I was able to celebrate my birthday last week with the fun folks at the Public Relations Society of America – St. Louis Chapter. The monthly luncheon featured a fascinating topic by a world-renowned expert.
Author and PR Exec Leslie Gaines-Ross of Weber Shandwick shared how a company’s reputation can be destroyed in seconds during her presentation, “Reputation Management – Safeguarding and Recovering Reputation.”
Gaines-Ross started out by shocking us: only 2 of the top 10 companies from Fortune Magazine’s Most Admired Companies remain at the less than a decade later. And…over three-quarters (79 percent) of the world’s number-one most admired companies lost their crowns over the past five years in their respective industries.
Reputations can evaporate like water.
So what reputation perils are around the corner for your business?
- Executive wrongdoing
- Security breaches
- Environmental violations
- Product recalls
- Regulatory noncompliance
Gaines-Ross mentioned a great quote by Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway (whose company which has survived on the Top 10 Most Admired list): “If you lose dollars for the company by bad decisions, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless.”
- Scenario planning, what if…
- Surveying media
- Monitor the media
- Monitor issues in industry
- Embrace open-door policy
- Spectrum of near misses
- Keeping your antennae alert
- Inventory of case study, how did try handle it?
- Build a base of advocates: journalists, govt, etc
- Avoid no comment
Gaines-Ross pointed out that reputations can be rescued with the appropriate actions. She shared the outline for this recovery process, as discussed in her new book, Corporate Reputation: 12 Steps to Safeguarding and Recovering Reputation.
The 12 steps fit into a four-stage model:
Stage four (Steps 10-12): Recover (sustain reputation for long-term)
Stage one: Rescue (minimize the damage)
- Step 1: Take the Heat-Leader First. When companies hit a tough spot, CEOs should be visible and not delegate dealing with the crisis to a lower executive.
- Step 2: Communicate Tirelessly. Keep giving updates and new information (like Jet Blue with recent stranded passenger issue).
- Step 3: Don’t underestimate your critics and competitors. Many companies are surprised at how well organized their critics are.
- Step 4: Reset the Company Clock. Instill a sense of urgency about the forward action that needs to take place to repair the company’s reputation.
Stage two: Rewind (identify what went wrong)
- Step 5: Analyze What Went Wrong and Right. Once the situation has stabilized, reflect on what brought the company to this point. Also, identify distress signals. Avoid predictable surprises. Don’t let early warning signs go undetected: lower-level people often try to sound the alarm when something’s awry, but the message frequently never makes it to the top until it is too late.
- Step 6: Measure, Measure, and Measure Again. How else will you know where you stand? The book has a great list of questions for companies to answer and measure.
Stage three: Restore (rebuilding reputation)
- Step 7: Right the Culture. Usually the company culture could use a tune-up to be poised for reputation recovery. (Usually this involves cleaning house!)
- Step 8: Seize the Shift. Gaines-Ross says a surprising number of crises can be traced to shifts in the business climate that leaders missed. Where is your industry going? Are you getting left behind?
- Step 9: Brave the media. If you have a relationship with the media before the crisis, you’ll have advocates. If not, there’s no one to defend you. Example: Merck – no media relationships, BP – good media relationships.
Everyone is a publisher. And those words last forever on the Internet.
Invent new pipelines: 52 of Fortune 500 are blogging. For an example, check out the GM Fastlane blog.
Stage four: Recover (sustain reputation for long-term)
- Step 10: Build a drumbeat of good news with a strategy of small gestures.
- Step 11: Commit to a marathon, not a sprint. Building (and restoring) your reputation is an ongoing effort.
- Step 12: Minimize reputation risk. Stay ahead of the curve and plan for the worst case scenario.
And I’d like to add my own two cents about reputation:
- Do the right thing in your company and you are more likely to stay out of trouble. Too often leaders and boards turn a blind eye to unethical business practices because they don’t want to deal with the hassle of correction.
- Be proactive. If you are not sending out any messages about the good things you are doing, what do people have to talk about when your company is discussed? Only what others are saying. Don’t allocate your reputation to your competitors, industry publications, or stock brokers.