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.
"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 memo leak has begun. Today's headlines about Toyota lobbyists bragging about saving the company $100 million by getting NHTSA to agree to a relatively small-scale fix to the unintended acceleration problem will surely inflame Congress. Of course, the leak of the memo almost certainly came from a Congressional staffer. (The Congressional investigators subpoenaed Toyota for the document after being tipped off by a lawyer suing the company.) See how this works?
Toyota President Akio Toyoda should expect a circus when we testifies before Congress this week. He had no choice; as the leader of a global company facing the greatest crisis in history; he had to step up and face the music. But he better be ready for some tough questioning.
Count on it, Akio: It will be unpleasant and it will seem like odd theater. Hopefully you're ready.
Next week at this time, I'll be in Scottsdale, AZ at the Communitelligence Conference listening to my friend, the distinguished Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, and getting ready for my own presentation a couple of hours later. (How did I get stuck with the time slot right after lunch the second day? I'll have to keep my presentation up-beat or I'll be drowned out by snoring.)
Interestingly, the conference organizer, John Gerstner, suggested the title of my presentation, "LIVING IN GLASS HOUSES: PROTECTING YOUR REPUTATION WHEN ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE" --not realizing that "The Glass House" is the nickname of Ford's WHQ in Dearborn where much of the drama of my book Feeding Frenzy takes place.
As the public spat between Ford and Firestone grew nastier, more than one commentator reminded us that "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones."
I'll be sure to blog and Tweet from a thought-provoking conference in Arizona next week.
If you haven't already rushed out to get your copy of Feeding Frenzy (makes a great Christmas gift for that p.r. pro or communications student on your shopping list!), you can read an excerpt here.
The link takes you to Jonathan Bernstein's excellent bi-weekly crisis newsletter, Crisis Manager. If you aren't already a subscriber, you should be -- it's free. (If you used to subscribe, but didn't get your usual e-mail with the link, it means you need to resubscribe. Jonathan recently updated his distribution list as he has moved the newsletter to HTML format. That means two things: 1) Anybody wanting to continue to receive it has to resubscribe; 2) The newsletter has a snazzier look, beginning with the issue featuring Feeding Frenzy.
The excerpts in Crisis Manager offer a look at the thorny issues of dealing with a media-savvy plaintiff attorney determined to keep your crisis in the news, and the circus atmosphere of a Congressional hearing.
Today's Bulldog Reporter includes an interview with me as author of this blog and author of Feeding Frenzy. The interview focuses, as you might expect, on crisis communications.
Here's one quick take-away: Become a student of current affairs and think about how you'd handle issues in the news:
We don't know what the next crisis will be, but we do know that it's coming. So pay attention to how others are handling crises. Watch the news closely and envision yourself in the crisis. Imagine that you're Robert Gibbs, and ask, how would I handle that? As PR professionals, we should be students of the news, instead of just consumers.
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.
Does the world really need another book on crisis communications?
Yes! While there are plenty of crisis "how-to" manuals, some of them quite good, they tend to provide examples from numerous case studies to illustrate a few (often simplistic) points. I don't know of a book that details the day-to-day struggles faced by a crisis team during a single, prolonged crisis to really give a reader the feeling of what it is like to live through a pressure-packed test of nerves lasting several months.
But soon there will be. (Drum roll, please.) My book, FeedingFrenzy - Trial lawyers, the media, politicians and corporate adversaries: Inside the Ford-Firestone crisis provides insights and lessons learned in narrative, story form. It's meant to be interesting as well as informative. It will be available in mid-October.
Here's what the publisher's press release says about the need for this book:
Feeding Frenzy provides a candid, telling look at high-stakes crisis management throughout an epic corporate crisis. Unlike other books on crisis communications, Feeding Frenzy is not just a “how-to-manual”but a riveting story providing readers with the feeling of living through one of the most challenging crises in business history.
Facing unprecedented scrutiny from international media, aggressive trial lawyers and an angry U.S. Congress, Ford Motor Company's crisis team tries to understand what’s causing a growing number of deadly rollover crashes involving the world’s best-selling SUV. Ford’s strained relationship with its biggest tire supplier grows increasingly bitter, then gives way to all-out warfare to the delight of the companies’ opportunistic adversaries.
Including never-before-published material, Feeding Frenzy sheds new light on one of the biggest news stories of the decade, revealing media manipulation, political grandstanding and corporate in-fighting. The author includes insightful crisis “lessons learned” throughout the narrative, as well as an Epilogue examining how the rise of social media is transforming crisis work today.
In future blog posts, I'll provide more of a sneak preview of Feeding Frenzy, along with some advance reviews.
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