was illegal, inappropriate, or unethical.
  • Attacking Opponents – If this one isn’t obvious to you, just look at the years of fighting between heavy industries and environmental activists. The more business fought environmental protestors the more effectively environmentalists used it to publicize their cause, raise funds and increase the opposition. Assume your opponents have a different, but valid perspective and open communication so you have a better chance of cooperation than opposition. This does not have to be a zero-sum game. it is well worth the effort to find a win-win and simply opening a constructive dialogue can reduce the damage.
  • Spin – Honesty and transparency matter. As soon as a company or individual spokesperson for a company becomes known for spinning stories, they are distrusted, discounted and marginalized. People and reporters are very astute about attempts to spin. Many perceive this seemingly innocent attempt to slant the story in your favor as deception. You’ll get far more understanding through honest, ethical attempts to communicate than you will through spin.
  • Fake News – Governments, hackers, fringe advocates and online “entrepreneurs” have successfully used fake news to influence public opinion, disrupt and make money. There are a wealth of tools, bots, and channels to distribute and promote fake news. It has become increasingly difficult to detect and it may be tempting to use fake news to promote your position on issues and your business. The odds of getting caught publishing fake news may even seem to be slight and you could always deny that you knew it was fake, but you can’t predict what future concerns, detection methods, and laws will hold for fake news purveyors. In addition, fake news has been further infected by bad actors using increasingly sophisticated weaponized media that can inflict major damage on a company’s reputation. Eventually fake new with weaponized media may rise to a major crisis that will demand everyone’s attention. Do you really want to risk getting caught up in this and ruin the long-term future of your company to gain a little unfair advantage now?

fake news

While we understand how a business may want to skirt around some of these issues from time to time. If these political tactics are used extensively they may ultimately be the downfall of the business. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule just as there was public support for Nero against the Christians in ancient Rome and territories that embraced Genghis Khan’s conquest, but they don’t last. For the long-term business, a reputation for honesty, integrity, and performance is very important. A significant reputation hit can damage a company for years. Why risk a reputation crisis for political expediency?

Weaponized Media – Next Generation Crisis

Weaponized Media – Next Generation Crisis

If you are familiar with the rediscovered term, weaponized, as is relates to digital media then you’re ahead of most. That likely means you are well informed and attuned to anticipating future issues. You can see evidence of weaponized media in the dramatic growth of specialized news channels tailored to every political extreme, reports of foreign states using social media to agitate for social conflict and even the various sides of the term “fake news.” Unfortunately, our society is ill-prepared to deal with the threat and this next generation crisis will likely hit businesses much more severely and sooner than any of us hope.

outrage next generation crisis

Just in day-to-day encounters, businesses are becoming increasingly susceptible to public outrage that often uses social media as an accelerant. Increasingly, the rules and approaches that previously worked are not sufficient for the next iteration. While current best practices can help you get a chance, they simply may not be enough to seamlessly overcome this next generation crisis, where the business is deliberately and maliciously the target.

The recent Starbucks incident in Philadelphia touches on this since it was not just an issue over how Starbucks was involved and responded, but also how many wanted to use the incident as an opportunity to press for broader societal change. While the environmental movement has been using activist tactics against businesses for decades, at least the business could reasonably anticipate and understand how its actions might result in the opposition.

These issues, which sometimes appear to come out of nowhere, may just be the tip of the iceberg. They demonstrate the growing power and engagement of the public through the social media tools and networks that are empowering them. You only need to skim through these 50 examples of social media damaging businesses to see how one or more could spin out of control for your business. As companies struggle to respond to this changing landscape, imagine the much more severe circumstances if state sponsors, issue activists, competitors, and criminals maliciously bring these tools, including advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) against your business.

AI weaponized media

As we marvel at the Google bot’s ability to carry on a human phone conversation, some already realize it won’t be long before robocalls will be indistinguishable from casual acquaintances. We may even use other AI bots to filter through the natural sounding phone bots, and the phone bot race will have begun. This will likely cause us to put up more barriers to interaction, which ironically may make it even easier to weaponize media against our business interests.

The bright young people at Facebook and other social media platforms probably could have avoided some of their recent troubles, if they had the benefit of more diverse experiences, skills, and perspectives in their backgrounds. Ironically, diversity for the tech sector may be to include more traditional, experienced perspectives. In a crisis, you get more wisdom from those who have lived through the nuances of a previous crisis than by dispassionately studying the subject.

There are indications that Russian sponsored groups concerned about the emerging dominance of the U.S. oil and gas industry have already acted to deliberately create domestic resistance to energy projects. If you don’t believe that this could affect you, the U.S House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has reported that Russian sources took at least 9,097 social media actions “about U.S. energy projects or environmental issues between 2015 and 2017.”  If Russia, with its significant global business relationships, was willing to use these tactics to harm their U.S. competitors, imagine how much more aggressive other state-sponsored social attacks could be on businesses they want to destabilize.

Russia Weaponized media

A weakened economy or social conflict tends to reduce a country’s international focus and global influence. It’s easy to see why state sponsors would use weaponized media to undermine other countries’ institutions. If you consider how many governments also have business interests that compete in global commerce, you can see how creating this next generation crisis can easily provide the dual advantage of destabilizing a country while simultaneously weakening a business competitor.

Don’t assume that this next generation crisis will only come from governments. Hackers, terrorists, political activists, former employees and even activist investors have all demonstrated great willingness and skill in using media to attack businesses. The next step will be weaponized media, so they can use their growing sophistication and the availability of AI bots to maliciously target businesses.

The odds are increasing that your business will have to deal with this in the next several months or years. The longer you wait to prepare, the more expensive it will get and vulnerable you will be. If you wait until after the attack starts, it will be very difficult to overcome.

weaponized social media

So, if the task is so daunting, why are we raising the alarm? Well, there is a lot you can do to overcome weaponized media, whether it’s social, digital or traditional. Even if the very brightest think tanks haven’t figured it all out, at least you can make your company a more difficult, less vulnerable target. While preparing for the next generation crisis may not be as simple as only needing to be faster than the other guy, there is a bit of that.

What do you do? A good start is strengthening the same measures that you would use to overcome a traditional crisis and built trust with stakeholders, so they will be more receptive to crisis communications from the company. Next, you develop multi-channel vehicles for communication and ensure you can get to your audiences even if technology, power or access to other channels is blocked.

If your adversary is using weaponized media in a digital environment, you should assume they may be able to deny you access to your digital countermeasures. Consider what you would do in a massive denial of service or a regional power failure. Develop channels across a range of technologies.

next generation media

If you haven’t already done so, prepare for this next generation crisis by building a 3rd generation crisis management team now.  The methodologies may be similar, but the players of today have new titles, responsibilities, and perspectives.  You must bring to the table the right experts to exchange information, preparations and best practices so you can develop workable responses to the weaponized media intentions of any aggressor. Involve the most experienced responders and strategists you can find internally and externally. Don’t limit yourself to one function.

Develop defensive capabilities, plans and test your approaches and systems so you are continuously improving. Build alliances, supporters and your reputation so you can get the benefit of the doubt until you have time to respond. Then you merge that with as much media monitoring and analytics as you can justify. Use investigators and communicators to identify inconsistencies and develop countermeasures. Let the information inform your strategies and tactics.

With a modern crisis management team, knowledge of tomorrow’s risks, and practiced leadership, your business will be prepared for the weaponization of tomorrow.

Crisis Spokesperson – Loyalty Has Limits

Crisis Spokesperson – Loyalty Has Limits

In a crisis, one of the biggest decisions is Who talks, along with what and how they say it.  In fact, the crisis spokesperson may be as important as the miracle worker who resolves the problem. To prevent damaging comments from secondary players during a crisis, communication professionals and top management will use cliché warnings such as:

  • “Communications are important in a crisis; don’t say anything if you don’t know what you’re doing”
  • “refer all questions to management or the public relations department”
  • “If you are not an authorized spokesperson, then that’s how you should respond to a reporter’s question – ‘I am not an authorized spokesperson.’”

crisis spokesperson

The idea is obviously to control the flow of information through a designated crisis spokesperson to ensure accurate, fact-based, contextual and nonspeculative commentary.  It’s important to distinguish this role from a celebrity spokesperson, who was likely hired to promote the company’s products, and crisis spokesperson, who provides highly trained and experienced communication for the company in very difficult circumstances.

Unfortunately, these internal messages about leaving it to the experts are sometimes missed among different people in different organizations.  So, we asked our top operational crisis management professional how he would explain the authorized crisis spokesperson issue. He said the simple meaning for everyone should be:

“We pay highly trained communications professionals to be sure we communicate our message in an accurate, controlled and respectful manner that reflects the vision, values, and wishes of the owners.  If you aren’t one of those highly trained communications professionals who is authorized and paid to represent the owners, keep your mouth shut!”

Regardless of that being the sentiment, the reality is that most organizations choose to be somewhat more diplomatic with the topic and even provide employees some convenient phrases politely referring inquiring media to the designated crisis spokesperson or crisis communications team.  Whatever your organization’s policies and procedures on the matter, we’re reminded of occasions when permitted referral statements were not enough to deflect the efforts of aggressive reporters.

oil spill response

In the early hours of one morning not too long ago, at an industrial park adjacent to a busy port, a petroleum product began appearing in port waters and in some adjacent creeks and low-lying wetlands.  This industrial area had many resident companies though only one company had noticeable petroleum storage tanks. To the casual observer, the company with storage tanks was an obvious petroleum-related business with a well-known brand.

It was reasonable to expect the focus to be on that company when everyone discovered the spills in the area.  Even the employees of the petroleum company assumed the spill was theirs and company emergency response teams were coming in early prepared to begin containing the spill and cleaning up the contaminated areas.

The emergency response teams arrived just before daylight and by the time you could see clearly, the local and network camera crews had arrived complete with helicopters and some media outlets airing speculative commentary.  It’s at this moment an innocent yet critical mistake was made that interrupted the business of the company and tied up personnel for months.

While walking from his car in the parking lot to the front gate entrance, an accountant for the petroleum company, appearing authoritative in professional office clothes, was asked about the company’s response. There were questions about whether the company would clean up everything and ensure port operations could resume soon for adjacent companies. Would the smell be gone soon for residents in a nearby neighborhood and would they receive any compensation?

unintended crisis spokesperson

“Please contact our public affairs department,” said the employee.  “I just arrived and have no knowledge of this situation.”

The employee kept walking until one question caught his ear. “Is your company just going to ignore this and do nothing” a reporter yelled out. That’s when the best intentions of a good employee caused an extraordinary amount of difficulty for everyone.  Instead of remaining silent, the employee responded.

The indignant and unwaveringly loyal employee stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and with assuredness and authority said “That’s a foolish question.  We’re at the apex of corporate responsibility! We are accountable for all of this and of course, we’ll clean up everything.  You can see our emergency response team is already on the water and the whole company is on alert.  We’ll take care of and compensate anyone who has been affected. We always do!”

That statement was the very first communication from the company to the public and it set the stage for what everyone expected. The loyal and well-intentioned employee had effectively assumed the role of crisis spokesperson. However, he was not trained to do this, didn’t have the necessary information or coordination with responders, and most certainly did not have authority to speak for or commit the company.

What actually happened was very different than what the employee and media assumed.  The petroleum company was the first to notice the spill and alerted the adjacent companies and local authorities, who in turn notified the community residents.

Although the company always initially reacts as if any spills might be theirs, instrumentation had been and was still normal and visual inspection of the facility showed no evidence of missing product or leaking equipment.  That was known before the media even arrived.  The company was responding and deploying its people to protect their bulkheads, property and facility operations, but they were not assuming responsibility for the spill.

accidental crisis spokesperson

But, now this employee’s statements were all over the local news and within an hour, calls began coming in requesting hotels and other compensation until the smells in the neighborhood went away and the clean-up was completed.  Imagine how difficult it is to come back and say that this wasn’t our fault and that the employee had spoken out of turn.  We’re not going to provide hotels, compensation nor be responsible for the clean-up.  Ultimately, the situation became very expensive as the company felt obligated to support the statements of the employee and became awkwardly and inextricably intertwined with the whole event.

Three days later it was discovered that the leak was from a service pipeline and underground storage tank at an adjacent facility that had been unused for some time.  The older facility was going through some upgrades and the small pipeline and storage tank had failed at some time during the testing and startup processes.   Since the source of the leak was not visible or monitored, that other facility didn’t know anything had happened.

This employee, our unintended crisis spokesperson, loved his company a little too much and his well-intentioned, but ill-prepared, statements had an expensively negative effect.  The lesson here is that simple statements and loose policies on communications can lead to expensive, reputation-damaging and even disastrous consequences.

This example was bad, but there have been others that were devastating for companies. There are reasons why companies carefully select, prepare and coordinate with their crisis spokesperson. A crisis, by its very nature, is challenging even for the most experienced experts. It is certainly not the place for “on the job” crisis spokesperson training.

 

Global Operative Adventures – Crisis Investigation

Global Operative Adventures – Crisis Investigation

This is part two of our continuing crisis management global operative adventures. Have you ever worn your crisis management hat into an emergency response and follow-up investigation and discovered that what should have been simply a bad situation was really something much worse? I hope you haven’t experienced this, but this global operative has and you need to know that it happens. These situations often highlight the advantages of having corporate security and communications expertise along with your crisis management skills.

I realized some time ago that an emergency response often grows into corporate and stakeholder concerns requiring the broader corporate focus of crisis management and aligned expertise in communications and corporate security. In this latest global operative adventure, allow me to take you through one such example where we found the truly unexpected.

global operative crisis assessment

A few years back, I got a call asking me to travel to another country and conduct an operational incident investigation.  There had been a fire and even after the company, their contractors, and the local government conducted an exhaustive accident investigation, they couldn’t find the root cause. They asked if I’d conduct an independent investigation.  Part of the job of a global operative in crisis management is performing these seemingly routine assignments, while always being prepared for the unexpected.

This is where being on your game is important.  Why was it that seasoned investigators couldn’t determine the cause of the accident when there were two direct witnesses (both injured) and three others in the immediate area of the fire?  How could you have five employees involved and no one has any idea what went wrong?

Compounding the mystery, there was no camera video to review, all the equipment and other evidence from the fire had been moved out of the building, and nothing was photographed correctly prior to removal. There was nothing in a chain of custody, and everything had been rained on for over a week.  The physical evidence was a mess but there were still five witnesses who could be re-interviewed and that’s a tremendous amount to work with.

crisis incident

To the client, the issue was that their company facility had an equipment fire, employees were injured, production lost, and replacing the equipment and getting back into production would be time consuming and expensive.  To them, it seemed obvious that somehow the equipment had a critical failure and that liability must lie with the equipment manufacturer and not the company.  The equipment manufacturer vehemently disagreed and said it had to be something else but avoided blaming the company.  This was going to cost someone a lot of money and everyone was guarded, if not outright defensive.

In my work as a global operative, I’ve found that if you broaden your perspective beyond the operational and safety aspects of incidents, investigations can lead you down paths you would never have expected.  In this case, I was working with tainted evidence and memories that were 10 plus days old.  On the plus side, the previous interviews were conducted by highly trained and seasoned EHS professionals, with multiple certifications.  Their reports were complete with notes, diagrams, and photographs but after several long meetings where we went over all they had learned and what opinions they had, I noticed something interesting about their investigation.  They didn’t look for deception.

Given the circumstances, the interviews I was going to conduct were my most likely way of discovering what transpired, so I was very careful in how they were orchestrated and conducted.  I began the interviews at 09:30 and by lunch, I knew what had happened.

global operative crisis investigation

Image of worried male suspect during police hearing

What I discovered required a step back from the situation and involved a call to the top leadership in the company.  It wasn’t that the original investigation teams were incapable of finding a cause for the accident, but rather that their investigation was systematically and conspiratorially derailed from within.

The accident wasn’t so much of an accident as it was an outcome of gross mismanagement on the part of a local member of management who had coached their five direct reports (the witnesses) to mislead the investigators or face termination.  This is the point where you might say that this type of thing doesn’t happen, but it does, and it did.  What started out as an accident ended with the termination of both leadership and line workers.  It wasn’t an accident but a series of financial issues that had been obfuscated, with the cover-up involving intentional deception and dangerous high-risk shortcuts at multiple levels.

Now you might ask “where is the crisis here”.  In its purest sense, this was a corporate security rather than a crisis management issue. The point is that because our crisis management work included a corporate security perspective, we were able to resolve the problem for the client.

incident response investigation findings

In this situation, management was on their game when it was originally suggested that they simply let the risk management instruments do their job, and they decided against this convenient but indefensible position.  Instead, they chose to pursue outside perspectives and expertise to discover what truly happened.

Then, the company’s management fixed the problem and put in place policy and procedures that would prevent a similar occurrence.  The company avoided filing an embarrassing claim and adversarial legal engagement with a vendor, answered inquiries to the satisfaction of the media and the situation was put to bed.  The accident and issues surrounding it were expensive but much less expensive than the public scandal and stakeholder lawsuits that were avoided.

When things don’t seem to add up, there’s usually a reason.  If you find yourself without sleep amid uncertainty, feel something is wrong and out of place, or just want to verify that everything is as it should be, give us a call.  We’ve been there and done that.

Bankruptcy Communications – Don’t Give Up

Bankruptcy Communications – Don’t Give Up

This is an experienced layman’s look at the hard reality of bankruptcy, the unexpected consequences and how bankruptcy communications can help. If you work, own or invest in a company, you are always at risk of being pulled into a corporate bankruptcy. Some of our most successful business have used bankruptcy to deal with difficult issues. You can lose control and have your business dissolved, but you can also reorganize and emerge as a much-improved enterprise. Even the President (Trump) has taken businesses into bankruptcy. Now you can even get past the stigma of bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy communications or not

Bankruptcy

If you think it will never happen to you, let me caution you that it happened where I worked twice in my professional life and both of those companies were in the Fortune 10  when they filed for bankruptcy protection. The first was because of a $13 billion tortious interference judgment in a state court and the second stemmed from insufficient liquidity and other controversial issues. We’ve also witnessed scores of transportation, energy, banking, real estate, retail and technology companies go through bankruptcy.

So, if bankruptcy is a legal proceeding where lawyers, accountants, creditors and restructuring specialists seem to drive the process, why even bother with bankruptcy communications? Much of the reason is that there are so many processes that the uninitiated find strange and difficult. If you explain them, then you have a chance that the bankruptcy will run more effectively and retain greater value for the owners.

Let’s start with the fundamental change in who controls the business. Virtually overnight the control of the business shifts from stockholders and the management team to the creditors and the court. Of course, management has an opportunity to convince the court that it can successfully reorganize the company and it should drive the process as the debtor in possession, but if liabilities far exceed assets, this becomes more difficult. There are even different classes of debtors that drive the process.

A $100 billion-dollar enterprise could lose more than two-thirds of its employees in one day, have remaining employees and vendors wonder if they’ll get paid for past and future work and even have vendors pull water coolers out of the executive offices the day after a filing. If the company’s ability to emerge from bankruptcy depends on ongoing operations, these issues need to be resolved quickly so workers are productive, and the operating businesses continue to generate revenue. Even if the business will be dissolved, you want to preserve value so ongoing businesses can be sold or spun off.

Instead of enriching stockholders, the bankruptcy’s focus is on repaying creditors. You usually want to maximize the value of the bankruptcy estate so there is more money for creditors and the possibility that stockholders will get something. An engaged workforce can help you drive greater value. The remaining workers need to know where they stand, what is happening and what they should do.

This calls for strong coordination and effective bankruptcy communications. People can handle bad news, but they have a very difficult time coping with no news. Unfortunately, many bankrupt companies fail to recognize the internal communication needs and eliminate the capability as a non-essential expense.

If you put yourself in the shoes of the worker, you’ll understand what’s driving them. They’ve likely lost much of their life savings. If they invested in company stock, it may be worthless. In many bankruptcies, there aren’t enough assets to repay creditors and still have something left for stockholders. Yet people continue to invest, hoping for the best.

Workers’ loyalty to management and the company may shift to loyalty to their coworkers, but they are capable of continued loyalty. They need to have enough information to make reasonable decisions about whether to stay and help the company operate through the process. This uncertainty is compounded when workers learn more about their livelihoods from the news than from the company.

A solid bankruptcy communications program that blends bankruptcy experience, internal communications, and crisis communications can make an enormous difference in these times. Understand that workers may not have received all past pay and they may even be subject to a clawback of their past bonuses. They need to know as much as possible to confirm future income and the viability of the ongoing enterprise, since they may have lost so much of what they thought they had.

Bankruptcy sharks in the water

Bankruptcy Communications vs Shark Attack

Even the most prized and highly compensated employees can feel shocks. Did you know that your investments in a nonqualified retirement savings plan, such as in many executive compensation plans, are probably not protected in bankruptcy? Likewise, even though there are federal pension guarantees, they do not necessarily ensure dollar for dollar coverage.

What happens when your most essential workers are distracted by personal financial ruin as well as the demise of their company? Communication from management can help. You may also want to rethink some of your own retirement saving strategy.

In the case of continuing to operate the business as the debtor in possession, bankruptcy communications can prove to be essential to preserving the reputation and the market value of the business, as well. The lawyers who are protecting client legal interests are not necessarily focused on the niceties of preserving relationships with the company’s stakeholders. However, if government officials or community leaders are alienated and become adversaries, the proceeding and likelihood of maximizing value are diminished. A little professional focus on bankruptcy communications with external audiences, as well as internal stakeholders, can cut through enormous difficulties.

A member of Congress who attacks a company because of past board or management decisions may continue to damage the reputation and correspondingly reduce the value of the enterprise. If you reach out and explain that the remaining business is owned by the creditors who were harmed, and the bad actors are no longer involved, that member of Congress could become an advocate.

Things change in bankruptcy. Even the reporters who cover the business may change. So, the needs and techniques for bankruptcy communications also change. With insight, experience and a relatively modest effort, a bankruptcy communications program can make it all easier and more productive.

Media Training – Yes, They Can Print That

Media Training – Yes, They Can Print That

Why bother with media training for executives, operational managers or first responders? Well, there’s an enormous difference between reading or listening to the news and being the news. Perhaps the following story will help explain why being prepared is essential.

An operational executive had been frustrated by protesters slowing progress on his major new project. As he was about to enter the site, a reporter asked if he would like to comment on the protests. He had been coached to refer them to the public relations department, but he was frustrated and didn’t want to wait. So, he blurted out “sure, there’s been a lot of fake news about this project and it’s about time you people got it right!”

Media training

Media

He then proceeded to tell the reporter about the importance of the project to the company’s bottom line and how the protesters were agitators who didn’t want anyone to make a buck. He then proceeded to name big banks and politicians who fully supported the project.  “Of course, there are risks, but you can’t ever accomplish anything without taking a risk,” he said. “I’m not going to be intimidated by these local hayseeds who don’t know anything but their family farms. Progress always has a cost.”

The story wasn’t pretty. He let his anger get the best of him and undermined weeks of careful messaging. Worse yet for the PR department, he was furious that they allowed the story to be published. It became a political battle between the executive and PR, but the company was the clear loser. Overnight they became the company that couldn’t care less about people or the communities they harmed. The formerly supportive politicians were forced to come out against the project and the banks responded that they were reviewing their lending decisions.

The PR department knew the executive could be a loose cannon, but he was an important executive and they thought they had protected the company by speaking for him. Unfortunately, ignorance is not bliss and avoidance was a major mistake.

Why did this happen?

The executive had never been media trained and he thought reporters had to submit their stories for edits and approval by the company before the story could be published.  Sadly, in a world where many executives control their day-to-day world through budgets and delegation of authority, he may well have assumed his company could control a free press just like the ad copy he occasionally approved.

So what’s the lesson for those who are more aware of the way media relations works and the ground rules?  Don’t expect others to understand what you know. When the impact on corporate reputation is so great, we shouldn’t just assume that they have the proper grounding in media relations or be too afraid to recommend media training.

What needs to be corrected?

The solution is to provide media training appropriate to the executive’s position. Ideally, anyone who may need to talk with reporters should be media trained. In large organizations, this can be dozens of people and they can be efficiently trained in groups of four to eight people. However, it is often best to train senior executives on a one-on-one basis.

Dedicated media training is particularly important for high-level executives. A bad media encounter can be disastrous for both the executive’s reputation and the company. Every media encounter can be a career limiting opportunity, even for those who are very experienced. That’s why refresher media training can also be important for PR professionals and spokespeople.

To see the risks, watch this clip of the disastrous Tony Hayward comment on May 31, 2010. The soon to be replaced CEO said “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” He had started to say he was sorry for the harm caused to so many, but the self-centered comment quickly ruined any sympathy that might have existed for him or his company.

How to proceed

Media training can usually be arranged through crisis communications consultants, your current PR firm or communication agencies with established training programs. Most high-level executives will appreciate the opportunity to improve their presentation and interview skills.  Media training generally lets them know what to expect, explains tricks of the trade for reporters, helps craft and deliver key messages, reinforces the need for appropriate attitude and compassion, and includes the all-important on-camera mock interviews so executives can see their own performances.

Be sure the executive knows the media training is confidential and recordings will not be shared with others. You may even want to schedule the training in a location away from the office, to reduce the risk of interruptions.

It’s a Win-Win. Media training is an important professional development opportunity that helps the individual stay on message and project an even more polished executive presence with higher management, boards and key stakeholders. If he appreciates the importance and complexity of media interactions, the media trained executive will be better prepared to articulate and advance the company’s interests.

This operational executive example is a fictional account drawn from decades of real-world experiences.

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