Managing the PR Emergency Before it Happens

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Is your brand prepared for a public relations disaster? When something goes wrong — a fire, a theft, a strike, a sexual harassment suit — knowing who you are is at least as important as knowing what to do.

Broad-minded marketers endlessly focus on keeping their organizational identity up-to-date: rethinking what they do and whom they help, thereby establishing a baseline promise. Everything the organization does communicates this promise. Managing the promise, and ensuring it remains relevant, is management’s most important job.

Why? Remember what your parents said: a promise is a promise.

When a PR crisis emerges (and it will), the public will listen to your point of view, assess your values, balance those values against your track record, and judge you as an organization.

Controlling how people think in a crisis is impossible. The best way to be judged fairly is to be prepared: establish your identity in peoples’ minds before problems strike. The more thoroughly embedded their perceptions, especially with respect to credibility and trustworthiness, the more likely the organization will weather the storm.

Those choosing to wait for a situation to develop before deciding what to say compound their problems: not only do they have a crisis on their hands; by making important decisions on the fly, they may dig themselves deeper into trouble. Attempting to clean up the mess by resorting to short-term communication solutions rarely works.

A promise is real and powerful even when it may not seem to exist. Today’s public expects good citizenship. Exxon felt the consequences of defying this implicit social contract in 1989 when one of its tankers, the Valdez, ran around in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Up to that point, the company had excelled at product marketing but had invested very little time in thinking about what the sum of those products meant to its overall corporate identity or its relationship to the consumer. As the environmental tragedy resulting from the oil spill became a public issue, Exxon management’s silence and, later, their criticism of the non-Exxon clean-up crews, made a poor impression.

The public was disappointed that Exxon didn’t promptly accept responsibility for the disaster. They were judged, first by vox populi and later in court, for breaking their promise, and became the butt of jokes. Fourteen years later, the memory of Exxon’s response – more than the incident itself – is what haunts the Exxon brand.

Exxon might have considered Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol case as a model for protecting its consumers, its broader community, and its stature. That year, tampered bottles of Tylenol began showing up on Chicago store shelves. Police and Tylenol officials were confident the security breach was limited to just a handful of local stores, but the company quickly decided to recall all Tylenol products from store shelves everywhere. In so doing, Tylenol admitted that if their product was involved, then the company would be responsible for protecting the public. Healing, after all, is the core attribute of its brand, and Tylenol lived up to that promise, for which it has been amply rewarded.

Tylenol understood where its brand impacted with the public, Exxon did not. To have presence of mind like Tylenol, organizations need to examine where their brand meshes with their stakeholders’ needs.

Why do so many organizations lack this knowledge? What they’re missing is a particular kind of leadership. If a brand is, as one pundit has aptly noted, like a ship navigating a treacherous passage in unfamiliar waters, it must be steered by someone familiar with the branding waters – a pilot. This very specific task is not the work of captain and crew; a specialist is needed to keep the corporate ship safely on course.

Navigating by dead reckoning is a doomed strategy. If you can’t place yourself accurately on a map, if you don’t know the organization’s mission, vision, character, and voice, you won’t be able to find your stakeholders. Navigating is easier with a map clearly pointing out who you are; the messages you communicate; the operational choices you will make; and where to find your community.

A knowledgeable pilot knows that the most clearly laid-out path is not a static entity. If the water level drops, new shoals may emerge unexpectedly. The connection between your identity and your stakeholders requires constant reaffirmation. Lives change, needs change, but organizations must remain relevant to their stakeholders’ lives today.

A clearly expressed identity is a sign of internal strength, and indicates that employees are participants in the managing of identity. Keeping your promise is an everyday practice. When employees at all levels know the parameters guiding their behavior, they are active players ensuring the organization makes appropriate-not cautious-decisions about how it keeps its promise.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), November 2003)

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