What do companies need to do and say to win back pubic trust?
Jordan Kimmel of Trust Across America posed that question to me this week on his radio program on Voice America. Here's the link to listen to the interview.
Jordan asked me about winning back trust after a crisis and about my experience in the Ford-Firestone mess that is the basis for my book, FEEDING FRENZY. And we talked about the turmoil inside Goldman Sachs after former executive Greg Smith took quite a public parting shot in the form of an op-ed in the New York Times. (Smith's piece has since led to a global torrent of negative press and opinion against Goldman and its brand of "pirate capitalism.")
Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein
I pointed out that the heart of Smith's accusations against Goldman's corporate culture is the violation of customer trust, of putting profit ahead of customer interest. But even worse, I noted, is a bigger cloud hanging over Goldman, the violation of public trust. It's now clear that Goldman played a key role in the financial crisis that precipitated the global Great Recession, especially in regard to the clever packaging of derivatives built around shaky subprime mortgage disguised as AAA-rated investments.
The American public is incredibly forgiving when the leaders of an organization express remorse and a sincere commitment to change behavior for the better. But contriteness is not the message coming out of Goldman.
Furthermore, in today's world, transparency is an essential element of corporate social responsibility. Goldman's corporate culture is built on impenetrable secrecy. And there's little reason to expect the curtain to be lifted any time soon.
It's only March, but put Goldman Sachs down as an early contender for Force for Good's 2012 PR Disaster of the Year.
In a hyper-competitive world and in a weak economy, companies need fully engaged employees who understand and buy into the corporate strategy. So there's a shockingly huge opportunity at most companies in America today:
A 2009 Gallup study found only 28% of employees at large companies describe themselves as fully engaged in their work; 54% say they are not engaged and 18% say they're "actively disengaged." (Accompanying graphic courtesy of Gallup Management Journal, Sept. 2010)
"Only 37% of employees have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to do and why. Just one in five employees are enthusiastic about their organization's and teams goals." -- You Can't NOT Communicate2, by David Grossman
Fortunately, Grossman's latest book is an incredibly useful tool for business leaders and communicators who want to increase employee engagement and alignment. Clear, compelling, purposeful communication can make a huge difference in the workplace.
Grossman makes the case for the greatness: "Good internal communication gets the message out, but great internal communication helps employees connect the dots between the overarching business strategy and their individual roles. When it's good, it informs; when it's great, it engages employees and moves them to action." (p. 17)
The book itself models many of Grossman's principles for effective communication--it's short and easy-to-follow with simple, bulleted copy and lots of illustrations. Each chapter has practical tips, questions for self-reflection and specific actions to implement. It amounts to a comprehensive, self-guided business school course, beginning with the fundamentals (that ought to be obvious but will be of benefit to just about everyone) and including "Advanced Communication Mastery" for those ready to take the fundamentals "to the next level." Grossman makes even this graduate level material easy to understand, but warns that it will take courage to put into practice. "What courageous conversation might you need to have today," he asks, "and how can you develop your communications skills to prepare?"
Disclosure: David Grossman is a friend and someone I admire.
"Keep your head when others around you are losing theirs." It's sound advice for the crisis communicator, but easier said than done.
The secret is preparation. Start with a thorough crisis vulnerability audit covering your company's operations, products and people. Then develop a detailed crisis communications plan with variations included for each significantly different type of crisis envisioned by the audit.
Then remember that the actual crisis that strikes won't be at all like any of the scenarios you envisioned. A crisis creates a whole string of moments requiring on-the-spot good judgment from the person leading crisis communications. But you'll be much more ready to exercise good judgment and a steady hand if you have previously taken the time to develop your crisis plan.
If you have little media-relations experience handling combustible issues and preparing for an all-out corporate crisis seems over-whelming, you'll do well to read Judith Hoffman's concise and well-reasonedKeeping COOL on the HOT Seat: Dealing Effectively with the Media in Times of Crisis. Just released as a revised fifth edition, this handy paperback provides wise counsel to the communicator that is both up-to-date and timeless.
The beauty of this book is its simplicity. Hoffman breaks down the daunting specter of a crisis--and the role of a crisis communicator in confronting it--into a series of short, easy-to-understand mini-chapters that collectively can help a novice make sense of it all. Yet a more seasoned public relations pro will also find it to be valuable because it's all so spot-on.
Keeping Cool walks the reader through the basic elements of crisis planning, along with the basics of crisis media relations. It is full of practical advice, including these 10 C's of Good Crisis Communications:
Demonstrate caring and concern.
Act calm (keep your cool).
She advises against trying to be "cute or clever" and to avoid the always deadly "No comment."
This is all great advice and it's a solid reminder of the basics of crisis communications. Those who read and abide by the principles in this book will better serve their organization in the sudden event of a crisis.
What's missing is exactly where I began this post--the crisis audit. Hoffman skips over the need to dissect the organization for vulnerability on various fronts. Often, the crisis audit will detect deficiencies that, once addressed, may help an organization avoid a crisis in the first place. And different types of vulnerabilities may require somewhat different crisis plans (for example, an explosion in a plant will require a different response plan than would a string of complaints of sexual harassment).
Hoffman's book alone won't prepare a novice communicator for any emergency, but Keeping Cool readers will be far better off in an emergency for having read her book.
Disclosure: Judy Hoffman includes a nice reference to my book, Feeding Frenzy, in her book which I'm happy to quote here:
"To get a true sense of what it is like to be on the "hot seat" in the midst of a raging crisis with national and international attention, read this book. Mr. Harmon was the head of Pubic Relations for Ford Truck in 1999 when this high-profile case broke. If there is even a possibility that your organization could be in such a high visibility position with your products deemed a safety threat to a large population, you owe it your self to know how these things work."
The aim of my book Feeding Frenzy is to provide readers with the sense of living through the pressure-cooker experience of handling a deluge of media inquiries throughout the epic Ford-Firestone crisis.
So, does the book fulfill that ambition?
I’ll leave it to others to be the judge, beginning with perhaps the most widely respected expert on the contemporary auto industry, along with four highly-regarded thought-leaders in the discipline of public relations.
Here’s what the five of them had to say after reading an advance draft of Feeding Frenzy:
Feeding Frenzy is a view from the inside of one the most intriguing events in the history of modern industry, the highly publicized drama of the Ford-Firestone conflict. Jon Harmon, a key player in the drama, gives us a clear view from the team that lived with the enormous challenge for months on end. His “lessons learned” are highly insightful and valuable for any organization dealing with serious legal conflict. The detail, quality of writing, complexity of the issues and the interesting cast of characters make this a very engaging and educational read.
-Dr. David E. Cole, Chairman, Center for Automotive Research, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Jon Harmon’s Feeding Frenzy is must reading both for CEOs and public relations professionals. His insider account of a real-life business disaster involving two iconic brand names, Ford and Firestone, has all the suspense of a fictional “thriller.” From his perch as a senior Ford communicator, he provides rare perspective on a conflict that engaged lawyers and communicators fighting for mega-stakes – dollars and, even more important, reputation.
-Harold Burson, founding chairman, Burson-Marsteller; named “the 20th Century’s most influential PR figure” by PR Week.
The Ford-Firestone dispute marked the start of 21st century crisis communications, an environment where the court of public opinion is often more important than a court of law. Jon Harmon’s “ground zero” examination of these events at Ford provides invaluable insights and lessons to crisis managers everywhere.
Crisis communications expert Jon Harmon cracks open a famous case of a company under fire and comes away with fresh guidance for the corporate executive who wants to avoid costly mistakes and gain the advantage when things go wrong and critics are on the attack. A must-read for C-suiters.
nnn-E. Bruce Harrison, author, Corporate Greening 2.0
Feeding Frenzy has the compelling narrative drive of a novel. The drama comes alive with details of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and intriguing personalities. It delivers important crisis management lessons that executives need: instant news, the role of the Internet, the melodramatic approach to story telling used by today’s ratings-desperate media – and the role trial attorneys and opportunistic politicians play now that reputations and trust can be lost in a heartbeat.
-Gerald Baron, author, Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News.