It is essential that companies take a global and holistic approach to creating, commercializing, and protecting their brands and their value. When an organization experiences a public relations disaster, what is the role of communications in minimizing the impact to its brand as part of its overall Total Brand Care strategy?
In this hoganlovells.com interview, Mark Irion, head of the Strategic Communications practice at Hogan Lovells, outlines five distinct steps to create a communications plan that incorporates legal, reputation, and brand strategies:
Disclose all the facts
Use the facts to tell the story
Get in front of the story
Embrace the truth
Never go it alone
As Irion explains, when a company is in crisis, its reputation is at risk. The company’s ability to redeem or rehabilitate itself, or make itself less vulnerable to that risk, is fundamentally a matter of trust. Does the company have a large enough reservoir of trust with its customers, regulators, or community to survive and thrive in the wake of a crisis event? That depends on the nature of the crisis, Irion says, and whether the company has a system in place to contain the crisis.
Why is it so critical to disclose all of the facts up front when in the midst of a public relations crisis?
Irion: When something you’re not proud of comes to light, the natural human tendency is to say as little about it as possible. And that usually serves to reassure the audience that you’re either hiding something or you’re not taking responsibility for what you’ve done.
One of the points I make is that there’s a natural tendency for your attorneys to want to preserve your legal prerogatives by limiting what you say. But one of the advantages of being able to manage your crisis with the benefit of both Hogan Lovells legal counsel and our strategic communications counsel is that we can also think about your brand and reputational risk.
There’s legal risk and there’s reputational risk, and you don’t want to manage one to the detriment of the other. So a combined legal and communications team can get all of the necessary facts out in ways that preserve or redeem your reputational equity, while being mindful of what preserves your legal prerogatives.
What is so deadly about a drip, drip, drip approach to disclosing the facts?
Irion: One example that comes to mind is the current presidential administration, talking about their meeting with the Russians. At first, they said the meeting didn’t happen. Then they said it happened, but they only talked about adoption and there was only this one person there. Then, there were more adminstration participants, and then more yet again. Following that were additional disclosures that the topic wasn’t just about Russian adoption, but included other topics — and so on.
Whether you support this administration or not, that approach did not play well. The slow revelation of the facts left the distinct impression that thet didn’t want to be forthcoming about what really happened.
The next two points you suggest are to use the facts to tell the story, and to get in front of that story. How do these fit into the brand restoration process?
Irion: When you’re in a crisis, you can either tell your own story, or one will be told about you.
I’m not saying it’s never appropriate to say “no comment,” but the decision to play it safe and just say, “no comment,” is a comment. It’s a statement, and what it’s saying is that you’re not going to get any of your facts for this story from me.
So in that case, the story is going to be told by somebody else — and you really don’t have very much control over that.
You say that the company must make customers feel good about its brand again. Is that related to taking control of the story and using facts to tell it?
Irion: Yes. You certainly have to give your audience a reason to want to feel good about your brand again. So you want to make your response not just about answering questions about what happened, why it was or wasn’t your fault, or things related directly to the crisis matter, but also about how you’re going to get beyond this in a positive way –answer the question about what you’re committing to that will yield so much good that it erases the negativity of the moment. And that can be way beyond what’s necessary just to fix the immediate problem at hand.
For example, what if your company was having one of those #MeToo moments, where leadership has just been accused of harassing women at the workplace? You can deny it, or you can say, “No, we don’t deny it, but we’ve fired those responsible for this unacceptable behavior.” But it is even better yet if you move beyond that to make people feel good about your brand with actual positive commitments to support equal pay, equal respect and treatment of women, and the presumption that the women are telling the truth.
It’s not enough to tell your customers the facts you want them to hear; you can also turn those facts into constructive messages.
Your fourth point is to embrace the truth, because brand rehabilitation is not about spinning facts and stories. Can you elaborate on that?
Irion: That takes place right from the very beginning. Every situation is different, but let’s presume that the company actually did do something of which it’s not proud . Embracing the truth means to come out and say, “Yes, we did this, and we’re not proud of it.”
In 2017, a passenger who had boarded an overbooked flight in Chicago was dragged off the plane. The airlines’ first response was to not take responsibility for the way the man was treated, nor for what happened to the other customers.
In his first statement, the CEO of the airline apologized for having to “re-accommodate” the customers — like they had done their customers a service. Then he said they were working with authorities, conducting their own review of the incident, and reaching out to the passenger to resolve the situation. He gave what was, in effect, a nonapology to the passenger and customers.
Later that day, the CEO issued a recap of a preliminary report to show solidarity with the airline employees, but reiterated what could be called a biased description of the passenger’s actions and responses. The public saw it as Us vs. Them.
Finally, 36 hours later, after the airlines took a lot of flak, the CEO said, “This is not us, these are not our values, we are sorry, that’s not the airline that we built.” At that point, the CEO embraced the truth.
The last point you make about brand rehabilitation is to never go it alone. What do you mean by that?
Irion: You lack the objectivity in a crisis moment to be your own doctor. So you really do want to have some outside strategic communications counsel available to you. I wrote an article that was very complimentary to that airline in the end. They did more right than wrong. The only thing they did wrong was in the first 36 hours, but they did everything right from then on.