CEO Q&A: Arkadi Kuhlmann, ING Direct

ING Direct's Arkadi Kuhlmann speaks with Erica Morris about crisis management and the benefits of his personal approach to social media.

ING Direct's Arkadi Kuhlmann talks to Erica Morris about crisis management and the honesty behind social media.

Who do you turn to during a business crisis?

Kuhlmann: In any crisis situation, I think what happens is you go to one or two people that you can basically bounce ideas off of. Anything that has to do with reputation risk, customer risk, customer sentiment, I would discuss [with PR]. On the operations side, the COO is usually the person I would talk to about how we respond and react quickly. The biggest issue is looking at the right data. Trying to figure out what really is a crisis and what isn't is one of the biggest challenges

How do you distinguish between what's a business issue, and what's a PR issue?

Kuhlmann: I have a bigger definition of PR. PR is really how to take the basic business message and put a coat around it. It's kind of an umbrella of the organization. The reality is that [PR] looks at a much broader, softer range of issues. Most business people just look at the hard stuff- is this a loss, is this a gain? But when it comes to brand and reputation, you want a much broader umbrella.

How has public sentiment challenged the financial industry?

Kuhlmann: It's pretty obvious that the public sentiment of the financial industry has been infected like a virus. Sociology will tell you that once you infect something people tend to extend it and prove their case right, looking for problems that reinforce a pretty negative opinion. I don't think in the beginning you can do much about it. You can argue against certain issues, but I don't think that's how you change a general sentiment. I think what will change that sentiment is actually walking the walk. So if you have good projects and you have good services, then time is going to change the public's opinion, once they actually have those interactions.

You're very active on Twitter. What risks does that pose?

Kuhlmann: There are some real risks because if you say things that aren't right people catch you out, so there's a credibility issue. The other issue is that you're opening yourself up for comments. Society is slowly getting used to what it sounds like when there's no editorial restraint. In the electronic world there's nobody checking facts, everything is basically unedited, unrehearsed, and it's out there. You're opening yourself up to some pretty harsh criticisms. People say what they want to say and if you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a brand trying to create an image, you're going to have a problem with people ganging up on you.

Do you run into issues of transparency when using social media?

Kuhlmann: The way to play that game is honesty. I say what I want and if you don't like it, fine. I recently saw something where someone was basically whining about having too many student loans and how it was unfair. My answer on the tweet is “You didn't think about paying this back? You didn't think that maybe you're not going to make enough money to pay this back? You thought it was OK to take all this money and now it's somebody else's problem?” Now in the normal world before…you could never say that.

How do you ensure honest engagement through social media?

Kuhlmann: You can either choose to stay out of it and try to manage image, what I like to call the Tiger Woods phenomenon, but eventually you're going to be faced with a golf club and a law suit. Nobody's perfect. So the way to play [social media] is just to be totally open and honest and let it all hang out. You're either going to play the control game or you're going to go more free formed. I'm inclined to go free form.

When do you look specifically to your PR team for counsel?

Kuhlmann: Most of the things we talk about, whether we start talking to the press, to advertising, if we start sending releases around or how we should say certain things, how we're going to respond to a situation, that comes to the PR team. It touches just about everything we do.

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