PARTICIPANTS (l-r in above image)
-Al D’Agostino, SVP, Bay Area group head, crisis and risk management, Edelman
-Julie Miller, CCO, Ancestry
-Cole Weil, global enterprise solutions director at Meltwater (moderator)
-Nina Beizai, VP of communications and content, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
-Emily Horn, director of corporate communications, HP
-Not pictured above: Amanda Coffee, senior manager, global corporate communications, PayPal (who took part in a separate fireside chat)
"Crisis and reputation management continue to be challenging components of the communicator’s role," noted Cole Weil, global enterprise solutions director at Meltwater. "With the democratization of media and influence today, the importance of real-time knowledge and intelligence has never been greater. Thankfully, this presents unique opportunities to tap into the individual to showcase your company's values."
Weil moderated a panel session at a recent Meltwater-hosted event in San Francisco. In a discussion he led featuring four industry leaders, it quickly became clear that communicators hold the keys to how companies deal with crises, which are as unavoidable as they are challenging.
And they excel in this role both in well-known ways, as well as some not as widely appreciated.
"Some would say you need an army on a crisis," offered Emily Horn, director of corporate communications at HP and a 2019 PRWeek Women To Watch honoree. "In my view, it’s best to get a small group together first, a "tiger team," do some risk analysis, determine the worst-case scenario, and have that small group established to control the message. Once it gets out beyond your tiger team, it's harder to control."
And according to Al D’Agostino, SVP, Bay Area group head, crisis and risk management, Edelman, comms leaders are uniquely qualified to assemble the perfect crisis team because of their wide-reaching familiarity with the entire organization.
"Do we need someone from HR? Legal? Finance? Operations? Comms would know," he said. "And comms can bring those folks together to ensure meaningful communication. It’s not just being aware of the situation."
Nina Beizai, VP of comms and content at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, described a unique quality that PR brings to the table.
"Our job is not just to counsel the executive team," she explained, "but to be the eyes and ears from the outside. We have to bring that objective reality testing into the situation."
Concurring, Ancestry CCO Julie Miller added, "We have to be the EQ [emotional quotient] in the room when the temperature goes up. A key part of my job is managing the emotions in the room so that everybody gets focused on what has to happen."
The panel consistently emphasized to the audience the reputation-management importance of connecting on a human level
•THE HUMAN TOUCH
"It's impossible for us to best serve our clients from an issues management perspective if we're looking at things solely from a comms lens," said D’Agostino. "We need the insights and the partnership of critical stakeholder groups so we understand their risk landscape and what information they need to start to repair reputation."
Panelists also spoke about the importance of proactively building a coalition of external champions that can speak for the brand in times of crisis.
"You need to know who your advocates are going to be," noted Miller. "It's not enough for the company to defend itself."
In this age of technology, it’s also crucial to realize that the most effective crisis responses often have a human element at their core.
"The drawer statements are important," said Horn, "but if we don't connect on a human level, it feels inauthentic."
Practicing what she preaches, Horn recalled an episode from earlier in her career where her company was faced with numerous protesters outside its doors. Instead of confrontation, her team used coffee and fact sheets to engage the opposition.
"We connected with them as humans," she explained. "It helped a lot."
Rather than focusing purely on the disaster aspect of a crisis, some pros have come to view these challenges as an avenue to drive change, shape beliefs and inspire action.
"It can very much be a reputation-enhancement exercise if done right and the initial response and approach is as human, authentic and transparent as possible," offered Beizai. "You actually have an opportunity here."
•POWER OF YOUR PEOPLE
When it comes to reputation management, employees are crucial stakeholders. Understanding their broader sentiment, though, requires effort.
"If you have employees based in various locations, what some expect in one area might be very different to those in another," advised Miller. "Before you ask employees to do anything, you have to understand where they are and how they feel about the company? What is their culture like? What expectations do employees have about how the company does or does not respond and how its leaders show up?"
And, of course, transparency in dealing with employees has never been more important.
"When not handled accordingly with employees," counseled Beizai, "crisis will not just impact reputation externally and internally, it will impact morale, which will then impact business."
"Your employee base can be confetti for your brand, so transparency is key," noted Horn.
Of course, you still have to be careful with the information you dispense. As D’Agostino counseled, "Keep in mind that whatever you are sharing with your employees better be as good as public information because that's going to be in the press tomorrow."