PR can do only so much; reputation management goes far deeper

Restoring a damaged brand takes a huge amount of work. You’re better off heading off unwise decisions at every staff level. Here’s how to avoid devastating blunders.

You have a PR problem, because you have an actual problem.”

Leona Lansing, the fictional cable news executive on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” was on to something when she said that to a fellow exec.

The public has seen it—a lot:

  • Outraged sufferers of life-threatening allergies were suddenly forced to pay 500 percent more for a previously affordable medicine, and the CEO essentially responded: We’re here to make money (Mylan’s EpiPen).
  • Bank customers were notified about fraudulent accounts set up in their names expressly to ensure that executives and managers reached their sales quotas (Wells Fargo).
  • Shoppers were navigating bare, dirty stores and endless checkout lines before bolting to competitors (Wal-Mart).

Those organizations each resorted to a news conference, a press release, a catchy marketing slogan or TV interviews in the hope the problem would go away.

PR can minimize the damage caused by operational and managerial missteps, but it can’t fix stupid.

“I’ve often seen leaders think that a crisis can be resolved in a day or two, in the misguided belief that things can’t get worse,” said Stephanie Nora White, founder and managing partner of WPNT Ltd., an international communications consultancy. “While the acute phase of a crisis may end quickly, true change comes from living through it, as difficult as that may be. Much of the heavy lifting that will reveal the root cause and changes necessary to fix the problem usually don’t come until later and require real work and commitment.”

In short, recovery from crises and controversies requires more than PR. Here’s a start on what to do:

1. Make sure blunders are the exception, not the rule. Volumes have been written about how organizations can operate in a responsible manner. The Cliff’s Notesversion is that doing the right thing is generally simple but rarely easy.

Southwest Airlines seems to have learned this painful lesson after generating a social media firestorm in 2014 so big that even People magazine covered it. A Southwest frequent flier tweeted criticism about a flight’s callous boarding process and the flight attendant enforcing it. The airline kicked him and his two preschool-age daughters off the flight and refused to re-book them on a later one unless he deleted the tweet.

Fast-forward to October: I live-tweeted a disorganized and significantly delayed Southwest flight, along with tin-ear comments made to frustrated customers by the pilot, gate agent and flight attendant. Instead of getting booted off the plane for my Twitter tale, a sympathetic Southwest representative contacted me that afternoon with an apology and a voucher for future travel. My story stayed within the confines of a few tweets (at the time), and I remain a loyal customer.

2. Communicate from the very beginning. Crisis communications practitioners used to refer to the “golden hour” after a crisis, the window during which companies could prepare and respond. Today, organizations are lucky if they get 10 minutes.

When AirAsia Flight 8501 disappeared in late 2014, it seemed a macabre déjà vu. Nine months earlier, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had vanished from the skies. However, unlike the unprepared Malaysia Airlines executives, AirAsia CEO Tan Sri Anthony Francis “Tony” Fernandes immediately stepped up and became the airline’s face as details of the disaster unfolded.

He personally briefed families of the flight’s passengers and crew. He consistently shared developing information with the news media and via social media. When the aircraft’s wreckage was discovered, he met with reporters and family members.

3. Show concern; then act on it. Organizational controversies and crises are dramas at best, tragedies at worst; either way, expressing genuine compassion for those affected is non-negotiable. After jacking up the price of EpiPens fivefold and seeing her own compensation skyrocket by about the same ratio, to $18.9 million a year, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch commented, “I am running a business to make money.”

Contrast her remark with that of AirAsia’s Fernandes after the Flight 8501 crash: “The passengers were on my aircraft, and I have to take responsibility for that.” Fernandes then put his company’s money where his mouth was: AirAsia would provide industry-standard compensation to the victims’ families, rather than the significantly lower amounts required of his Indonesian-based airline.

4. Tell the whole truth. Ivy Lee is regarded as the founder of modern PR. Although his work took place in the early 1900s, when he saved Standard Oil from the reputational fallout of John Rockefeller’s robber-baron ways, his communication credo proved prescient: “Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway.”Accept the pain, and rip off the proverbial Band-Aid at the beginning of the problem. People often accept the truth; it’s hoodwinkery they can’t stomach.

5. Fix, concretely and specifically, what people want fixed. The rest of Lee’s advice is what organizations struggle to implement: If the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want.”

Customers and clients often display a surprising capacity to forgive, but if an organization is cavalier or dismissive, its leaders shouldn’t be surprised when the public turns on them. Just ask Wells Fargo, whose stock price and reputation have plummeted in recent months after its executives tried to conceal a multi-year scandal and $185 million regulatory fine related to the secret creation of millions of customer accounts designed solely to help employees meet sales quotas.

Wal-Mart’s expectation that its 1.4 million U.S. employees would be satisfied with low wages, few or non-existent benefits and erratic and unreliable work schedules have spawned PR nightmares and unionization efforts for the retail giant. When online competition began to erode the company’s profits, it undertook more cost-cutting, which left even fewer employees to serve customers, re-stock depleted shelves and clean dirty stores.

The company initially responded with marketing slogans and PR campaigns. It’s now in the midst of a two-year, $2.7 billion investment to increase employee pay and training and to improve scheduling, all with an eye toward recovering some of its previous market dominance. I was recently in a Wal-Mart for the first time in a couple of years and noted stocked shelves, sparkling clean floors and dozens of friendly employees offering help before I even asked for any.

No matter how good an organization’s PR team is, it can’t fix stupid. So, operate an ethically managed, well-intentioned organization. Somewhere along the way, when a misstep or accident sends operations temporarily off the rails, your PR people can work from a point of strength, where recovery and even advancement is not only possible, but likely.

Rebecca Theim is principal of Tipitina Communications. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaTheim. A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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Topics: PR

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