I think bad news comes in threes. Thinking about President Obama and the recent bad news he has received regarding the terrorist attack in Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups and the secretly snatched AP reporters’ phone records, it has to be true. It is the culmination and convergence of these three reputation hits that changed the political balance in favor of the Republicans and Tea Party members for a change. Not a full tilt but enough to rain on the President’s parade.
When I talk to company leaders about what drives a reputation into the ground, I often use the baseball metaphor that all it takes is three strikes and you are out. The first mistake happens to just about everyone these days. The second reputation hit is basically unforgivable but no one wants to put you out of business. The third hit takes you down because it is clear that leadership was absent and judgement was non-existent or negligent (even worse). When I think of the perfect example of the Three Strike Reputation Rule, I think of BP. First, they were tied to 15 deaths when the Texas Refinery blew up in 2005 in the US. Second, an oil leak in Alaska from their pipeline in Prudhoe Bay captured negative attention. But third, and for the final straw, the horrific Gulf of Mexico oil spill that ultimately drove their reputation into the ground, along with their CEO’s Tony Hayward. After the third strike, it’s time to call it quits.
Yet, from what I’ve been reading, President Obama’s approval ratings have barely budged from their high marks. Perhaps we will see the proof in the pudding at the next election cycle. Hard to tell. And BP, after much soul searching, is coming back again with new leadership, better values and a new heartbeat. The rest is yet to come.
Many clients ask what is the potential impact of a crisis. How long will it last? When will the scrutiny die down? How does it compare to other scandals or crises? How much will it impact my reputation? When should we start the recovery process? The New York Times’ insanely smart Nate Silver who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog had an interesting post yesterday on which political scandal — the IRS targeting of conservative groups or the Benghazi attack in Libya — would be longer-lasting and possibly impact the next election cycle. Silver chooses the former (the IRS scandal) and explains so in his article. More importantly for my interests and for those that follow me was Silver’s five questions that he developed on whether a scandal “has legs.” He credits Bill James’ Keltner list for the initial questions. To determine whether reputational injury will be enduring, these questions are a good place for companies, leaders and others to start:
1. Can the potential scandal be described with one sentence, but not easily refuted with one sentence? Using the 140 character Twitter test is one good way to see if the scandal has legs. Can you say it in 140 characters. Or try it with as few as 16 words which if you recall is all it took to sink former President Bush in 2003 when he said in his State of the Union Address, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantitites of uranium from Africa.” Silver’s argument that if it cannot be easily refuted in a similarly short string of words, you have a problem on your hands. I might add that it could be even less than one sentence…it could be a video or photo today.
2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand? The word candidate could be substituted for company or CEO. In this case, a company that proclaims transparency but is caught doing damage to the environment behind the scenes or engaging in financial manipulation is going to lose its credibility 1-2-3. Think about Enron and their much heralded reputation for innovation at the time. It turns out that their innovativeness was in their financial shenanigans, not in reinventing business processes that led to success. Even though Enron was long recognized by Fortune as one of the most admired and innovative companies in the world, the scandal essentially decimated that impression. In fact, it took its leaders from pinstripes to prison strips.
3. Does the scandal reinforce a core negative perception about the candidate? Or company/CEO in this case. As Silver says, “A scandal can be equally dangerous if, rather than undermining a candidate’s strengths, it reminds voters of what they like least about him.” I think that Congressman Anthony Weiner’s late night racy Twitter sexting reminded people of his unlikeability and brashness. Perceptions that confirm what you already thought of a person or company are hard to shake loose. Another example would be BP’s then CEO, Tony Haywood, who at the time said that he wanted his life back while oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the general perception was that BP did not care about the damage being done to the environment by the oil spill and the CEO’s statement only reinforced that negative reputation.
4. Can the scandal be employed readily by the opposition without their looking hypocritical, risking retribution or giving life to a damaging counter-claim? Most competitors in business do not take advantage when their peers are knocked down by scanal. Companies today easily recognize that a scandal for one company affects all and impacts the entire industry. The question for company reputation is “Can this scandal spread to peers and further damage the industry sector that might already be struggling?” Not a perfect example I fear but an example that comes to mind might be the quality issues that emerged years ago in China when lead paint was supposedly found in children’s toys. That perception continues to linger for products manufactured out of China today. I was recently in a children’s store when a customer asked the cashier where a T-shirt was made because she only bought children’s clothing made in the USA.
5. Is the potential scandal occurring amid an otherwise slow news cyle? This is a good question to ask when a potential reputation disaster emerges. There are countless examples of company reputation debacles that get drowned out by other news that draw the media’s attention. I always think about how some recalls get scant coverage when bigger business stories are erupting. Or how some stories are not uncovered until the cycle is very slow and investigative reporting resumes. Silver mentions how the crude measure of a Google search shows that today, American’s appetite for political news stories is at an eight year low. So President Obama and the Democrats might just avert the sting from the IRS scandal because it’s not the tantalizing subject for readers as it might have been eight or nine months ago. Perhaps when the Dow is reaching 15,000, some stories just fade away.
I could tell that it must have been the one year anniversary of the Costa Concordia because I started hearing about the shipliner crash in the past few days. Reputations keep rolling along throughout the year but especially hit home one year later. Whereas they might be fleeting memories at first, they all come together on the year one anniversary to make us take notice. Today I started hearing more about the memorial service for survivors and families of those who lost their 32 dear ones in Giglio, Italy and it started to stick more than two days ago. There were 846,000 mentions on Google when I searched for Costa Concordia anniversary today.
For reputation, one year anniversaries are part of the reputation process. It is almost like it fits into the five stages of grief. The one year anniversay is a day of reflection and return to the reputation demise that caused the loss in the first place. All the pictures of the cruise ship on its side off the shores of the little Tuscan city are back in view. Debates over raising the ship and removing it are back in the news. Anniversaries are important because they remind us that reputations should not restored overnight. The bigger the loss (especially when lives are lost), the longer reputation takes to repair. That should be law.
I especially remember the Costa Concordia because we were launching our survey on how corporate and brand reputations have become nearly indivisible. The parent company of the cruise liner pushed media requests over to the Costa Concordia CEO — the brand leader — in an effort to disentangle the corporate reputation from the brand reputation. Due to the ease of information flow and the Internet’s reach, much of the media coverage mentioned the parent company in the coverage which only proved that corporate and brand reputations have definitely converged. Because the entire incident happened just as we launched the survey, it is forever lodged in my mind.
Talking about reputation, tomorrow’s Oprah Winfrey interview with cyclist Lance Armstrong will be another one for the record books. I am not sure how Lance’s confession that he used drugs to help him win the Tour de France several times will go over. My sense is that an apology might not curb his rapid reputation decline and Lance’s reputation might not just keep rolling along but might face a hard stop for awhile. No telling where it will be, however, in three or four years. I will be interested to tune in and watch.
I had heard alittle about some reputation problems (tax avoidance) that Starbucks had encountered in the U.K. over the past couple of months and just read this story about how they are working to counter their dip in reputational equity with a little frothy promotional offering. Now until mid-February, they are discounting coffees on Mondays to earn back customers’ trust and show that they are sorry. I was particularly enamored of this advertising campaign which is fun, clever, positive and should definitely help. It qualifies as a reputation recovery uplift.
Lessons on dealing with a crisis are always helpful, especially when your company’s reputation is in jeopardy. I found this list particularly worthwhile because it was written by Sallie Krawcheck, one of the most senior women on Wall Street. I heard her speak at a Forbes conference years ago and really enjoyed her tales of juggling work, family and husband. She was very down-to-earth, approachable and humble. She recently wrote on her LinkedIn page about the lessons she learned from leading through various crises and as she says, watching others make career-ending mistakes handling crises. Here is a brief synopsis of what she advises:
1. Be heroically available. I wholeheartedly agree with her that there are times when executives wish they could just close the door and wait until a crisis fades. We all also know that this strategy does not work and rarely happens. She mentions a colleague who hosted a call for Financial Advisors when investments had gone south and how he said he’d stay on the call until every last question was answered which lasted late into the evening.
2. Allow people to ask real questions, even if you don’t want to hear them. We have all been in meetings when no one wants to ask the hard question and most people just throw softballs. Leaders have to create an environment where the hard questions can be asked and there are no repercussions. Sometimes I advise a leader to ask the question himself, provide the answer and get on with it. Once the question is asked, others might have the courage to speak.
3. Frequency matters more than perfection. Krawcheck mentions how her management team had a call at the start and end of every day when the economy was tanking a few years ago. She says that some of the calls were not all that good and packed with answers but at least everyone knew they would be getting an update on a regular basis.
4. On your message: Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. And do in different media. That is dear to my heart because those of us in public relations understand that to reach people who need certain information, you have to reach them where they are. And they are often not where you think they are. Some people read company emails, some ignore them. And as Krawcheck says, some people are readers and some are listeners. Some are in facilities where there is no easy access to electronic information. Make it easy to find out what needs to be known.
5. Bring in people who know more than you do or provide a different perspective. I found this one unusual since so many companies keep all their information and goings-on close to the vest. And rarely do they want to admit that they might not know something. She mentions how during the recent downturn, her company brought in some experts to bring a new voice into the conversation even if they were saying the same thing she was saying. This is good counsel.
6. Let them see you sweat, but don’t let them see you tremble. Another piece of good advice and a good way to end this post. It is okay to work super hard and show that you are not home for dinner with the family night after night when crisis is on your doorstep but make sure that your team does not see you scared. Being confident “goes a long way.” Yes indeed.
Skins International Trading, maker of compression bodysuits for professional athletes, is suing the Union Cycliste International organization for harm to its brand reputation. They are saying that the UCI did not take the doping charges leveled at Lance Armstrong seriously enough and thereby tarnished the reputation of the sport and the brands that support the sport. This is a good example of how an individual with a damaged reputation can have a negative ripple effect on individual brands, events and sponsors that practically cripples an industry. Only time will tell how this ends. Hopefully a new generation of cyclists will emerge to remove the stain left by Armstrong.
I was recently interviewed in the Tennessean about how a hospital in Nashville, Saint Thomas Hospital, was handling the crisis related to the fungal meningitis outbreak. The question posed to me by the reporter was how this public health disaster caused by a New England compounding company would ultimately impact the hospital’s reputation. Like many people, I have been following the crisis but did not know much about how Saint Thomas Hospital specifically was dealing with the contamination and its aftermath. Of the nearly 17, 500 vials, 2,000 were sent to the St. Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery Center. The Clinic is on the St. Thomas campus but not wholely affiliated with the hospital. Apparently the high number of people coming to the hospital’s emergency room is where the problems with the compounded steriod drug injected into people for back pain first came to light.
After the reporter contacted me, I immediately went to Google to learn more about how the hopsital was dealing with the crisis and found this interview with the CEO of St. Thomas Hospital, Dawn Rudolph. I was very impressed with the steps she took to lead the hospital through the crisis and it was apparent to me that she had taken her crisis preparation seriously and had good judgement. It is worth reading how she and her communications department prepared talking points for medical staff, worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Tennessee Emergency Management Association, coordinated with the clinic to determine who would do what and let people do their jobs while she fiercely observed what was happening. Some of her actions that are worth noting when you want to recover your reputation post-crisis:
1. Stay out of the way of those who have a job to do such as the clinical care teams
2. Surround yourself with good people
3. Anticipate challenges
4. Make yourself available. Clear your calendar.
5. Plan for the short-term. Ask Rudolph’s question, “What am I missing?” and take answers from everyone.
6. Be prepared for misinformation that circulates in the media or online. (The crisis was incorrectly tied to a viral meningitis scare in the area)
7. Give your team talking points for them to explain what is happening to their families.
8. Watch your team carefully. The psychological effects can be tough to swallow.
9. Pointing fingers and trying to explain who is at fault is not going to be well understood when people’s lives are in danger. (The hospital and clinic are different entities but Rudolph did not spend her time making the distinctions for people who were worried about the health of their family members. Very civil and very impressive.)
The best part of the interview was what she said about what she wishes she had done, “I would have immediately grabbed an administrative person and had them pull a chronological list of what had occurred that day relating to the crisis. We did that in spots, but things evolve fast. I would have said, ‘you’re designated to be the record keeper and check in several times a day with team leads,’ because it was so multidimensional.’”
When I was speaking at the YPO/WPO luncheon in Minneapolis two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was talking about how to prepare for a public relations crisis that can cause reputational damage and what can be done. I always like to find examples that might resonate with an audience and I found this one which I still can not get out of my head. In the checklist I provided attendees regarding preparing for a crisis, I mentioned the importance of establishing a chain of command. It is important that everyone knows exactly what to say and who should be saying it when crisis strikes. This control over a chain of command starts with the person who answers the phone!
Two weeks before I arrived in Minneapolis, I had come across an article that described exactly how it should NOT be done. The article was about how some workers at JFK airport filed a complaint with the TSA about how they were being rushed to do their jobs to avoid schedule delays. And the jobs they get paid to do are important. One quarter of these workers — security agents — employed by this small business complained that they were unable to search flights in enough time to discover if there were any weapons, drugs or explosives left behind after the passengers left. These agents are supposed to pull down every tray, check every overhead bin, probe seat pockets and use metal detectors to make sure the planes are safe and secure as mandated by the federal government after 9/11. Since airlines are very concerned about flight delays and on-time arrivals, these employees felt that they were being given little time to do their jobs. As one employee said, they were being asked to do their jobs in three minutes when the minimum amount of time needed was 25 minutes.
Here’s what stunned me. When the company that employs these agents was asked about the complaints, the pr director responded by saying that the employees were lying. “It is impossible for these allegations to really take place.” Here is an example of a company caught unaware and responding poorly. Within a few words, the director put the company’s reputation at severe risk. When The New York Times calls to find out information about an alleged complaint, the company spokesperson should have said that they would get right back to the reporter with a response and more information. Saying that one’s own employees were lying just does not cut it. From what I can gather, the PR director said that the employees were trying to unionize and therefore intent on aggravating the situation. Whatever the reason or excuse, this was quite the example of self-inflicting repuational harm. One for the books!
I had a particularly interesting and rewarding week. It started in Minneapolis where my colleague and I spoke at a YPO/WPO event on managing a reputational/pr crisis and how to use social media to keep one’s reputation from getting tarnished. The audience of over 100 CEOs and presidents wanted advice on managing a crisis in this hyper-connected, turbulent and “gotcha” world. The person who was to introduce us was abit late because he was handling a crisis…which I thought was perfect timing! I hope I made the point that reputation management is a contact sport today.
While preparing for my talk, I was searching for something to say about how socio-political-local issues are more important than ever in managing reputation. I was barely in the state when I quickly learned about the upcoming vote on the Marriage Amendment. Companies are being asked to vote yeah or nay on gay marriage and from what I can tell, it is having a resounding impact on perceptions of business reputations in the state. This event is an extraordinary example of how business reputations are being shaped by their political citizenship. In case you are curious as to how some CEOs are taking a stand, read this entry on the General Mills blog, Taste. Here is an excerpt written by the head of global diversity and inclusion as to his company’s CEO, Ken Powell, who addressed employees:
“As readers of this may or may not know, Minnesota voters will be asked to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment in November. If passed, this amendment would define marriage in our home state’s constitution as being between one man and one woman, effectively banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota. If defeated, Minnesota voters would send a strong message about our state’s view of the importance of inclusiveness and diversity.
Ken spoke only a few minutes – but his words spoke volumes.
He voiced our company’s opposition to the proposed marriage amendment, an initiative that makes our state less inclusive and reduces our company’s ability to attract and retain talent.
While, General Mills doesn’t normally take positions on ballot measures, this is a business issue that impacts our employees.
I am proud to see our company join the ranks of local and national employers speaking out for inclusion. We do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interests of our employees or our state economy – and as a Minnesota-based company we oppose it.”
Also pretty impressive is that the company left all the comments from those in favor and those opposed to the marriage amendment on the blog on their corporate site. They are all heart-wrenching and some unbearably uncivil.
I was talking to a few colleagues and came to the conclusion that companies are now mirroring civil society. Many of the issues facing the nation or even the world at large are now the business of business — education, bullying, civil rights, etc. The public square and corporate corridor are becoming increasingly similar.
Every week I think nothing new is happening in the world of reputation. And I am always wrong. There are always CEOs coming and going, companies that get into trouble and lose reputation points and new things to learn. That’s the best part. Here’s a few:
1. Booz Allen released their fabulous CEO Succession report. I read it every year and welcome the insights. This year they focused on new CEOs, a topic dear to my heart and book. This year they found that 14.2% of CEOs of the world’s 2500 largest public companies changed over. This is a sizeable increase from last year when the turnover rate was 11.6%. This increase makes sense because as boards battled the recession, it was not the opportune time to change chief executive reins. Better to batten down the hatches when times are tough. Strikingly, Bozo found that outsider CEOs are making a comeback. In 2011, 22% of all new CEOs were outsiders compared to 14% in 2007. That’s definitely surprising to me since the trend has been in favor of insiders for a while now. The possibility is that companies need fresh new ideas and outsiders with global experience as they now look to grow. You should check out the report because there always is a lot of fascinating information on the world of CEO transitions. For example, outsider CEOs are more likely to lose their jobs, the number of CEOs being appointed chairman has declined and nearly 90% of new CEOs have not been a CEO before. That last fact is astounding and perhaps why we get asked about our services on CEO First 100 Days as often as we do. In another post, I will provide Booz’s insights on advice on CEO’s first year in office.
2. Reputation Institute released its worldwide reputation findings on the Most Reputable Companies. Their headline reads, “Reputation Is Impacted More By What You Stand For Than What You Sell.” In their research, they found that “People’s willingness to buy, recommend, work for and invest in a company is driven 60 percent by their perceptions of the company and only 40 percent by their perceptions of their products.” That’s an important finding and mirrors Weber Shandwick’s results on the importance of the company behind the brand. We are on the same wavelength, clearly. They also found that only 11% of the top 100 companies have better reputations abroad than at home. “It’s because reputation isn’t something that’s easy to export,” says Nicolas Georges Trad, Executive Partner at Reputation Institute. Love that quote.
3. I also attended Spencer Stuart’s CMO Summit this week on innovation. It was illuminating in how innovation gets baked into companies from the head marketing honcho. Whereas one company CMO panelist was analytical in her approach, another was more artistic and qualitative. Goes to show that culture drives execution. From the panel, I learned about another usage of HIPPO which is always a bonus to me – it is a reference to the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Everyone in business knows what that means.