Image protection key during litigation

Martha Stewart will be out of jail in time for spring planting, her reputation intact and with prospects for new books, TV shows, business relationships, and maybe even a new company awaiting her.

Martha Stewart will be out of jail in time for spring planting, her reputation intact and with prospects for new books, TV shows, business relationships, and maybe even a new company awaiting her.

But how well will Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and its shareholders do? While lawyers fought hard to protect Stewart, who was watching out for the company's reputation?

Does anyone remember ValuJet Airlines? Its reputation was so tarnished following a crash in the Everglades and the attendant legal problems that the name has vanished, and only after a merger with another air carrier was it able to survive.

While these might be atypically high-profile examples, many organizations will face a chain of events that grows from annoyance to crisis to litigation to the brink of disaster.

Press coverage and other public exposure might do a good deal of damage to a painstakingly built public image, even threaten an organization's existence.

Nobody is better positioned than communicators to identify, call attention to, and begin to address the matter. As part of a larger crisis management plan, or as a standalone set of steps, these guidelines help identify an impending problem:

  • Move around the organization and speak with department heads, business-unit managers, and others on the front lines.

  • Monitor the media daily.

  • Partner with lawyers and meet with chief legal counsel as you would with the CEO and CFO.

  • Build boardroom credibility by knowing the business and understanding the legalities regarding potentially damaging issues.

  • Maintain a book of potential issues, including suggested ways to address them, with key contacts, positions, and message points so you don't have to start from scratch if a problem arises.

  • Act quickly to position the organization.

  • Remain consistent with the organization's public profile.

    Signs of a growing problem include changes in the organization's daily routine, diversion of management's attention, changes in customer attitudes and satisfaction, increased attention and inquiries from the financial community, increased media inquiries, competitors' marketplace adjustments, unusual friction within an otherwise healthy work environment, and increased employee questioning of management's actions.

    Armed with facts, a plan to address the issues, and the aid of external expertise, communicators can make the case for development and implementation of an action plan supporting the legal strategy, while taking the lead in simultaneously protecting the entity's reputation.

    Lawyers might be able to win in court, but could still leave the stewards of the brand with a good deal of work restoring a damaged image and credibility with stakeholders, particularly in the financial and investment communities.

    Understanding how these audiences will likely respond to unfolding events will determine how the organization frames its messages. Those responses and an understanding of the temperament of an organization or client result in a plan that can first be "sold" to top management and then successfully executed, one that is aligned with business goals and is implemented in a way that resonates with key audiences.

    Smart communicators know that partnering with in-house operational and financial experts builds credibility and makes it easier to support those areas. It also helps to learn as much as possible about those subjects.

    It's no different when devising a strategy around legal matters. Teaming with in-house and external lawyers provides immediate access to the flow of information and any adjustments to the legal strategy. It also builds a knowledge base of how the law works in a specific case. That's important when devising a realistic communications plan to frame the public debate, formulate media outreach efforts, support management's credibility with stakeholders, and build employee morale, all of which will go a long way toward maintaining or refurbishing the organization's reputation.

    The goal is to create recognition, credibility, and trust with audiences that influence management's decisions or that have marketplace impact. The key is developing communications initiatives that can be implemented and executed in ways that resonate positively with customers, investors, employees, partners, the media, legislators/regulators, and the public.

    It is clearly easier to do that in good times, when an organization's only pressure is self-imposed: to grow the business. But during times of stress, when the business and its leadership are under a public microscope (with an enterprise's success hinging on public perception and executive credibility), the right kind of communications and reputation management can make the difference between success and failure or, in extreme situations, even the enterprise's continued existence.

  • Howard Glassroth is a principal at The Glassroth Co.
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