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.
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 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 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.’”
I wanted to mention an example of a new movie about fracking with Matt Damon that is soon to be released, Promised Land. The reason I want to post about it is that I predicted a few years back that this would become a trend in the reputation landscape and it has. I also like to use my blog as an archive on all things reputation. Lately I have found that when I have a presentation or speech coming up, I can find good examples to use to make my case. So this blog comes in handy in many ways.
Promised Land is about a natural gas company salesman, Matt Damon, in rural Pennsylvania and his plan to lease natural gas drilling rights there. The movie, to be released at the end of December, is already raising concerns in the energy industry (according to this article) and they are reportedly distributing research, information about fracking on social media and preparing brochures about fracking to educate the public. It is not clear if the movie takes a stand on fracking but sides seem to be lining up.
All of this is on my mind because of the article I wrote on Reputation Warfare for HBR and how companies can imitate adversaries’ reputational assaults and need not remain defenseless.
I wanted to keep this blog as a bookmark for how reputation strategies are changing over time as companies increasingly take on their opponents. My, how the world of business is changing.
I have had China on my mind lately. Weber Shandwick just announced the launch of a new specialty called Emergent China. It advises China-based multinationals and their CEOs on strategic expansion into global markets, including North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. So I have been more attentive than usual to how Chinese companies build their reputations outside China.
Ironically, as I was reading my Wall Street Journal this morning, I saw a paid advertisement taken from China Daily with the headline, “COSCO Enjoys Success.” The sub-head was “Chinese shipping titan earns respect and gratitude in U.S.” I read the China Daily article about the robust and successful development of COSCO shipping operations in the U.S.
Then I turned to the Marketplace Section of the WSJ and saw a fairly negative article about Cosco’s poorly timed expansion that was damaging its financial standing and its dominance.
Although my assumption is that Cosco tried to cushion the fallout from its reporting tomorrow on the first half’s earnings, the timing was unfortunate and not a good working reputation-building strategy. Reputation for emerging Chinese companies needs to be managed for the long-run and a better understanding of how the U.S. media works seems to be in order. I can’t help but think that better relations with journalists would have helped Cosco with getting a heads up that this criticism was about to appear. I could be very wrong but the two articles (one paid, one not) just screamed for REPUTATION MANAGEMENT.
I give them the benefit of the doubt because they seem fairly savvy. I had noticed two years ago that Cosco was using its Awards and Recognition effectively on their web site. When I was visiting China to talk about reputation, I used their site to show how Chinese companies were using these rankings wisely. So let’s see what happens as more Chinese companies make waves in the U.S. and communicate their positioning and initiatives.
Every year, we at Weber Shandwick work with executive recruiter Spencer Stuart to survey worldwide CCOs (chief communciations officers) about the challenges and opportunities facing them. The survey is called The Rising CCO. It is a subject that I have always been very interested in. My interest does not stem solely from being in the public relations industry but in the complexity of the communications position today. How a company communications in good times and bad speaks volumes about the management, its values and its attention to the public trust. This year, as in other years, we asked about the impact of social media on CCO positions, what senior managment expects from them, how their effectiveness if measured, the number of board meetings they attend, the qualities needed to be successful, crisis management and a host of others. Here’s one fact for today that has to do with reputation. I will continue to discuss some others that are reputation-related.
We learned from CCOs that improving corporate reputation tops the list of senior management’s expectations for corporate communications this year, as reported by approximately two-thirds of global CCOs (65%). This focus on reputation was followed by obtaining positive media coverage (60%) and increased support of brand reputation/marketing (56%). This prominence for reputation is not surprising given that reputational crisis is practically a fact of life for large companies globally – nearly three-quarters of CCOs (71%) experienced a crisis threatening their reputation in the past two years. I was not surprised either by how important positive media coverage is although I know how difficult that is to secure enough of what will please a CEO. Quantity and quality always matter at the top.
More to come on other interesting feedback from the study.
Am stealing shamelessly here because I found this so interesting. The survey is from the Luxury Institute and this is their press release. Traditional media is still an important source to wealthier consumers when it comes to learning about CSR efforts by companies but watch out, social media platforms are gaining. However, according to this survey, even the wealthiest are being careful about costs, no matter how ethical a company is.
“In a new survey by the independent and objective New York-based Luxury Institute, “Corporate Social Responsibility: The Wealthy Consumer’s Viewpoint,” U.S. consumers earning at least $150,000 per year define socially responsible corporate behavior, rate companies and divulge importance of socially responsible practices in shaping purchase decisions. Responses were compared to those from the same survey in 2007.
Most (82%) wealthy Americans define social responsibility by a company behaving ethically with employees, customers and suppliers. Environmental behavior and philanthropic actions are both named by respondents as an essential component of CSR (58%).
Almost half (45%) of wealthy consumers say they seek out brands with high ethical standards, but only 39% of these shoppers would be willing to pay a premium. That’s down from 56% who would pay a premium in 2007. Apple, BMW, Coach, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Nordstrom, Starbucks and Whole Foods are frequently cited as highly ethical standouts.
Twenty-seven percent of wealthy consumers learn about companies’ socially responsible behavior via Facebook or Twitter. That’s up from 8% who received their information from social media in 2007. Reading news articles is the most popular (52%) way to learn of CSR efforts, down from 64% five years ago.
“Even wealthy consumers have de-emphasized social responsibility as this economy focuses everyone on price/value and away from social issues,” says Luxury Institute CEO Milton Pedraza. “Nevertheless, we see that luxury and premium brands that are socially responsible do better even during recessions because doing well by doing good is a universal and timeless concept.”
Respondents reported average income of $307,000 and average net worth of $3.1 million.
Just finished reading the new IBM CEO survey, Leading Through Connections. There is alot of great information about how CEOs see the world, particularly the new workforce. Instead of the usual command and control state of affairs, CEOs now realize that they will be building their company reputations on their employee intelligence networks and shared values. As the report says about CEOs, “they are arming the people who represent their brands to the world.” Without knowing what the values, mission and purpose of an organization is, there is little hope that reputations can be steadied and differentiated in the present sea of information chaos and overload. ”For organizations to operate effectively in this environment, employees must internalize and embody the organization’s values and mission.” Companies with the best reputations will have employees who help build and safeguard their companies reputation every minute of every day because they understand what the company stands for. They will guard their company reputation as their own because they will implicitly understand the character of the organization. It is now the CEO’s job to arm them with the tools to understand how best to represent their brands no matter where they are or what time zone they are in. Shared beliefs, up and down the ladder, will create winning cultures and winning companies.
The survey touched a teeny bit on CEOs and social media. Here is what they said. “Though CEOs frequently mentioned dipping their toes into social media waters, few claim to be personally immersed. This arms-length involvement puts CEOs in a precarious position.They are making critical judgements about a disruptive technology without much firsthand knowledge.” A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a corp communications officer for a major global companywho told me that he knew little about social media and depended totally on a younger guy in his department to handle it. The time is ripe now for CEOs and other company officers to take the leap forward and get to understand social media more deeply. That’s where the future is headed and headed at light-speed. In fact, in the survey, the most startling stat for me was how social media was the least utilized customer interaction method today. Yet, CEOs predict that in three to five years, social media will become one of the top two ways to engage customers. They expect a 256% increase in usage! The number one way to engage in the future was face to face and sales interactions, as it is now. But social media is going to ramp up quickly as the best way to engage with customers and CEOs know it. They just have to get their companies in gear for 2015 when social media reaches its full potential. Unfortunately, the study shows that traditional media will lose out (CEOs predict a 61% decrease in three to five years) as social media gains acceptance.
(The IBM study talks about “future-proof” employees. I borrowed it here for my title. I like the phrase! Also really like the infographic. )
I feel like I have read this article before. The title in USA Today yesterday was “CEOs stumble over ethics violations, mismanagement.” Is it 2002 over again when Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia made headlines over ethical transgressions and wrongdoing? I agree that there seems to be a rush of these events recently but I am not sure it is vastly different than it has always been. The Internet has certainly added to the scrutiny of corporate executives but the spotlights were just as glaring and intense as they were years ago. In fact, I tend to think that wrongdoing on the part of CEOs stayed in the news for a longer period of time than they do now. I am waiting for headlines about JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon to be replaced soon. Not sure what will substitute for him in the days ahead but I can bet $5 that something will surface in the next week to knock Dimon off the front pages (so to speak). And whistleblowers have been around for a long time. It is not the first time I have heard about a note being sent to a board member about an executive transgression.
The real difference is that there is zero tolerance for these missteps and for a simple reason — “reputation.” It was interesting to me that the word “reputation” did not appear once in the USA Today article. Boards are making split-second decisions about CEO tenures because they know the downside of having their reputations tarnished, trashed, torn and tattered. Not only are their own personal reputations at risk but that of the companies on whose boards they sit (and that impacts their compensation which is often in stock). As Lucian Bebchuk, director of corporate governance at Harvard Law School said in the article, “Boards do seem to move faster to deal with scandals and public failings that attract shareholder and media attention.” Being in the headlines and chatted about online about reputation failure is the new scarlet letter. I hope that next time an article appears, the reputation damage that brings down share prices, dampens employee morale, attracts headlines and invites investor activists gets mentioned. The cost of reputation failings are higher than ever and the stain can be very deep. In fact, it takes years to wash out.