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Protecting Corporate Reputations During Crises (originally published in the March 1997 issue of PR Tactics)

Going through some files recently, I came across this article I wrote for PR Tactics back in 1997. I assure you that I do not have a crystal ball, but I think that the piece, written in the midst of the Internet boom and years before countless examples of irresponsible corporate governance were discovered, did a terrific job of predicting the coming scrutiny that would befall virtually all CEOs. It asks one question that I think is now central on every public relations practitioner''s mind: "What if working on behalf of the CEO is no longer in the best interests of the company?"

One quick note: the article deals with the heart attack suffered by Wendy''s founder Dave Thomas in 1996. While Thomas survived that heart attack and emerged again as a spokesperson for Wendy''s, he has since passed away.

Read on...and feel free to e-mail your thoughts to me at dan@keeneypr.com.

The media frenzy in the days and weeks that followed the murder of JonBenet Ramsey should act as a wake up call to communications professionals who are responsible for protecting corporate reputations. Today''s CEOs, by virtue of their positions and the public''s hunger for scandal, are more vulnerable than ever.

Anyone not convinced of that should talk to the folks at Access Graphics. The Boulder, Colo. based computer distribution subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation wasn''t accustomed to media exposure. That changed last Dec. 26, when John Ramsey, president and CEO, found his 6 year old daughter, JonBenet, dead.

The next time the phone rings, ask yourself, "What if the person on the other end is calling to inform me that my CEO has been swept into a crisis in his personal life? How would I react? Where would my allegiance lie? What if working on behalf of the CEO is no longer in the best interests of the company?"

No matter what the nature of the crisis is, managing communications can be as simple as A B C, as illustrated in the following five steps:

Anticipate the Worst

This is a good time to assess whether you and your company are fully prepared for every crisis involving the CEO. For instance, every company, particularly those that are publicly held, should define a plan of succession in order to avoid the appearance of disorder if a CEO is unable to lead.

Looking critically at the CEO''s vulnerabilities is also important. Few thinks are more eye opening that sitting around a table with a few other people for a no holds barred brainstorm of the worst possible "what ifs?" What if the CEO gets arrested for drunken driving? What if the CEO has a stroke?

The goal is to develop a crisis communications plan you can use as a tool to guide you during a crisis. Such a plan was key to Wendy''s International''s response when founder Dave Thomas was stricken by an apparent heart attack last December.

"Fortunately, we had updated our crisis communications plan last summer, says Denny Lynch, vice president of communications at Wendy''s. "It didn''t have any time to gather dust."

Lynch, notified of Thomas'' health problems on a Saturday morning, collected his communications team for a "what if?" session to develop strategies for various worst-case scenarios.

"We needed to refocus attention away from perceptions that hamburgers were somehow to blame and focus instead on Dave''s advocacy of menu variety," Lynch says. "The planning aspect was very important in achieving that objective."

Be Human

It is always appropriate for your company''s communications to show compassion. Of course, communicating compassion and concern usually isn''t a corporation''s strength, so we often stumble when we, as corporate communicators, try to be human. The danger is that our communications can seem cold and, worse, calculated.

In the Ramsey case, Access Graphics spokesperson, Laurie Wagner, vice president, Worldwide Business Development, says she only commented on things that were appropriate to come from the company.

"We told reporters that John (Ramsey) had been placed on leave to give him time to grieve, and expressed the company''s shock and deep concern for the Ramsey family," Wagner says. "But we also tried to do what we could to protect John''s privacy."

Lynch says his response at Wendy''s was similar. "This company has a family atmosphere and Dave Thomas is a close personal friend," Lynch says. "The first 36 hours were devoted to making sure everything possible was being done to support Dave and his family. Then, on Sunday afternoon, we began to think about a news release."

Control The Message

Why didn''t we see interviews of Dave Thomas'' doctor after America''s most famous hamburger spokesperson suffered an apparent heart attack? Because nobody ever found out where he was hospitalized.

"It was nobody''s business," Lynch says. "The supermarket tabloids were pulling out all the stops to find him, but they couldn''t. If they wanted information, they had to come to me and me alone."

Controlling the message requires you to limit the size and scope of what is being communicated, who is doing it and how. It does not mean controlling the media. You may be able to influence the coverage, but you''ll never control it.

Here are a few tips:

  • Define what you want communicated. Narrow it down to one or two key concepts and avoid inflammatory language.
  • Appoint and train a single spokesperson and explain the importance of having a consistent, controlled message to employees.
  • Make the media come and get it. At Access Graphics, control was key to protecting the corporation''s reputation. If you wanted information, you had to call Wagner.

"Our feeling was that holding a news conference or releasing a statement would call attention to the company," says Wagner.

 

Distance Is Essential

 

When a CEO''s private life is in turmoil, it is essential to communicate that the normal operations of the company are not affected. Employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders need to know that it''s business as usual.

 

Beyond that, subtle messages can help distance the company from the troubled executive without showing a lack of support. Access Graphics did it when Wagner revealed that Lockheed Martin security officers found "no substance" in a theory that JonBenet''s murder was related to Access Graphics'' foreign business dealing as reportedly written in the ransom note, even though John Ramsey himself had appeared on CNN, saying, "I don''t know if it was an attack on me, on my company...."

 

In effect, the company was saying, "Leave us out of this."

 

Remember Your Employees

 

CEOs often personify a company and vice versa. Therefore, when a CEO is in trouble, the company''s collective psyche is thrown into a tailspin.

Internal communications vehicles, such as Intranets, newsletters, bulletin boards and memos should be fully leveraged to keep information flowing to employees. Access Graphics set up crisis hotlines for employees and brought in trauma counselors to help employees cope with the crisis.

 

"We also had a couple company wide meetings in the days following the murder," says Wagner. "It gave us an opportunity to discuss generally what we were doing in terms of communication and why. I think the time we spent explaining ourselves was critical for maintaining a sense of direction and restoring morale."

 

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DPK Public Relations can help protect and enhance the repuration of your organization by assessing its vulnerabilities, developing a crisis communications plan and training your spokespersons. Contact us at dan@keeneypr.com or call 832-467-2904.

 

Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
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Author: Dan Keeney
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