early warning signs
In May, the company issued a report titled the “Business Standards Committee Impact Report” which laid out 39 recommendations. The report says it was the most extensive review of the firm’s business standards in its 144 years. The CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, led 23 three-hour sessions in 2011 and 2012 with partners and managing directors on personal accountability and included a case study about communications within the firm and with clients, according to the report. It represented “tens of thousands of hours of discussion, analysis, planning, execution, and, importantly, training and professional development which, alone, totaled approximately 100,000 hours. The BSC held 17 formal committee meetings. The Board Committee overseeing the BSC met 13 times. The BSC Implementation Oversight Group held 11 meetings and made five presentations to the Board of Directors. It also met three times with a separate subcommittee of the Board’s Corporate Governance and Nominating Committee which provided ongoing oversight of the BSC implementation.” They also identified three themes that reached across all the recommendations and one of them was “reputational sensitivity and awareness and its importance in everything we do.”
Because I regularly report on how companies recover from reputaional loss, I thought it was important to readers to hear about how one company was finding its way after its reputation was hurt. This report probably represents a good roadmap for other companies that want to strengthen their business practices and reputation. It is also important to note that the CEO has played a major role in getting the committee’s findings infused into the organization.
Last week I came across something that stopped me in my tracks. Actually I was going nowhere because I was on the subway but it struck me (and I shuddered) that I had a moment of insight into a news story that had tremendous implications for companies and their abilities to create lasting reputations. The Pulitzers were announced last week and The New York Times won four. What was so startling to me was that two of the highly prestigious and acclaimed Pulitizers (50%) were for indepth, investigative reporting on the overseas behavior of two different companies. One was a series of reports on alleged corruption at one company and another Pulitzer was won on the costs of human capital in a company’s manufacturing products abroad.
Here is why this is so important — leading companies, the best we have to offer, must safeguard their reputations at all times and not let up for one minute because the spotlight on them is only growing brighter. And just because business operates differently in other cultures or regions, if the behavior does not align with the company’s values or is morally correct, it’s reputation-damaging and wrong no matter where on earth it happens. Earning the right to operate is given to companies through governments or regulators but the license to operate is still very much dependent on the perceptions of communities and consuming public around them and online. How a company behaves matters today and consumers buy based on how companies treat their employees, vendors, customers, communities and others everywhere. Our recent research on the company behind the brand shows that in spades.
These Pulitizers are an early warning sign to companies to carefully consider their behavior on all counts if they want their reputations to be shatterless.
I was eager to read JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s Letter to Shareholders this year. Considering the London Whale episode of the past year, I thought his Letter would be revealing. He clearly did not skirt the issue. I cut and paste some quotes below which are direct, apologetic and conciliatory. Also, I used the picture from the Letter to Shareholders here because it was surprising in that it almost looked like a man running for office but mostly because it is something that we advise clients which is to make better use of photos of their CEOs and execs with people (preferably employees) and not alone in some corner office isolated and solitary. You can’t know what is going on in your company by spending too much time in the office. It derails CEOs all the time.
What I like was how he presented his lessons learned for his reputation recovery plan. They are bulleted below as follows and include a favorite piece of advice of mine — problems don’t age well:
- Fight Complaceny
- Overcome conflict avoidance
- Risk Management 101: Controls must match risk
- Trust and verify
- Problems don’t age well
- Continue to share what you know when you know it
- Mistakes have consequences
- Never lose sight of the main mission: serving clients
On Responsibility: “I also want our shareholders to know that I take personal responsibility for what happened. I deeply apologize to you, our shareholders, and to others, including our regulators, who were affected by this mistake.”
On Complacency: “Complacency sets in when you start assuming that tomorrow will look more or less like today – and when you stop looking at yourself and your colleagues with a tough, honest, critical eye. Avoiding complacency means inviting others to question your logic and decisions in a disciplined way. Even when – and especially when – things have been going well for a long time, rigorous reviews must always take place.”
On the Aftermath: “There are a few things, however, that occurred this past year that we are not proud of. The “London Whale” episode not only cost us money — it was extremely embarrassing, opened us up to severe criticism, damaged our reputation and resulted in litigation and investigations that are still ongoing.”
On Reputation Committees: “That’s why we have a risk committee framework within the firm with extremely detailed reporting and many other checks and balances (like reputation committees, underwriting committees and others) to make sure we have a disciplined process in place to question our own thinking so we can spot mistakes before they do real damage.”
Some good points on how to protect reputation from Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The article reminded me of the piece I wrote for HBR, Reputation Warfare. My article made the point that companies no longer have to just sit there as their reputations get pummeled. There are strategies that can be deployed to get your side of the story on the record. Plus it always helps to respond in the same format (YouTube, Facebook, blogs, etc) as your opponents. This BusinessWeek article by Felix Gillette says: “If there’s any solace to shareholders, in the endless push-and-pull between company critics and corporate defenders, the media environment seems lately to have handed an unlikely advantage to brands.” Gillette makes the point that brands can create their own messages now and get them out in defense. So what can a company do to protect its reputation and get its point of view across as swiftly as their biggest critics. Here are a few pointers that are discussed in the article:
1. Craft Your Brand Image in Peace Time. Get your content ready to go during quiet times and push it out aggressively when the spotlight is on your company. “The idea of producing a bank of preemptive content—about how we produce our food, how we pay our employees, how we run our diversity policies—and then activating them with paid media at the moment that the controversy arrives is almost a prerequisite strategy for everyone now,” says a media buyer CEO.
2. Buy Ads & Keywords on Google that counteract boycotts or protests. If you search for BP oil spill on Google, you will come across a site from BP on their preparedness. Get those sites up and ready before you need them.
3. Do a vulnerability audit before crisis strikes. Plan ahead of time for your deficits and what you need to do to defuse the situation when it happens. Vet yourself. Most crises are self-inflicted and companies know ahead of time what their weak links are. There really should be no surprises.
4. Get your Advocates in order. This again is good old common sense. Make sure that you know who is likely to defend you in time of need. Keep in touch with your supporters. Today I saw the CEO of TDAmeritrade quoted saying a few good things about trading group Knight Capital who practically melted down this week when their computer system went amok executing trades.
5. Get your monitoring software in place. The article points out that having the right monitoring software in place can now help companies know how many people are actually expressing outrage over an event and whether the anger is rising or falling. As we all know, the news cycle is less than 12 hours today so maybe those 10 critics are going to move on to the next fiasco. If you can measure it, you can manage it.
I have to say that the headline in today’s WSJ re the $2 billion trading loss at JPMorganChase strongly resonated with me. The title is “J.P. Morgan Trades in Its Crown.” In our research on safeguarding reputation, we start out by summing up reputation failures among the world’s most admired this way:
“The last decade has seen many of the world’s most admired companies descend from their once lofty positions. They were in a class by themselves — corporate reputation royalty whose invincibility was universally accepted by business executives around the globe. No one could have predicted that these companies would ever part with their crowns. How the world has changed!”
It looks like we now have another major kingpin to add to our Weber Shandwick “stumble rate” analysis that we calculate every year. You can find more about it in an earlier post. But…between 2011 and 2012, 49% of the world’s largest companies experienced a reputational stumble, up from last year’s 43% but exactly the same as 2010’s rate. There seems to be no more untouchables among the Fortune 500 with this recent news.
I was also intrigued by Jamie Dimon’s remarks about what he could have done differently to have caught this $2 billion blunder earlier. Dimon’s deadpan answer was paying more attention to the “newspapers” among other things. He was referring to earlier reports in the papers about the trading problem. Have to hand it to him for taking the blame and being brutally honest in his response. He’s been true to his reputation on that count.
“In hindsight, the new strategy was flawed, complex, poorly reviewed, poorly executed and poorly monitored. The portfolio has proven to be riskier, more volatile and less effective an economic hedge than we thought.”
Another side note of interest is that this reputation crisis did not start in social media. It has certainly taken off online but as far as we know now, there’s been no social media assault that instigated this crisis. No online cloak and dagger here.
Will be interesting to see how this pans out reputation-wise. Will this tarnish the bank’s reputation for the long-term or just be a stain? No doubt it will be headline news for a while. Dimon is eminently quotable –the WSJ has his most notable quotes already listed. I hate to have to say it but another one hits the dust.
Took me a few days but finally found a chance to read a fascinating review in the Financial Times of the impact of the insider trading scandal at management consultant McKinsey & Company and its impact on their reputation. Andrew Hill did a fine job providing a historical review of McKinsey’s ups and downs over the many years of its storied existence and finding former partners and employees to offer their perspectives. As you already know from the trial of Raj Rajaratnam of Galleon Group, the hedge fund CEO is accused of insider trading using tips from former McKinsey partners’ Anil Kumar and Rajat Gupta, global managing partner who left after several terms in 2003. What intrigued me of course was how McKinsey was recovering from this reputation catastrophe and how it fit with the best practices in my book on reputation recovery. This is not just a bruise but a serious injury to McKinsey’s reputation. Here is what they did so far:
- Communicated regularly with employees and former employees
- Initiated an independent inquiry with the help of a law firm
- Improved processes over protecting confidential client information
- Reviewed its ethics policies and standards
- Redefined what constitutes ”material non-public informtion”
- Built a formal “stop-list” of client stocks that no McKinsey person can trade (not just those assigned to the account)
- Added new training procedures
- Strengthened governance
True to its highly analytical way of attacking corporate challenges (they work for 90 of the top 100 companies in the world, among others), they looked back at how they handled prior problems. Coincidentally, the article points out that they had been putting together a comprehensive internal history of the firm which luckily offered them insights on how they have historically dealt with challenges to their reputation and livelihood. The latter best practice is one I highly recommend to others. In my book, I talk about the importance of the Rewind period where companies study their mistakes to from the past to create a better future. Lord John Browne of BP did so after the refinery fire in Texas City and asked the question of how they did not see the pattern of errors that turned deadly sooner. Looking in the rearview mirror may take time that leaders do not think they have but critical warning signs are often present. Retromining is a critical piece of recovering reputation. As the new McKinsey global managing director, Dominic Barton, also did, he studied other thriving cultures that failed. As Barton said in the article, he had been “thinking what happened with the suppression of the Jesuits in the 1700s. This may seem strange, but [it was] an organisation that was thriving and doing well and all of a sudden was severely challenged.”
I recently had a discussion with someone about self-inflicted and non-self-inflicted reputational disasters. Most of the reputation crises I have worked on and written about were self-inflicted because the early warning signs were there in the first place and leadership had an opportunity to change course. Unfortunately, the early warning signs were ignored or deemed inconsequential. An article in strategy + business, the Booz & Company journal, discusses the concept of self-inflicted black swans (a surprise occurrence that causes a major impact) and provides excellent food for thought. Essentially, the author points out that there are ways to detect if the culture is ripe for these kinds of disasters and ways to protect against their occurrence. And it all gets down to the organizational culture or DNA. There are some very good suggestions such as clarifying who is really in charge of identifying risk exposure, aligning incentives so that people are rewarded for anticipating and disclosing risk and third, creating unfiltered pathways so that those at the top hear the “ground truth” and not just what they want to hear.
The bonus for me after reading the article was learning about some stats that the authors uncovered. Since I am always looking for good stats to illustrate the downside of reputational disasters, self-inflicted or not, I want to share here:
The unintended consequences associated with a self-inflicted black swan can be devastating. They include negative publicity; huge, sudden costs; lost revenues; lawsuits and criminal judgments; and regulatory penalties. Analysis of the stock prices of companies that suffered such events in 2009 and 2010 in the oil, automobile, aircraft manufacturing, and financial-services industries shows that within two months after a visible self-inflicted crisis, an average of 18 percent of shareholder value was lost, relative to the S&P 500. Moreover, stock price performance continued to diminish over time: On average, shareholder value came down 33 percent within a year.
A loss of shareholder value of 33 percent over a year’s time is catastrophic in my book. It is worth learning how to prevent these unexpected surprises from occurring and figuring out how to turn these black swans into white ones.
I always keep a pile next to my laptop to help me think of ideas for this blog. By mistake I threw out something two days ago that intrigued me enough to place in the pile. Now I can’t find it and I wish I could remember a key word to find it online. It was in one of the papers I regularly read and it had a chart about “bad reps.” My memory says that it was about how dissatisfied employees leave companies and contribute to their former employer’s bad reputation by their nay-saying. The research in the article said that this problem was only growing worse with the down economy, the anonymity of the Internet and employees’ feelings that they are overworked. There was a chart that actually showed the growing dissatisfaction in the workforce with the words “bad reps” as the headline which is why I kept it (at least until I lost it).
Next in my pile was an article on boards and their conversations about sustainability which I wrote about at one point. But I had circled the words “horse whisperers.” The consultant wrote about how the smartest executives were on the lookout today for “horse whisperers” who could send them signals about how things were being received at the company. Those two words, however, made me think about a good friend who called me a “reputation whisperer” a few years ago because I am often asked how companies are perceived reputationally and what ideas I had to help them recover by changing their behavior or communicating better. There are many more reputation whisperers now than there were several years back but I enjoy thinking that traumatized crisis-ridden companies and leaders can be helped by getting on the right track to recovery by following several simple and clear-headed steps, taken incrementally. Gentling reputation takes some skill, I like to think.
I am in a big believer in being prepared for reputational damage or crisis. My book on Corporate Reputation: 12 StepsTo Safeguarding and Recovering Reputation is all about learning from crisis and being ready for the next one. As Weber Shandwick’s most admired stumble rate declares, every company should plan on some reputational mishap or misstep in the future. Nearly four in 10 companies have lost reputational status in the past year. I just read an article sent to me about the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard. The initiative’s goal was to learn lessons from leaders who have faced crisis situations such as terrorist attackes (Israel, Madrid, London), natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina), health scares (pandemics), oil spills (Deepwater Horizon), etc.
One of the first lessons they uncovered applies to companies and institutions and is:
“…that bad leadership – much like smoking – is a public health risk factor. Whether in the aftermath of a terror attack or a natural disaster, we have seen that when leaders don’t perform well lives are lost and people abandoned.”
And the second lesson is getting everyone on the same page so everyone can work quickly, effectively and efficiently on behalf of a common and shared goal.
“Working together after a disaster requires forging bonds before a disaster.”
Third, and a powerful lesson for companies, is to “expect every citizen to participate.” Leaders have to listen no matter how soft or weak the signals are. And these early warning signs need to get to those who can act and whose job it is to protect reputation. Empowering employees is critical to averting reputational disaster. As the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative found, “citizen bystanders” can make all the difference as we saw with the shoe bomber and underwear bomber airline incidents of the past few years.
“We should regard these heroes as leaders in their own right.”
I could not start this blog post without mentioning my deep sorrow for those lives lost in Japan due to the earthquake and tsunami. The news is devastating and I am very sad for this amazing country. However, if there is a country with the ability to come together to move forward, Japan is the one with the finest reputation for preparedness and commitment to the community.
I wanted to share some research I read about in The Economist on the wisdom of debunking company myths and rumors online. If you are a regular reader of my work, you have heard me mention that I think it is a good idea to refute rumors about your company and its products if they become too prominent online and spiral out of control. However, researchers at Kellogg’s School of Management and Stanford Business School found that it actually hurts to repeat rumors on a company web site. They found that by highlighting the myths on company web sites (in order to explain why they are wrong), the rumors are actually propagated, not diminished. I think that there is always a risk to communicating about the negative but that companies need to join the conversation about hearsay that harms their company or their brands’ reputation. Being silent in some cases can cause even more damage because of the inaction and going on the record with the facts. Of course, the art to disclosure is knowing when to address myths and rumors and when enough is enough. That requires constant monitoring online to know when hearsay is spiraling out of control.
I do agree with the researchers, however, that when companies repeat myths and rumors that are circulating online, it increases the likelihood that search engines will pick them up and give the rumors greater prominence in the search rankings. But as the article itself notes, the antidote to hearsay is making sure that there are good things also being said about your company to counter the negative ones. As the researchers say, the positive facts “nudges people to doubt nasty things they may hear about the company in question.” Therefore countering the rumors and complementing them with good information on what the company is doing or the brand is promising and delivering should work in your favor.
Ultimately, it is maintaining the right amount of the good stuff to counter the bad stuff. And knowing when it is the right time and right place to speak up and stop rumors in their tracks.