Posts Tagged ‘Crisis communication’

Crisis rules

July 16, 2013

When a company gets into a crisis – a real crisis with the mob at the gates wanting to tear the place down – management can call a lawyer. Or a politician. Or a PR person. Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer who served in Bill Clinton’s White House when the Prez got caught with his pants down, is a player in all three realms. He’s a guy people call when it all hits the fan.

Now Davis has a book, Crisis Tales (Threshold Editions, 2013), laying out five rules for how to survive a crisis. War stories from many crises in business and government illustrate these rules. Says Davis:

My work in crisis management has taught me a series of rules and one overall guiding principle. The guiding principle: Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.

The core idea of the book is to take control of a story – a narrative, as the pundits say – by becoming the person who tells the story. This is a valuable lesson for companies and CEOs whose business blows up, literally or figuratively, in the harsh light of media or public attention. And it’s a good guideline for us as investor relations professionals.

A top-line look at Davis’ five rules of crisis management:

  1. Get all the facts out.
  2. Put the facts into simple messages.
  3. Get ahead of the story.
  4. Fight for the truth using law, media and politics.
  5. Never represent yourself in a crisis.

This is a crisis communications guide worth perusing. I’m uncomfortable in the swampland we call politics, even cynical about anyone whose address ends in “DC.” But Davis’ examples of damaged reputations – and the process of damage control – are instructive.

In a public company, it’s well worth considering the strategy for handling a crisis before something blows up. What’s your crisis plan?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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IPO in the midst of Japan’s earthquake

March 11, 2011

Our prayers go out for the Japanese people after the massive quake and tsunami.

From the Wall Street Journal page live-blogging the quake comes one small vignette that may amaze investor relations colleagues: Calbee, a snack food maker that is 20% owned by PepsiCo, had its IPO today on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

The WSJ blog reports:

Calbee’s shares did well, outperforming the market. But for [Akira] Matsumoto [chairman and CEO of Calbee], the day got a lot more memorable after the exchange closed. That’s because he went ahead with a news conference, in front of about 50 reporters, after the closing bell—even as aftershocks following the big earthquake, just 15 minutes or so, continued to rattle the exchange. The conference was held in the bourse building, which shook badly in part because of its quake-absorbing structure.

Even as bourse staff warned colleagues, “Please wear a helmet!” or “Keep your head under the table!,” the press conference kept going. Mr. Matsumoto soldiered right on, stopping briefly only when warnings over the P.A. system temporarily drowned him out.

And he stayed on-message. “I feel very grateful for the price (rise),” he said, after discussing corporate strategy rather than earthquakes.

Wow is all I can say. Congratulations to Calbee for getting the IPO done. But more importantly, we offer our heartfelt sympathy and best wishes to all who are grieving or struggling with the aftermath of this catastrophic natural event.

Good news for BP shareholders?

June 1, 2010

Let’s not take this to extremes, but a recent study offers the counter-intuitive notion that companies with great reputations don’t generally provide great returns for investors – and a decline in corporate reputation can presage better returns.

In the Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Portfolio Management, economist Deniz Anginer and finance prof Meir Statman look at Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired Companies” rankings from the start of that survey in 1983 up through 2007.

The annual “Most Admired” survey reflects opinions of executives, directors and analysts on companies in their own industries.  You might expect the stocks of firms with the best reputations to perform best in the market, but it just isn’t so.

The authors compare portfolios of higher-reputation companies vs. lower-rated firms, looking at 12-month returns following publication of the “admired” ratings:

We find that stocks of spurned companies, or those with relatively low Fortune ratings, beat the stocks of admired companies, or those with relatively high ratings.

… we also find that stocks of companies that moved up the reputation scale lagged stocks of companies that moved down the scale.

This study looks at a relatively short-term trade, a 12-month adjustment after a reputational change takes hold. It doesn’t consider multi-year differences in returns or valuation between respected and disrespected firms.

The authors also don’t explore causes of their counter-intuitive finding. But I believe a key factor is that reputation surveys are lagging indicators:

  • A company is recognized for rising reputation after peers in its industry see it deliver strong results, an increasing stock price, high-profile successes. And then? Well, high-flying companies and stocks tend to revert to the mean.
  • When bad things happen to a company, peers and analysts are quick to cast blame – the stock drops, company reputation sags. And then recovery begins.

The JPM article confirms what many value investors practice: Out-of-favor stocks may yield more opportunities than “admired” companies riding the wave, for the simple reason that less-popular companies are cheaper than glamour issues. And at least some of the high-multiple stocks are going to hit bumps in the road.

Of course, it isn’t much of an investor relations story to say “Our reputation is in the tank, so things can’t help but get better.” And IR people, as champions of our companies’ reputations, all want rising earnings, strategic accomplishments, recognition in places like Fortune … the good news that creates solid reputations.

But when times are tough, we may find some comfort in the reversion to the mean.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Toyota crisis should teach us

February 4, 2010

Poor Toyota. The crisis Toyota Motor Corp. faces over the safety of its cars is of epic importance – and they are struggling to get ahead of the reputational meltdown.

Investor relations professionals and corporate communicators should be taking notes on this story as it unfolds – and learning from Toyota’s woes – because sooner or later a crisis like this may strike your company.

A “Squawk Box” discussion on CNBC today highlights the reputational crisis Toyota faces – and the direct hit that the change in public perception will have on sales and profits going forward.

Particularly interesting to me are comments by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, professor at the Yale School of Management, who grades Toyota’s response as “C-minus and falling” and adds, “They’ve lost the leadership moment.”

Asked what he would advise if he were in Toyota’s crisis management “war room,” Sonnenfeld says these actions would be his top priorities:

  • Put CEO Akio Toyoda front-and-center in the public responses to the crisis. “He should get out there like Jim Burke of Johnson & Johnson, Bob Eckert at Mattel more recently and David Neeleman at JetBlue. These guys controlled the story – with facts,” the prof says. “He’s new on the job. Well, this is trial by fire. He’s got to learn to articulate and reassure the public with facts.” I might add this is a time to communicate the right values – and facts.
  • Respond in the blogosphere and social media. It’s a tsunami of talk, and Toyota needs to be answering, giving its viewpoint, correcting errors, responding to rumors, expressing a caring approach. The “Recall Information” link on the Toyota homepage is hardly adequate. Toyota ought to speak out in words and on video – and it should be very proactive online. Of course, you have to learn to engage in social media before the crushing wave rolls over you.
  • Embrace the critics rather than hiding. Hard as it may be, Toyota management should be side-by-side with the regulators and opinion leaders (in Washington or elsewhere) to demonstrate its concern and active response, keep the facts in line, and be a part of the dialogue. “Rather than disparage them, let’s embrace them as part of the flow of communications,” Sonnenfeld says.
  • Share with competitors what’s going on as the crisis unfolds. Counter-intuitive, but Sonnenfeld points out other automakers aren’t above safety problems or recalls, and some may even share suppliers with Toyota. Good time to reach out and enlist competitors’ sympathy and perhaps help – because in the long run the automakers all face similar issues.

This isn’t just a product or branding issue – the crisis is a major financial and capital markets setback for Toyota. The stock has tanked 20 bucks or 22% (looking at the ADS) since the mid-January peak before the recall. When the core value of your only product becomes a target of late-night comedians, it’s trouble.

Of course, Washington is dealing out public floggings daily – and these will continue and increase. Given the prevailing populism, which thrives on attacking big business, companies need to get much sharper at reputation management. When someone like the Obama Administration’s secretary of transportation tells Americans who own Toyotas to stop driving them – he later “clarified” that he meant something else – it’s ugly. (Does the US government in 2010 have a conflict of interest as the majority shareholder of GM, Toyota’s biggest competitor?)

Out in the blogosphere, people are equally carried away. One post by a public relations guy who writes anonymously under his Twitter handle @PRdude asks: “Should Toyota change its name?” And suggesting a name change may be the nicest thing a blogger is saying about Toyota.

Unlike the Yale prof or the anonymous “dude,” I don’t have solutions to offer Toyota today. But my advice to all of us at other companies is to watch this one – and learn.

Any thoughts? Please share your comments below.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

In crisis, response is critical

December 21, 2009

Sooner or later something blows up for every company, so every investor relations professional ought to consider crisis communication as a critical skill. We should be in training. Two business professors offer a pretty good primer in “Let the Response Fit the Scandal” in the December 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review.

In the article, Alice Tybout of Northwestern University and Michelle Roehm of Wake Forest focus on the response of management – specifically CEOs – to reputational crises. But their guidance also fits corporate staffers and others who offer counsel.

The profs lay out four steps in the response to any crisis:

  1. Assess the incident
  2. Acknowledge the problem
  3. Formulate a response
  4. Implement the response

These are familiar, common sense steps, but the important thing is that a company must execute well on all four stages of crisis response – or risk losing brand loyalty and value for years rather than weeks – say Tybout and Roehm.

The profs have a couple of suggestions specific to communication in a crisis.

Rapid response is the key to establishing credibility early. After assessing the incident’s impact on the company and its customers, go to Step 2:

If management concludes that the company is likely to be affected by a scandal, it should immediately acknowledge the problem, expressing concern for any parties harmed and outlining the steps the firm is taking to investigate and prevent further damage.

Details aren’t appropriate in early communications, the profs say. In Step 2 the company expresses concern and describes initial actions – how it’s investigating the issue and what it’s doing to contain the problem from spreading. This is about management saying we know a problem exists and we’re on top of it.

That quick “acknowledgement” to the public buys a little bit of time for the company to determine the facts and formulate a comprehensive response. At that point, the company communicates more fully what went wrong and how it is responding to correct the problem.

And this is the plan for how the brand will bounce back, and value will be protected or restored for investors – which is what we’re in business to do.

Don’t be ACORNed

September 28, 2009

Regardless of your politics, it’s clear that what happened to the activist group ACORN this month is an extraordinary case study in Web 2.0 and the rapid loss of reputation. It’s a new media nightmare.

Before answering “What’s this got to do with IR?” here’s a recap of the action:

acornACORN is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. An advocate for the poor, labor and liberal causes, ACORN organizes voter registration drives, demonstrations and efforts to influence government or pressure businesses. While controversial and oft-accused of improprieties, ACORN has won victories against big companies and been an ally of some top Democratic leaders.

Along came two politically motivated social media types, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. Like other 20-somethings, O’Keefe has been producing videos for the Web – in his case, needling liberals. Giles, a 20-year-old college sophomore, got in touch with O’Keefe with an idea to go after ACORN with a made-up event.

The two concocted a scenario to test the community organizers’ integrity. O’Keefe would play the role of a pimp and Giles a prostitute. The pair gathered a few props, went on the road with a hidden camera, and set out to entrap ACORN.

Visiting ACORN offices in DC, New York, Baltimore, San Diego and San Bernadino, O’Keefe and Giles told ACORN counselors they needed advice on getting a house for the prostitution biz, hiding income from the IRS, avoiding police detection, and smuggling underage girls into the country to use as prostitutes.

The poseurs got their shocker. Some of the ACORN officials went along, seemingly ignoring the illegality and morally outrageous nature of acts they were discussing. The videos show ACORN people casually giving advice for how best to carry out and conceal the purported illegal enterprise. “Pimp” and “prostitute” seemed to be treated like any other client.

BigGovernment.com, a new conservative website, linked up with O’Keefe and Giles and used their sensationalized attack videos to create momentum for its September launch on the Internet. It’s been a success: The ACORN videos went viral, with links from a host of blogs and tweets; they were huge on YouTube; the slam on ACORN struck a chord with conservative talk hosts; and the controversy crossed over into mainstream media. Within days, Congress members were denouncing ACORN and voting to defund it. Everyone’s investigating.

ACORN has been tripping over itself with denials and counter-attacks. It denounced “indefensible” actions of its people and fired some. Accused the video makers of distortions and filed a lawsuit. Invoked the respected names of its silk-stocking Advisory Council. Posted its own video. Launched an “investigation” of itself. ACORN has tried all the usual reputation-defense tactics. But the damage is done.

This isn’t a small-time hit. BigGovernment is the brainchild of Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Internet entrepreneur who has worked with Drudge Report, a top right-leaning site, and a similar aggregator, Breitbart.com. The sophisticated distribution and marketing of the “news” is worthy of film propagandist Michael Moore or liberal political activists MoveOn.org. These people play hardball.

Well, enough politics. What does the ACORN story have to do with corporations and IR? Investor relations professionals need to envision, for a moment, the potential for a new media nightmare for their corporate reputations.

Build your own scenario. Imagine a couple of 20-somethings bent on doing damage to your company, products or industry. You can’t predict what store, office or plant they may visit. Starting with sophisticated new media skills, they add well-funded distribution – and show no civility or restraint in their attack.

Will the “gotcha” go viral? How much will it damage the company’s reputation?

The anti-business analogy to ACORN’s current organizational torment argues powerfully that companies need to prepare for potential crises created through interactive media channels. Skirmishes already have taken place – but may intensify.

Companies ought to minimize risk by being sure our people are all trained in ethical conduct. If we consistently do what’s right, it’s much less embarrassing. Culture can prevent problems – or not.

IR and other functions must develop robust social media skills, so we’re prepared before a crisis strikes. And we should invest in early warning systems – assuring timely internal communication, as well as monitoring the social and regular Web.

Our crisis communication plans – including IR components – must be up to the challenges of the 21st Century.

Don’t be ACORNed.

© Copyright 2009 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Twitter for IR? Think before tweeting

June 3, 2009

twitter_logo_headerTwitter tops the list of hottest social media and is generating lots of “gee whiz” stories in the press. But is Twitter the right bird for investor relations?

We should think before tweeting. Take Twitter seriously, but think strategically.

In case you were dozing, Twitter is the rapidly growing 3-year-old networking site where users “microblog” in 140-character messages. Tweets range from “Taking the cat out now” personal chat to “Buy, buy, buy!” self-promotion. Lots of links to articles and blog posts. Some spam and porn. Some actual conversation, where two or more people talk to each other instead of at each other.

Twitter users connect to one another and can send direct messages, which seem close to taking the place of email among some devoted Twitterers.

Twitter doesn’t disclose the exact number of users, but Compete.com, a web monitoring service, estimated 19 million unique visitors to Twitter in April. By a wide margin, Twitter is the most talked-about brand in online chatter, according to Social Radar, a social media monitoring service.

The Harvard Business blog published an interesting study on Twitter this week. Analyzing a sample of 300,000 Twitter users, HBS found that a typical Twitter user contributes very rarely – the median user has made 1 lifetime tweet. The most active 10% of users generate 90% of the tweets. The authors comment:

This implies that Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.

Companies use Twitter to market their brands, listen to people’s uncensored comments on those brands, search for consumer complaints and respond proactively to help people deal with product problems – and to disseminate news.

Are investors – our audience in IR – using Twitter? Certainly, though the evidence is anecdotal. The financial newsbyte service @stocktwits claims 75,000 followers. The SEC is on Twitter @SEC_News. Companies are using Twitter to provide news – and attracting followers, some of whom are investors, to connect on this platform. Tweeting a link to a news release seems like another form of email alert.

Corporate activity on Twitter remains experimental. Some companies are hitting just the right voice – moving from announcing new products to resolving customer service issues to linking to earnings releases. Twitter is playing a role in the viral spread of nasty news or complaints, and in corporate responses to crises. One company live-blogged its annual meeting in 140-character snippets, which didn’t compare too well with actually hearing it on a webcast. Some posts are very casual in tone, some formal. A corporate user needs to find a good balance, I think.

On the other hand, a part of our audience is gathering information via Twitter – and potentially having conversations about our companies. Certainly, we should listen in (designating someone to search Twitter, or hiring a web-monitoring service).

And we should be addressing strategic questions: Would this help us connect with our audience? What would we say? How could we integrate a conversation with investors and outreach to other audiences ? Do we have the people resources to do this? Would Twitter as a tactic add value to our IR strategy? 

I’d love to get your reactions – here or @StrategicComm on Twitter.

Headline of the day

June 1, 2009

Headline on the General Motors news release today:

GM ANNOUNCES AGREEMENT WITH U.S. TREASURY AND CANADIAN GOVERNMENTS PROVIDING FAST TRACK TO COMPETITIVE FUTURE FOR ‘NEW GM’

Translation: GM filed bankruptcy today. 

Lesson: Spin doesn’t really make it happy news.

Also, four words say more than 18 words.

Benchmarking the best: II on IR

April 29, 2009

When the going gets tough, the best companies get going – to communicate more than ever with shareholders and analysts – according to Institutional Investor‘s ranking of “America’s Best Investor Relations.”

The article in the magazine’s April 2009 issue is worth reading, but IR folks who want to benchmark against the “best” should go online and explore II‘s interactive rankings page. It’s a clunky interface, but you can find your industry among the 54 sectors covered.

The magazine polled more than 650 portfolio managers and buy side analysts, along with 400 sell side analysts, to compile its review of winning IR. Some examples of championship efforts cited by II:

  • With volatile currency exchange rates hitting many companies’ earnings, MasterCard and McDonald’s won kudos for providing extra data on the impacts, such as income and expense sensitivity to the dollar-euro rate.
  • In a scary time for airlines, Continental “soared above its competitors by being open and giving detailed information not provided by others in the sector” – e.g., monthly projections of revenue growth and jet fuel costs. The IRO also says investors appreciate predictability – like being able to count on seeing Continental’s traffic report on the first business day of each month.
  • When Coca-Cola Co. and its largest bottler had a run-in over pricing, KO launched a two-stage outreach – contacting top shareholders and influencers to answer rumors and concerns, then following up with a broad communication effort on how the two companies work together.
  • With the recession pinching casinos, slot machine maker WMS Industries emphasizes “being much more visible” by meeting personally with investors and analysts. WMS’ IRO says he’s on the road twice as much now as at the start of 2008.

Bottom line, professional investors are working harder than ever to eke out returns. To cultivate long-term relationships, IR people and the companies we serve must go the extra mile to help investors analyze and understand this challenging time.

Swatting a gadfly with a cannon

April 14, 2009

Keeping a sense of perspective can protect you  from embarrassment, and this holds true in the chaotic world of social media. Goldman Sachs seems to have lost track of what’s important by sending its lawyers after a blogger who is criticizing the company – a “corporate gadfly.”

A gadfly, you know, is a little person with no power but a big mouth (or pen). He complains of some perceived wrong, and pretty much no one listens, unless … well, you can be the judge of the complaints in this case.

This story starts with Mike Morgan, a Florida investment adviser and real estate broker, setting up a blog in March called GoldmanSachs666.com. The name tells you where he’s coming from. Many of America’s corporate giants have spawned critics in the blogosphere – it’s a place outside the control of corporate giants.

But who would have read the 666 guy’s blog? I don’t see anything too interesting. He has posted about 30 times in the three and a half weeks it’s been up, offering conspiracy speculation and links to other blogs and news stories. I can’t find a disclosure of his personal or business agenda, why he’s going after Goldman Sachs.

Then Goldman – actually, its Wall Street law firm – threw down the gauntlet by sending him a cease-and-desist letter claiming he’s violating their trademark by using the company name in his URL. I’m no lawyer and don’t know the legal merits of their position. But this comes across like trying to shut up a critic.

That salvo encouraged Morgan to go into full attack mode. Besides encouraging blog readers to alert the media to his story, he’s filed a pre-emptive suit claiming the GoldmanSachs666 blog is posting news and commentary, not infringing their service mark. Some financial bloggers and the UK’s Telegraph are covering the case. Morgan is recruiting volunteers online, planning a media conference call and so on. He’s campaigning to become a cause celebre.

I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of Goldman’s contacts with the 666 guy. In general, companies should do one of two things about a corporate protester, online or on the street outside the office:

  • Look for a way to engage and mollify the critic. Go the extra mile in person or by phone to see if there’s a grievance that can be solved, meet with him, offer respectful and factual answers or see where he’s coming from. Or if he seems intractable …
  • Ignore the gadfly, while preparing message points to rapidly respond to the criticism. If the negative chatter spreads to other venues or threatens the company’s business or reputation, provide your message points quickly but one-on-one. Don’t issue a press release or file a lawsuit (both of which just turn up the volume). Answer reporters’ inquiries in a noncombative way. And perhaps comment directly on other blog or Twitter posts as they arise, especially if they overlap into your own social media constituency.

But taking aim with the legal cannons seems to be the surest way to make a big noise and get the wrong kind of attention. It’s like calling the police to arrest someone carrying a picket sign outside the office – guaranteed to make the evening news. Goldman Sachs, with all else that is on its plate these days, has more important things to do.