Leadership is very messy. I was asked the other night at dinner why President Obama was not coming out slinging on the repair of the healthcare website. Why was he not saying anything? And why were his advisors not telling him to speak up and put a stop to the constant naysaying? Well, for one, I think the reason is that there is nothing to say until it is fixed. He apologized and put a bookend on the mess for now. That was the right strategy. Now he should say nothing until it has been resolved. Why keep it in the headlines by saying something? No one wants another BP oil spill where the headlines went on for weeks regarding how much oil was spilling into the Gulf.
I read the New York Times columnist Bill Keller’s to-do list for President Obama on how tosalvage his reputation now that it has stalled. Keller basically says that now is not the time for “grand new initiatives.” True. He goes on to say, “ It’s not that I want the president to think small; by all means, address the threat of climate catastrophe and push ahead on early childhood education. But he needs to get a few wins on the scoreboard.” Absolutely. Now is not the time for the big speeches, big sweeping initiatives, big words. Now is the time for small, incremental steps that change the conversation and get him back on track. I also found it interesting that Michelle Obama chose this time to release news that she is going to focus on higher education for low-income students. Clearly, a great policy decision but the timing is not coincidental. The White House needs some positive news to overshadow the constant barrage of negative sentiment surrounding the White House. Everyone loves Michelle and who can argue with her for coming to the rescue. Wonder if we will be seeing more of the kids now.
However, this too shall pass. Maybe we should spend more time focusing on the devastation in the Phillipines and what we can do.
I attended the Council of PR Firms Critical Issues Forum a week or so again. I always enjoy attending because I learn something that sticks with me. The topic was all about Content Frenzy which certainly resonated with the attendees. The panels were stimulating and overall, an A+ event for those of us in this industry who are watching what is content change before our eyes. Of course, I have to tie everything back to my main interest in reputation, so here goes:
1. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis said that “messages are dead.” He said that we should be in the relationship business and worry less about messaging. Makes sense to me if you are building reputation. Communicating that want to be perceived as the most innovative company, the most admired company, the best place to work, the most global, etc. does not stick for long in people’s minds as much as creating the feeling that a company cares about you as a customer, wants to listen to what you have to say and works hard to retain your business.
2. News Corps’ Strategy VP Raju Narisetti said that companies are not competing for audiences but for our time. That’s the honest truth. Companies have to recognize that there are so many hours in the day and everyone is overextended and bombarded with messages. Good storytelling is the answer and knowing how to do it well is an art as well as a science. Six second Vine videos might just do the trick. He also said that native advertising was a faustian pact that could cause serious credibility problems (ouch!) and damage reputation (ouch!).
3. Harvard Business Review’s editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius said something that certainly perked up my ears. He said that everyone today is a thought leader. He is right. Everyone provides content. I consider myself a thought leader and it did not feel good to hear that my competitors are everywhere. I have been learning too that everyone is a reputation management expert. I might have to figure out something else to do. Reputation-wise, companies and CEOs with a thought or two of their own are competing with everyone else’s content storms. Everyone is overwhelmed with a glut of content, so said Amy Webb of webbmedia. She is someone worth following.
4. Small data is more relevant than big data. I dont know who said it but it is profound. I agree. We are so focused on the very big data, that we are missing the more relevant, localized, individualistic insights that can break through our universal content overload. When it comes to reputation, maybe we should be focusing on the small conversations and not the “most popular” ones. We might learn alot more by following one person over time than following an entire army of tweets and posts. Maybe, also, it is the smaller and more incremental reputation enhancement steps that matter than the large, broad big efforts that companies tend to embark on and hammer us with. I am not sure but I know it is true when it comes to reputation recovery.
Tomorrow is Monday…have a good week!
There are many ways to rebuild reputation but one way that companies might consider when recovering from a crisis is developing a Compliments page where employees and non-employees can anonymously thank those front line or other employees for doing their jobs well and conscientiously. I spoke to a company a short while ago as they were dealing with a reputation crisis and suggested that they start a Compliments page where community members could thank those front line people they encounter frequently for doing a honest day’s work. It could help. Of course, the site would attract uncivil types but there must be a way to delete them if they stray too far from the site’s purpose and goals.
Some universities have being doing this for a while. It started at Queen’s University in Ontario because the founders wanted to find a way to counteract bullying. University of Pennsylvania has a Compliments Facebook page as does Penn State. On the U of P site, people thank others for returning their lost wallet, for the sense of accomplishment they feel after doing nonprofit work, to a capella group for their beautiful sound and send support to a fellow classmate struggling with pain. The U of P Compliments page has the goal of “learning to do good and spread good.” Penn State’s site says that it is a social project to spread happiness.
Compliments pages are a wonderful idea considering that incivility that can sometimes surround and engulf us. In Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America 2013 study, we found that 70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions. With Americans encountering incivility more than twice a day on average (2.4 times per day), and 43 percent expecting to experience incivility in the next 24 hours, dealing with incivility has become a way of life for many. Maybe it is time to turn this tide of negativity.
Compliment sites can be contagious and make people feel good despite their company’s blemished reputation. It could give an employee that extra boost they need to be productive and positive when they find everything uncertain. Hearing a compliment might keep an employee loyal to his or her company and make them feel they are doing their part in getting their company’s reputation back on its feet. Companies might consider trying this and seeing what happens. Reputations get repaired in the oddest ways.
Living in New York City forces one to notice that everyone seems to be on a cleanse. I passed a colleague’s desk the other day and she had these two little medicinal bottles next to her laptop that she was taking for a one day cleanse. When I get my coffee in the morning, there is an Organic Avenue store next to it which is always packed with people buying cleanse-related products, foods and liquids. It’s all the rage I guess. It got me to thinking that perhaps companies should consider the reputation cleanse. This would be a multi-day process by which companies review all their vulnerabilities and pain points and rid themselves of toxins. Companies could detox quickly andd focus on their inner strengths and purities. They’d get leaner and return to the building blocks on which they were founded. Instead of talking about reputation restoration, maybe its time to talk about reputation revitalization (the byproduct of a reputational cleanse!). Anyhow, just kidding but there’s some truth in all this…..time to get rid of what ails companies and maintain their optimal health and well-being.
Had a terrific visit to Weber Shandwick Toronto this week. My colleagues hosted a breakfast to discuss the new rules of engagement for employee engagement and reputation and I shared the platform with my colleague Kate. We met some terrific clients and had some very good questions afterwards, always a plus. Reputation and employee engagement are very much intertwined which made the two angles so easily compatible. We also met with some clients and had meaningful discussions about leadership, character and reputation. Afterwards I headed up to Muskoka for a conference among hydro distributors to talk about safeguarding reputation. Terrific conference put on by The MEARIE Group and to prepare, I learned alot about the challenges facing electricity distributors in Ontario. Of course, it was hard not to mention how Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto was negatively impacting the city’s reputation. On the day of the conference, the Mayor of Montreal resigned after being arrested.
At the breakfast meeting, I learned something that I aim to keep for posterity. Most probably, I will add it to our compendium on how to recover from a crisis. We have a master deck on how companies recover and build even better reputations and for me, it’s my team’s Bible. We catalogue all the recovery strategies we can because it always comes in helpful for the next client. But sometimes people have a way of saying something that just lights up your brain waves because it is so insightful and speaks so directly to a company’s character. This Canadian company had a crisis some years ago and one year later to the day, they ran full page ads reminding people of what happened and what they had done since the fateful event. The head of comms said to us while we were chatting at the breakfast that they ran the ad because…” ”We will be the first to remember, not the first to forget.” The company wholeheartedly owned the crisis and was not going to forget. Sage advice.
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.
Interesting news came across my alerts yesterday. A private equity company, Catalyst Investors, made a minority equity investment in Reputation Institute. This news caused a friend of mine, Bruce Rogers, who is the chief insights officer for Forbes and columnist on thought leadership to write, “Reputation management is the new black in corporate strategy.” He sure is right. The topic of reputation is now radioactive. I think it has nearly passed the term “sustainability” in terms of sheer mentions (I did not think I was right but I was!…in a Google search I just did, reputation had nearly 406 million hits and sustainability had 82 million).
I enjoyed reading Bruce’s interview with partners at RI. Interesting fact — according to the partners from RI, they have grown 43% on average per year over the past 8 years. This speaks to reputation’s importance on CEO and board agendas today.
Bruce asked how companies were implementing reputation management programs and one of RI’s partners, Nicolas Georges Trad, responded in the following way:
“Companies find themselves at different stages of the reputation journey. From Stage 1 where they are exploring what reputation is and how it is affecting their business. Over Stage 3 where they have company specific intelligence that they can use for business planning and integration. To Stage 5 where they are able to make reputation based decisions because they have the relevant intelligence on what matters to customers and other key stakeholders. But this is still a new business focus. 87% of companies are still in stage 1-3 but we see a wave of companies investing in reputation management to move up the chain and use reputation as a business driver.” This is an accurate assessment from what I can tell too. The good news is that companies are starting the journey.
Upon hearing the news, I sent an email to the executive chairman and founder of RI, Charles Fombrun, congratulating him. I met Charles many years ago when he held his first reputation forum at New York University. It must have been the end of the 1990s and there were few reputation tracking programs available at all. There was Fortune’s Most Admired which I was intimately familiar with and the seeds of Reputation Quotient that Charles had just started thinking about. That may have been also when I met my good friend and reputation expert Joy Sever who worked with Charles on that first RQ. I recall the forum well because I was not happy hearing the criticism about the Most Admired study and how it needed changing (he was right) to reflect the many dimensions of reputation. I can’t say for sure but Charles had at that time written the first book on reputation and my books soon followed on slightly different topics — the role of the CEO in reputation building and reputation recovery and defense.
Ironically just this past week, I presented my thoughts on reputation trends to RI’s other founder, Cees van Riel, and his communications executives working on their masters degrees at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. It felt like I had gone full circle from that day I attended the forum at NYU — the news that reputation was a worthy investment, seeing Cees after many years, emailing with Charles and of course reading Bruce’s column. Bruce and I were once dueling CMOs when he led Forbes’ marketing and I ran Fortune’s. Three degrees of separation.
Congratulations to RI, Charles and Cees and the others I know, for building interest in reputation, adding to the body of knowledge on reputation with solid global data and providing gravitas to the world of reputation
I had heard of a new CEO listening tour but to me, this was a first. JCPenny is running a social media Apology tour. We’ve all heard CEOs apologize for one thing or another and we’ve all worked in companies where a new CEO visits different employee facilities to meet and greet and hear what is on people’s minds. But JCPenny now has a new campaign on TV that apologizes for letting customers down and thanks them for coming back. If you recall, the former CEO Ron Johnson from Apple fame was booted out when his plan failed, possibly because of the elimination of coupons which drove customers into the store. The former CEO, Myron Ullman, was asked to return and now they are in recovery mode. The two ads say:
“It’s no secret. Recently, J.C. Penney changed. Some changes you liked, and some you didn’t. But what matters with mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing: to listen to you. To hear what you need to make your life more beautiful. Come back to J.C. Penney. We heard you. Now we’d love to see you.”
“At J.C. Penney, we never stop being amazed by you. How you work so hard without looking like you do. How you make every dollar stretch so far and keep your family so close. So we brought back the things you like about J.C. Penney, gave you new things to explore and now, we’re happy to say, you’ve come back to us. We’re speechless, except for two little words. Thank you.”
But back to social media….using the hashtag #jcplistens, JCPenny is in response overdrive from what I saw on Twitter today. They are in constant contact with its Twitter-ites. Every customer or tweet seems to get a personal and speedy response asking to help out, mentioning they will share the feedback with the team if something was amiss and thanking customers for comments. As pointed out on Business Insider, they even told people when they were retiring for the evening. On its Facebook page, JCPenny is polling fans about their favorite brands that they want back after having been cut by the former CEO. And it looks like they are bringing back St. John’s Bay, a favorite. So they are listening hard.
You’ve got to hand to them. They’re trying. And social apology tours are a smart redemption move.
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.
Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, said the company’s next chief executive officer will bolster the company’s reputation as a source of stability in times of crisis. Talk about a shot of credibility if your company is in crisis or in doubt. He was referring to his infusion of funds into leading financial institutions when their stocks were slipping during the Great Recession.
At the company’s annual meeting in Nebraska, Buffet said the following:
“Berkshire is the 800-number when there’s really sort of panic in markets.”