An Inside Look at Top Communicators’ Playbooks
Top communicators opened their playbooks on mastering brand crisis and reputation at an exclusive event Meltwater hosted in collaboration with PRWeek last month. Over breakfast in San Francisco, they discussed today’s 24/7/365 world, where external entities control the narrative as much if not more than the brands themselves, and even the basics of crisis and reputation management continue to evolve daily.
Showing us their best methods in the midst of madness were panellists Julie Miller, CCO at Ancestry; Al D’Agostino, SVP, Crisis and Risk Management at Edelman; Emily Horn, Director of Corporate Communications at HP; and Nina Beizai, VP of Communications at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. Moderating was Cole Weil, Director of Global Enterprise Solutions at Meltwater. A summary of discussion points and recommended actions follows.
At the first sign of crisis, deploy a tiger team to control the message
Gathering the right people quickly is the key to nimble decision-making, the panellists easily agreed. Emily Horn of HP recommended assembling a small team drawn from your stakeholder community, investor relations, and both employee and corporate communications and setting them to work performing risk analysis and determining the worst-case scenario. “Use the tiger team to control the message, and the fewer news cycles the better.”
Edelman’s Al D’Agostino added that the situation may warrant the communications lead assembling a cross-functional group that includes HR, legal, finance, and operations. “Side-by-side with that tiger team, use these people to figure out what’s going on and when is the earliest you can say something that actually means something.”
Multiple panelists confirmed the importance of having that foundation built in advance and ready to be mobilized in times of emergency.
Take the pulse of leadership early to reduce communication cycles
Ancestry’s Julie Miller says, “If my gut is telling me something’s happening, I try to get my CEO or the GM of the business and my general counsel in a room with me before everything hits. Sometimes the CFO is in there too if there’s a financial impact on the business. Getting a sense of where they’re at can save the team multiple cycles in thinking through the company’s response.” That early meeting often also helps determine what should remain confidential and what the threshold is for disclosure of information.
Come to the table with suggestions that will move the needle
“Strong analytics will get you far, and accurate analytics will get you farther,” says Nina Beizai. She adds that Kimpton has always viewed the communications team as having a seat at the table, in part because Communications is responsible for sharing the data on coverage, sentiment, and share of voice coming in from media monitoring and social and internal engagement.
“Synthesize that data and come to the table with suggestions that will actually move the needle from a business perspective, not just a communications perspective,” Beizai advises. She says her role includes serving as a fact- and reality-checker of any proposals being floated. “I think that encourages everybody to put on their thinking caps and removes the hair-on-fire aspect of the drill.”
Julie Miller says she welcomes the passion people bring to managing a crisis because, “If you can harness the emotion, it drives a sense of urgency and feeds the sense we’re going to roll up our sleeves and figure things out.” Her first priority remains to back everyone off the ledge and facilitate a conversation that moves them closer to finding a solution.
Maintaining a sense of perspective throughout is invaluable, says Al D’Agostino. “Oftentimes a client acts as if their whole world is going crazy. You might want to ask them how big is that world, actually. Is everyone really talking about this?” Context and a sense of proportion help keep emotions in check. Metrics can be applied here also.
Focus on being an effective two-way communicator
The communication team’s responsibility is not only to offer advice and counsel on the wording of any pronouncements but to be the eyes and ears of the company also, says Kimpton’s Nina Beizai. “It really is a two-way street. Communicators are not just pushing out content. They’re also bringing a lot of objective reality into a situation.”
Emily Horn spoke of being at Hewlett Packard Company when hardware recycling became an issue for the tech industry and Greenpeace was protesting outside. “We brought coffee out to the protestors and sat down with them to talk and connect as humans. That helped because it calmed everybody down. Focusing on the human element of how you communicate is fundamental.”
Julie Miller says it’s important to know what your stakeholders expect from you and suggests weighing your response against a set of decision principles. “They don’t have to be absolute. You can use them merely as aids to judgment, but it’s much easier to explain what you’re doing if you have a principle-based approach.”
Understand the power of your employees to influence events
Employees should learn of a crisis first, followed by your customers. The focus should be on answering the questions you’re able to and confessing that you’re still gathering information, says HP’s Emily Horn. Tell them you’ll inform them as soon as you know more. She cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction to volunteer too much information. “I am often the first to say less is more.”
“It’s tricky,” says Julie Miller of Ancestry’s. “But I do believe there’s a role for key employees to play. An engineer or product manager may be the best person to speak to a product defect. Oftentimes it’s specific to the use case. This is where the company’s social media policy comes in. This feels like a more authentic place to have certain conversations.”
Kimpton’s Nina Beizai questioned whether we do enough to set employees up to be successful. What content can they be given that feels organic and can be shared during a crisis? Understand the power your employee base has to affect change. A crisis handled poorly with employees will not only impact reputations, Beizai says, but also morale. “This, in turn, will impact the business again, so you’re creating a vicious cycle where the crisis impacts morale, which impacts business results, which then impacts reputation again.” You devolve from talking about employees being ambassadors and advocates to worrying about their impact on the bottom line.
Edelman’s Al D’Agostino mentioned his company’s Trust Barometer, whose latest findings reveal that more than 75% of people globally view their employer as their most trusted institution. This adds to the imperative for the company to act responsibly in the eyes of employees.
Deploy a coalition of people willing to defend you in public
Julie Miller said she’d been with a leading tax software provider when scammers began filing fraudulent tax returns and receiving other people’s tax refunds. “Somebody already has your refund. Unwinding that is very, very hard.” She says her company hadn’t prepared a coalition of people willing to speak on their behalf, and that was a hard lesson to learn. “Sometimes it’s not enough for the company to defend itself. Gather a group of people who will partner with you in battle, as either public defenders or private advisors.”
Emily Horn agreed that third-party validation has never been more important. “Pick the right partners, have them act as your brand halo, and push them forward to tell the story.”
Even though the media environment is changing and the media mix is much different today, Nina Beizai cautions against neglecting or minimizing the importance of existing media relationships. “Old-school media relationships help in a crisis more than we tend to give credit. Where you want to balance stories with your quotes and who you trust to do this are both key.”
Timing is everything, and might offer you a chance to benefit from a crisis
Kimpton’s Nina Beizai says, “There’s this pivotal moment where you have an opportunity to build reputation and loyalty to a brand. Spotting that moment and shifting the paradigm is key. Oftentimes you’ll have a situation where an organization apologizes and it’s too little, too late. So look for that window of opportunity for your spokesperson to come forth.” She says the initial approach must be human, authentic, and as transparent as possible for there to be any chance of success.
It helps when what you value is also important to others. HP’s Emily Horn says, “One of our reputation pillars is diversity and inclusion. It’s extremely important to the company.” She says diversity and inclusion’s impact on reputation is often hard to measure, but that reputation itself can be measured by an increased intent to buy. Seeing an increase in this metric is one way of knowing that others share your values and appreciate your responses.
Don’t dwell on mistakes, and never shy away from bold solutions
Crises happen in every industry, says Edelman’s Al D’Agostino. No matter what brand organization you’re part of, something unfortunate will happen. “You’re going to be judged on your response operationally and from a communication standpoint. So how prepared and willing are you to be a transparent and direct communicator?”
Asked by an audience member for solutions that go beyond forming tiger teams and other tried-and-true methods of damage control, several panel members referenced Starbucks’ 2018 closure of 8000 stores to conduct racial-bias training. Something positive and unexpected that has an impact on revenue often captures people’s attention. Al D’Agostino’s takeaway from that incident was that Starbucks was truly committed to making amends.
Summary of Recommendations
Panellists agreed that a cross-functional “tiger team” should be assembled the moment a crisis hits. Have a list of participants prepared and include the key functions. Gathering the right people together in the very beginning is the key to making decisions quickly.
A crisis can enhance your reputation if your approach is human, authentic, and reasonably transparent. Never be afraid to apologize if the situation warrants it, but don’t overdo it.
Crises happen. No matter what industry you’re in, you’re going to be judged on your response from an operational and communication standpoint. How willing are you to be a transparent and direct communicator? How prepared are you?
For additional reading, check out the findings of a similar panel discussion on risk and reputation management hosted by Meltwater in New York this past May.