As revealed in Netflix’s new documentary‘White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch’today’s company is very different from the brand of the 1990s and early 2000s. For more than a decade, Abercrombie and Fitch have been in the process of rebuilding its reputation; this reveals some interesting lessons that we can take away as PR and comms professionals.

In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch (Abercrombie) was worth more than $5 billion and had more than 1000 stores worldwide. During this period, the company was led by Mike Jeffries, who once revealed in that now-famous 2006 interview that the company’s marketing strategy was deliberately exclusionary. He only wanted the ‘attractive’, ‘cool kids’ wearing Abercrombie. If we look a little deeper, we see that this was not merely a surface level PR strategy – you want what you can’t have, right? Instead, racist and exclusionary policies were embedded within the company’s culture. While these policies once appeared to benefit Abercrombie, as attitudes changed, they quickly eroded the company’s reputation, which has had a fundamental impact on the business’s long-term growth.

The question is; what can the demise of Abercrombie teach us about the importance of managing your company’s reputation?

Leadership and reputation

As the company’s figurehead, the CEO will always have a significant impact on the reputation of your company – both positive and negative! The former CEO of Abercrombie, Mike Jeffries, who once led the brand’s revival, would ultimately become its biggest liability. Jeffries was known for his bold ideas and commitment to the brand. However, he was also uncompromising, unorthodox, and did not take criticism well.

While Jeffries has long since left the company, Abercrombie is still working to ameliorate the damage caused by his tenure as CEO. Ultimately, Jeffries should not have been left to manage the company for so long. That being said, the current CEO, Fran Horowitz, has been working hard to ensure that the company is accountable for past mistakes. In a statement to CNN, Horowitz said, “we own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership,” adding that the company is now “a place of belonging”.

While the company has a long way to go, the importance of leadership accountability is evident here. Suppose a business fails to hold its leader accountable or recognise when it is time for leadership change. In that case, long-term damage will be inflicted upon the company’s reputation.

Company values

As times change, often should a company’s values. Failure to make the necessary changes will eventually impact the reputation of any company. When Jeffries began his tenure as CEO, he built the brand upon racist and discriminatory values. These values quickly began to seep into company culture and policies, hiring practices, and even the designs on the clothes.

In 2003, 8 former employees sued Abercrombie for race and sex discrimination. Without admitting any guilt, the company settled and was required to pay $40 million and sign a decree to change its practices and promote diversity.

For a while, the company continued to get away with its discriminatory practices. However, these days consumers value and expect brands to promote diversity and inclusion. Abercrombie failed to move with the times, which meant that as attitudes changed, the brand became toxic, and their failure to own up to past mistakes came back to haunt them. Companies should continually audit their values and policies to ensure that they are promoting diversity and inclusion and that they are not breaking the law, for that matter!

So, what can we learn from this as communications professionals?

The demise of Abercrombie from a multi-billion dollar brand to a disgraced clothing company can teach us a few things about managing your company’s reputation:

  • The CEO embodies a company’s reputation: the CEO of any company embodies its reputation. Organisations should be willing to let go of a CEO if their actions or personal life begin to distract from the mission of the company – failure to do so can cause irreversible damage 
  • Accountability: organisations that hold themselves accountable for past mistakes will be able to distance themselves from previous damage and begin rebuilding their reputation
  • Values: organisations should constantly review their values, culture and policies to ensure that they reflect the mission of the company. Out of date practices should be scrapped and replaced with policies that promote diversity and inclusion. 

The past few weeks must have been pretty stormy in the KPMG comms team. KPMG’s ex-chairman, Bill Michael, recently came under fire for making controversial remarks about his employees “playing the victim card” and “moaning” about their circumstances during the lockdown. The comms team reacted fast and the organisation was quick to make changes – and communicate them well! However, it’s unfortunate that most of the damage took place in a matter of days as Michael’s story trial was analysed and scrutinised by the media in no time at all. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done with repairing KPMG’s damaged reputation and the comms teams are more than likely sorting it as we speak, but what would you do if this happened to your organisation?

Of course, this question may feel like nothing more than hypothetical but getting stuck in these kinds of dilemmas isn’t as far away as you may want to believe. It could be something as simple as a video leaking of your CEO or Senior Director saying something in private that goes against the company vision or values. It could be a spokesperson retweeting something without fully understanding the implications. Or even just someone forgetting to change from their social media account to their personal account and tweeting something inappropriate from the company feed. It may seem unlikely, but these things have happened countless times before. Cast your mind back to 2017 when Uber’s founder Travis Kalanic’s argument with a driver was leaked – it cost him his job and a hit to his reputation. We’ve explored this further in our Reputation Shapers guide that you can access here.

There is no doubt that an over-exuberant or insensitive leader somewhere will make mistakes again, and there is so much being written right now about leading with empathy. But, how can you prevent this from happening in the first place and protect your organisation if the heavens open and you find yourself in the middle of a communications storm? Here are three tips to help with weathering the storm:

Take time to train

Just because someone is a good speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to speak to the world. It is so important that senior teams are trained and fully briefed before stepping into the media limelight. And it’s not just about knowing how to speak well with the media, it’s about knowing how to stay on message and communicate appropriately. Similarly, it’s important to know what kind of person they are. Are they likely to lose their temper? Are they stubborn? If so, these things could become an issue and understanding what they may need and supporting them is equally as important.

Remember, it’s not just the media we have to be prepared for. The drama with KPMG stemmed from an internal discussion at a town hall, Uber’s issues arose from a leaked conversation with an employee and countless figureheads have been cancelled on social media for speaking out of turn. Just like the timeless saying goes: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

Staying calm in a crisis

Being in a crisis, regardless of the situation, is a stressful ordeal for anyone to face but being prepared for it makes the experience a bit more palatable. With any media-related plans that have even the slightest possibility of turning sour, your comms teams must be prepared for a crisis situation.

If you aren’t prepared and something has come up to bite you, much like the KPMG comms team must have felt recently, the first step is to pause and understand just how damaging this is. Knowing what you are working with will help to rationalise the next steps and understand how much help and support you may need. This can also help to understand how rapid your response should be. Jumping on the issue too soon could make it seem insincere but leaving it too late leaves time for speculation to occur.

Secondly, what is the best way to communicate your response? Is it sending a press release, or holding a press conference? Or even just focusing on one interview to clear the person’s name? Whatever is the best practice for the situation, stick with that and follow it through until the end. Depending on the scenario, actions may be your next step. When looking at KPMG, the cultural lack of awareness might not end with the removal of the chairman but it’s a start – this needs to be followed up with proactive action from the company to get their reputation back on track to prove to their people, clients and the outside world that they are doing things to actively improve these situations.

Finally, ensure you are monitoring the situation and staying on your toes. Just because the news cycle is over, doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you!

Crystal clear communications

The vocabulary we use to communicate is just as important as the way we communicate. An easy way to ensure the right language is used is by accurately preparing for communications – this can be through detailed briefing documents with sections that focus on topics and phrases to actively avoid, or in-person training sessions. Granted, pressure or nerves may get in the way, and that cannot be helped, but giving support and practising should help to avoid potential mishaps.

The only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all. When faced with a difficult question, it may feel safer to say “no comment” or divert from the question itself but this can be just as damaging. Recently, Matt Hancock came under fire from Piers Morgan on This Morning following the free school meals scandal. Instead of answering the question, Hancock merely recited the “safe” phrases and unsurprisingly, the interview spread like wildfire. Should his comms team have been prepared for this question? Absolutely! But communications can be unpredictable and with the power of social media, one foot in the wrong direction can become a crisis in a matter of minutes.

Getting it right with communications is tough – the world is unpredictable and what grabs people’s attention is changing every day. As comms professionals, we must ensure that we are prepared for all outcomes, good and bad. These tips will help you to prepare your teams and leaders for communications gone bad but sometimes it helps to get an outsider to help. We run workshops and personal coaching programmes that can help with these issues and prevent them before they arise – you can read more about our services and offerings here.

Countless people have said it, but this year really was anything but predictable. Despite the sudden change, the year wasn’t all doom and gloom. Mental health was discussed more, social justice movements really accelerated, carbon emissions dropped at the height of lockdown, Animal Crossing had its time in the limelight, and most of us learnt how to make bread and other baked goods.

With 2020 almost behind us, we’ve been having some great discussions here at Firefly about what we think the year ahead holds, so here are six of the main trends we’ve come up with that we think will have a huge impact on the world of comms in 2021.

Stronger communication of social and political movements 

This year, we have seen social justice efforts dialled up drastically. Hugely important topics such as climate change, animal rights, and wellbeing were brought to the awareness of the masses more so than ever before this year. However, the most powerful of which was undoubtedly the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, where many stood in solidarity to fight against racial oppression and reflected on the prejudices within their own societies. The impactful global movement not only brought these issues to the front of everyone’s minds, but it also prompted action from a number of organisations and effective communication became key.

As we approach 2021, it is likely that topics much like these will continue to surface, causing a shift in both corporate and consumer behaviour. Responding in the wrong way, or not responding at all, can have a negative knock-on effect on the reputation of individuals and/or companies, so being prepared for communicating on issues will be a key consideration as we enter the new year. 

Move over media relations

In the coming year, the face of PR will change, even more so than it has already. Companies, and particularly in-house PR teams, are focusing less and less on traditional media coverage. Of course, the media remains an important audience to communicate to, but comms specialists must start to look at the reputation all around them, not just in the media. Finding the right means of communication will become crucial to helping build or improve the reputation of organisations or individuals. With tactics such as SEO, employer branding, and other reputation-building tactics becoming more and more impactful, it’s clear that media relations alone simply won’t cut it anymore. As an industry, we must start to adapt, develop, and innovate in 2021, pushing communication to its full potential.

Tim believes that “The best campaigns nowadays hit different audiences, in different ways, and at different times, and the truth is that media relations on its own doesn’t usually deliver that as effectively as a wider comms campaign.”

Cancel culture continues on

Prior to this year, we knew cancel culture was a thing, but with the power of social media and the increase of social justice movements, both the extent and frequency has increased a fair bit. Most infamously this year was the fall of the once beloved writer, J.K. Rowling who voiced opinions that many deemed as anti-transgender. Despite numerous attempts to repair her reputation by demonstrating support and clarification on her opinions, J.K.’s cancel saga continues.

So far, the comms industry has had some trouble with understanding and getting to grips with cancel culture. And this is only expected to get harder in the coming year. Our words, especially on social media, can make a huge impact. Now that those involved in cancel culture know that it works, it’s likely that this will only increase just how much they partake in the public shaming of brands. Going forward, we must start to take cancel culture seriously.

For anyone who’s still new to cancel culture or wants to learn a bit more, we wrote a blog about it recently. You can read it here.

The battle against misinformation continues 

We wrote a blog last year about deepfakes being a big threat to the media, and the efforts of those involved in spreading misinformation have really ramped up since. The pandemic has caused a huge amount of misinformation to be spread as many questioned the virus, the causes and eventually the vaccine. In retaliation, the World Health Organisation coined the phrase “infodemic” to explain this plethora of information and its rapid spread. Social media giants even began to crack down on misinformation by flagging posts that may have inaccuracies or be deceptive – hopefully, this will be just the start of the likes of Facebook and Twitter preventing the spread of fake news.

In the next year, it’s likely we will begin to see some real innovation in this area and a shift in behaviour, but it won’t be easy. Comms will have a tricky year ahead trying to deliver accurate, reliable, and credible information, and if the culture of misinformation continues to grow and become more mainstream, this will cause even more challenges!

Empathy, care, and continued commitment

After being subject to nationwide and local lockdowns, where many of us were unable to see our closest friends and families, we all needed a little boost. Everyone has already begun to pay close attention to their own mental wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around them. Even the government has begun to comment on this too. With so much focus on this, it is almost definitely something that will impact the year ahead. For comms professionals, communicating with care is key and care should be top of the agenda for leaders too.

Christian thinks that “The Covid-19 vaccine will take a long time to change the world stage, so people will be working remotely for some time yet. This means that leaders must continue being inspiring, motivating their staff, and making difficult decisions for some time yet. It’s time to dig deep and communicate clearly, powerfully and responsibly.”

Planning for uncertain times

As we know, this year hasn’t been predictable at all, and actually, it’s uncertain just how much we can know about the next year. Despite the uncertainty, we can plan for the year ahead by ensuring there is fluidity interwoven into our plans. Pre-Covid, it was easy enough for us to plan around big events, or key moments in the calendar for the following year. Due to the vaccine being distributed, we can almost start planning in this way again, but we must ensure we have a back-up plan if these milestone moments in the year are postponed or cancelled.

According to Charlotte, “A full, detailed yearly plan has not been ‘a thing’ for a while, things change far too fast to look that far ahead. There is still uncertainty around the corner, so comms planning must be fluid and we must give ourselves room to flex, to either face new challenges or take advantage of new opportunities.”

There are, of course, countless other trends that are likely to make an impact in the year ahead, but these are the six we really think you, as a comms professional, would benefit from keeping a close eye on. This year has been an interesting one to say the least, but we’ve all learnt a lot, and despite the uncertainty, some great things have happened. From us at Firefly, we hope you have a wonderful festive break, enjoy time with loved ones, and recharge those batteries for a brilliant new year ahead. And of course, hopefully the newfound baking skills many of us picked up in lockdown can come in handy for whipping up some festive treats while playing Michael Bublé on repeat!

We all went on a summer holiday… or maybe not if you happened to book your flight with BA.

Strikes and IT outages wreaked havoc this summer, with numerous cancellations and delays (in one instance, all apparently due to a plug being pulled out). Not only could this quickly turn your dream vacation into the holiday from hell, it’s also a PR person’s nightmare.

In any industry, there’s never a good time for something negative and unwanted to crop up, and certainly not during the height of summer in the travel industry. And of course, the challenge with crisis situations is that seemingly minor incidents need to be handled correctly. If not, they will also slowly chip away at that reputation you’ve worked so hard to build up and eventually crack it completely.

It’s inevitable that there will be tricky situations to navigate through, but for the comms teams, you shouldn’t need to panic, strap on a life jacket or make your way to the nearest emergency exit: you’ve got this.

All too often though, many businesses are still doing exactly that, getting their approach and reaction wrong. So, if something does arise, what should you say, how and when should you say it, or should you take a leaf from Ronan Keating’s book and say nothing at all?

Staying shtum – the no comment predicament

“No comment” is a famous phrase uttered by many a celebrity or politician, but in today’s media landscape not saying something is a comment in itself. Aston Martin has recently featured in the media over serious losses after its IPO, but most notable of all was the lack of anyone to comment. Indeed, just a day after the news broke, the Daily Telegraph followed up with publishing a whole piece analysing why the CEO didn’t say anything.

It seems that many companies still have not learnt from Facebook’s hard lesson last year during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as many media sources asked, “Where’s Zuckerberg?” With so many ways to share news and communicate with the public and customers, companies are expected to say something. Not doing so can be taken as a snub, not taking an issue seriously or caring about customers, or even an indication of guilt.

However, there can be a right time to say nothing. In any crisis, it’s important to establish the facts: who is calling you and are they who they say they are? If it’s an unhappy customer, then should you pass it on to customer services? Similarly, is this something that has been a problem in the past? If it is just someone with a personal vendetta now is the time to decline to speak. When it comes to social media trolls, do not engage!

Saying nothing can be a bold move, so just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Fanning the flames

When we were kids, we were all told: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While as grown adults we may not always quite follow this mantra, when it comes to the world of comms, there can be something to be said for it.

If you do decide to speak up, it’s important to keep your emotions in check and stick to the facts. An extreme reaction may be seen as providing grounds and proof to accusations and can make the situation a whole lot worse. Few of us have forgotten Elon Musk’s Twitter debacle over Space X’s submarine and the Thailand Caves.

Similarly, don’t make any promises or claims you can’t stick to. When TSB experienced service outages last year, it jumped the gun, explaining that the service would be down over the weekend but up and fully running again on the Monday. This was not the case until many days later. TSB’s continued customer dissatisfaction (not to mention subsequent summons by MPs) are testament to hasty promises doing more harm than good.

The biggest faux pas? Shifting the blame to another party. Here TSB also made a false move, trying to push the problems onto Sabadell. But when it comes to trying to manage your reputation, this is not going to sit well with your customers ‒ always take responsibility and hold yourself accountable.

If what you have to say is only going to make things worse, it may well be time to heed your parents’ advice.

Having your say

So how can you differentiate and make sure that you’re putting forward your view, rather than just setting a match to the situation? Here are some top tips:

 

In many countries, the summer is a quiet period, but this isn’t always true – and many firms have found that out the hard way! With September around the corner and a new year less than a hundred days away, it’s more important than ever to be prepared. So, buckle up and with some preparation, even a bit of turbulence can still result in a smooth landing.

Amazon, Google… so many of the big guys have suffered recently. Amazon is accused of sacking a pregnant worker, raising more questions about warehouse working conditions. Meanwhile, Google has had a succession of incidents involving pay-outs to the executive accused of sexual assault, followed by a global walkout, and more recently, reports that the firm retaliated against two of the female employees who organised the walkout.

What is concerning when reading these reports is that these major international firms still seem to believe some things can be hidden behind closed doors. But they can’t: the truth will come out and a lot is still being learnt after the #metoo movement.

It could be that there are some issues internally that are still being ironed out. But it also could be that leaders have been at the top for so long that they’ve lost touch with reality on the ground. I was recently reading about cognitive distortion which is when our mind convinces us something is true and real when it is not. Common cognitive distortions includes polarised thinking, over-generalisations, disqualifying the positive, but in the case of these tech giants, there may be some minimisation going on. For example, the thinking that these employees don’t represent the bulk of our workforce, so we don’t have a cultural problem. If that’s how they’re thinking, there is a much bigger issue at play. And ignoring the situation and hoping it’ll go away will only lead to bigger problems down the line – brushing things under the rug really does make a mountain.

You may be thinking, “But, Charlotte, these companies are still being used by millions of people, this reputational damage is a drop in the ocean for them.” Well, yes, that may be true in the short term, but how much longer can they take reputational hits like these before users are turned off? Also, having a bad reputation as an employer means that you’re less likely to attract the best people, and without the best people you fall behind in producing the best products and services. Just this month, a report by CNBC revealed that Facebook is struggling to hire following recent scandals. Multiple former recruiters revealed that candidates are turning away job offers.

Character or Capability?

An organisation’s reputation is split between capability reputation and character reputation. Capability is the organisation’s ability to deliver a product or a service, whereas its character reputation is how it does this, and how it interacts with its stakeholders. Sometimes your bad character reputation is forgiven because you’re capable when it matters, but it’s easier to forgive a bad character reputation when it’s not constantly bad.

So, how do you stop your organisation from falling into that character/capability reputation trap? This means going back to the point on cognitive distortion and addressing self-awareness. As a leader, you must:

Surround yourself with people that challenge: It’s natural for senior people to surround themselves with people like them but this creates an echo chamber. Your personality will grow from your thinking being challenged and widening your views.

Give ways for employees to be honest with you: You may think an annual employee survey or your network of managers is enough, but it isn’t. You need to give employees a way to constantly feedback, as well as means to do this anonymously because it could be about a sensitive issue. The faster you can surface issues, the faster they are addressed and could actually improve your reputation as an employer rather than damage it.

Observe others: Take inspiration from others in how they address employee crises – what does their response tell you about them as an employer? Then think how you want to be perceived and either learn from what they are doing well, or by how they’ve handled it badly.

Think bigger: There’s a whole world beyond your organisation.  What could you be doing to help? And I don’t mean just for positive PR – stunts can backfire (just look at Elon Musk’s suggestion for saving the boys trapped in a cave in Thailand using a submarine!) Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was criticised for years for not using his wealth for a better purpose. Steve Jobs was regularly criticised for his apparent unwillingness to give any of his multi-billion dollar fortune to charity. Contrast that to Bill Gates’ and Richard Branson’s charitable work. Now, such huge scales may not be realistic, but there’s always something you can do for your community and earn you the benefit of the doubt when something unexpected goes wrong – even among your workforce.

The fall out of an employee crisis is longer lasting than a few bad articles. So, whilst the likes of Google and Amazon may not be feeling the pain of these reputation hits now, they would be naïve to think they won’t affect them in the long-term. Because neglecting your character reputation will eventually impact your capability reputation.

There was a time when fake news only affected politics and candidates in elections. But a recent trend has seen fake news begin to target brands.

The fact-checking website Snopes is full of fake news being busted, including a claim that Snapchat’s image feature filter “lenses” is covertly collecting a database of faces to share with law enforcement agencies. Another story about Starbucks offering free Frappuccinos to undocumented US migrants also circulated, though seemed to be politically motivated and started by a 4Chan user.

For PR professionals, this trend is of concern. Fake news has already caused havoc in the political sphere and causes reputational damage. Lies tend to travel much faster than the truth, and fake news is designed to travel quickly through the internet, meaning brands need to be switched onto the threat these lies present to the business.

To combat this, PR professionals must think about how to use listening tools and utilise community management to combat any fake news that does arise about their brand.

The role of community management and social listening

Whilst community management may suggest a single location, your community is built up of multiple locations throughout the internet: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google+, Reddit, forums and comment sections on your blog or earned coverage.

Community management is very separate from social media marketing – it’s all about what happens beyond your social media publishing and positive engagement. It is dominated by listening to the internet and reacting when appropriate.

This act of social listening helps brands to monitor social media and other channels for mentions of the brand, competitors and products. This insight can be used to engage customers and monitor sentiment for your brand. It’s important to stress that social listening shouldn’t just be limited to Facebook and Twitter, and by casting a wider net you’ll get better insights from different platforms. The conversations on LinkedIn, for example, will be very different to those on Reddit.

There are many tools that help with social listening, however Hootsuite is a Firefly favourite and one we use for our own Twitter account, and to monitor the client’s Twitter accounts that we manage. There is a free version which is suitable for SMBs to use, but paid for options for larger companies that may have multiple feeds and accounts to manage. It can monitor your Twitter feeds, as well as Facebook and LinkedIn. Tools like TrackReddit are also good for tracking conversations about your brands in forums.

In the context of fake news, social listening tools like Hootsuite and TrackReddit can help brands to spot problems relatively quickly. With feeds to monitor your mentions and branded search terms, it’s easy to see how a brand can pick up on fake news and act swiftly to quell the story.

Squashing fake news

Squashing fake news is much like reacting to a crisis for your brand. You must react quickly, confidently and tackle the issue at hand, before it begins to cause long term problems. There are three things you need to know to tackle it effectively: what to look for, who to go to and how to react.

  1. What to look for: Being part of the communications and marketing team, you’re typically the best person to know whether a story about your brand is correct or not. Something about an article or a social media post will just inherently feel off to you. Most fake news websites will be sparse on details about themselves. If you have access to a media database like Gorkana, you can use that to check the legitimacy of a publication. Some fake news websites will even say they’re a fake news publication in the privacy and T&Cs section.
  2. Who to go to: Internally, it’s best to have a list of names you can go to in the event of verifying information, so you don’t delay on finding out who to go to for a specific issue. For example, if a fake offer is circulating about your brand then you need to know who in the marketing team is best placed to answer questions about promotions.
  3. How to react: Sometimes you may need to gather extra information from social media. The Starbucks team was able to quickly react to the fake news circulating about the brand on social media because it was able to dig out further information about the vouchers offering free drinks.

The speed of your reaction is one of the most important to squashing false claims made about a brand. The Starbucks team took a sensible approach – calling it out pretty much straight away – which any brand should follow in the situation. It’s difficult to take something down from the internet once it’s up, so once you’re confident, take a stance early on to call it out “this is false”, rather than trying to have articles taken down.

Brands and politicians are still waiting on Facebook and Google to properly counteract fake news with fact-checking services and verified publisher logos for news services. Fake news is not a problem that will go away overnight and with the rise of stories now targeting brands, it’s clear that community management and social listening has a huge part to play in reputation management.

There are many types of PR disasters, but by far the worst is when you push out a campaign based on an idea that really hasn’t been thought through. Pepsi was under fire this month for its advert featuring Kendall Jenner brokering peace between protestors and police using Pepsi. Although the sentiment of unity, peace and understanding was good, the resulting advert “missed the mark” as Pepsi quite rightly put it.

Pepsi’s not the first or the last company to have a bad idea. But unfortunately for companies like Pepsi, there are few places to hide once the bad idea is out there and the backlash starts to flood the internet. Kudos to Pepsi for acknowledging its mistake – and if you want more on handling a crisis, do read this piece by our CEO Claire – but I ask, how could Pepsi have avoided this whole disaster in the first place? Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes!

For me the answer is two-fold: Diversity and the power to speak up.

Our client, Julie Chakraverty, is the founder of Rungway, which is a platform that helps people give and get help on work life questions. Julie is a huge advocate of diversity and is often speaking at events that can help companies develop a more diverse workforce. A story she told at one of these events caught my attention and got me thinking quite differently. She said that when you’re explaining an idea to a friend or someone from a similar background, you don’t have to explain yourself too much because they understand your context. But if you’re explaining something in a situation without likeminded people or people of a similar demographic around, you’ll often need to explain your thinking a lot more to justify it. It’s this dialogue that is hugely beneficial as it can often raise new views and opinions that can strengthen and/or develop an idea a lot further. Or – in this case, help you see that the idea isn’t a great one.

Diversity in any industry and in any department is a great thing – and it’s on the agenda for everyone. In marketing and PR specifically, the winners will be those who push for diversity more aggressively because their workforce will be all the more powerful.

That said, the other side of the coin is having the power to speak up. Having a room full of people with diverse views and backgrounds is great, but you need to give them the power to use their voice.

In a Ted Talk by Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, I learnt about what makes people feel comfortable about speaking up. Adam talks about two motivators that compel us to speak up: having expertise, and having social support and allies. But more interestingly, we all have a range of ‘acceptable behaviours’ based on our experience. The wider the range, the more likely we speak up. This range is also not fixed, it expands and narrows based on context. Adam states that the biggest influence on that range is the individual’s power within the group. When someone has lots of power, the range widens.

And why am I telling you this? It’s because this background helps you understand how to create an environment that encourages everyone to have a voice.

In Adam’s Ted Talk he talks about ways to increase people’s power. He lists methods such as:

  1. Encouraging people to advocate for others. By doing so, they expand their own range and become more assertive, linking back to a key motivator in allowing us to speak up – making allies
  2. Avoiding looking at something just from your perspective – Adam says that “when we take someone’s perspective, it allows us to be ambitious and assertive, but still be likable”
  3. Signalling flexibility by giving choices as this lowers others’ defences

By even pushing just one of the behaviours above, you’re more likely to have people speak out during meetings and sessions meant to drive ideas.

For marketers and communication professionals, a bad idea can cause huge damage to a brand’s reputation, putting the future of the company at risk. Pushing for diversity and creating the right environment gives brands a better chance at not ending up in Pepsi’s red-faced position. But also, we – the public – will get better and more thought-provoking ideas, improving the overall standard of publicity, advertising and communications across the industry.

Anyone working in the tech space (or who has a healthy interest in consumer technology) will know that this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has come and gone. Tech companies – as well as their marketing and PR teams – spent months planning for this event, perfecting speeches, product demos and more. However, that doesn’t mean things always go to plan.

Unfortunately for Faraday Future, company executives were left red-faced when the demo failed on stage. The Tesla competitor was introducing its self-driving car, the FF91, but when instructed to self-park on stage, the vehicle didn’t move an inch. Watch the video below, and you’ll no doubt be cringing hard.

These things happen – and actually most of the media scrutiny wasn’t about the failure on stage but about Faraday Future’s reaction. The company opted to play it down but this was perceived as sweeping the issue under the rug, rather than face the issue head on. The result? A backlash of coverage and social posts which attacked the brand.  So, what went wrong?

Don’t launch until you’re truly ready

Freakonomics aired an episode ‘Failure is your friend’ that covered the concept of “go fever”, the phenomena of how when a boss gets “go fever” it can be tough to focus on potential failures thanks to internal politics, momentum, and personal egos.

The most devastating example of “go fever” was the 1986 Challenger launch by NASA. In January 1986, engineers recommended the launch be postponed for the third time due to potential failures that may occur in the motors because of the cold air. But despite the clear risks NASA decided to proceed with the launch.

The space shuttle failed and broke apart a mere 73 seconds into its flight, taking down with it all seven crew members, including a civilian teacher – the tragedy scarred NASA’s reputation for years.

In planning for any kind of launch, do not ignore the warning signs, rather you should scope them out and resolve any issues early on. They won’t fix themselves. You also must test, test and test again so you can be confident in your product. Whether it’s a vehicle that is responsible for people’s safety or not, if your product doesn’t do what it says on the box your brand will be tarnished.

This can be easier said than done though, particularly when time and money pressures weigh in. So, how can this be done in a practical way?

Do the pre-mortem

Cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein, suggests what’s called a pre-mortem method. It involves team members coming together and writing down reasons your project might ultimately fail, and compiling a catalogue of these issues before they cause damage. Each person in the team is then asked to think of one thing they could do to help or fix these issues, which will (hopefully) minimise the chances of failure in the end. We referenced this technique in a previous post on dealing with uncertainty which includes more tips on planning.

When things still go wrong

The pre-mortem technique is an excellent way to plan ahead, but – of course – no amount of planning can prevent things out of your control from going wrong, and that’s why a crisis communications strategy is also critical. At the time of writing this piece, Faraday Future has yet to publicly acknowledge the error on their website or social feeds, despite the public’s demand for answers on the CES failure and the potential safety failures of the vehicle.

People will be critical when mistakes or a crisis occurs, and pretending it didn’t happen will only make it worse. If a crisis situation occurs you must immediately prepare statements, social media posts and responses to address the issue and reassure your potential customers and stakeholders of your brand’s integrity. It’s not uncommon to have templates for common possible issues ready for adaptation at any moment. For example, Uber may have template statements ready around sensitive topics like driver misconduct.

These crisis communications statements need to also appease your investors, if relevant. On-stage glitches don’t inspire confidence in your product, and you need to keep your financial backers (or potential investors) on side.

Stay true to your brand

Above all, it’s also important nowadays to ‘stick by your guns’ and stay true to your company values, rather than try to be something your company is not for the sake of a trend.

It can also be confusing for consumers if a well-known brand starts trying to be something it’s not, and another product making headlines at CES was L’Oreal’s smart hairbrush. Most people think make up, skincare or hair dye when thinking of L’Oreal, so this move into IoT is a little unprecedented and could have an impact on the brand depending how people interpret it. That said, it’s mainly been a positive reception so far, winning the International CES Innovation Award at the show.

Plan for failure

There is no such thing as being “over-prepared”, and doing so can be the difference between a successful launch or black mark on your company’s brand. While Nick Sampson and YT Jia moved on to YT Jia’s speech fairly quickly after the incident and did eventually demonstrate the self-park successfully, a quick search of the media shows some less than favourable headlines in national media, such as The Sun and Daily Mail, and plenty of other global sources. The best solution? Plan for failure, so you can avoid a Faraday Future.

Ah yes, the PR crisis. The bane (or thrill?) of every communications professional’s career.

Facing a PR crisis can be quite a daunting time, especially when you don’t know what to expect. Often, the most important question you will face is how to react appropriately to contain a crisis. Do you go on a full-blown counter-offensive or keep your head down and assume that whatever’s going on will blow over imminently?

Judgement is crucial here: when does an issue become a communication crisis and what should you do about it?

Evaluate a potential PR crisis by asking yourself some quick questions:

  1. Can we keep the crisis to a minimum if we take no action at all?
  2. Can it be contained internally?
  3. Will it affect reputation and profits?
  4. Is it out in the public domain already?
  5. Could it undermine the day-to-day performance or value of the company?

If the answer is “yes” to points 1 or 2, it’s an issue to be managed carefully by the communications team to ensure it doesn’t become a crisis. If the answer is “yes” to 3, 4, or 5 – it’s a crisis and time to start putting on your armour. Speed and scale can turn a crisis public faster than you can blink.

Under pressure, decision making has to be fast AND good, which is undoubtedly not easy. Be mindful not to react in these ways:

Burying your head in the sand

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that what has been identified as a crisis will simply blow over by itself, especially if the initial outlook seems calm. Think about it like a tsunami tide – it flows out to sea before it comes back in with a vengeance.

In most cases, proactivity is key – few will defend you if you don’t put your side of the story across. Hostile coverage is inevitable when a PR crisis happens, and social media will only serve to further escalate any hostility stakeholders (and the general public) have towards your company.

Communicating your story early in an honest and transparent (as far as possible) way is the best way to win support. The aim is to ensure that you emerge from the crisis with  your reputation intact, and shake off the damaging effects faster.

The attack mode 

Launching a full blown attack and badmouthing the stakeholder, company, or even the media responsible for the potential reputation meltdown might seem like the easiest option. But this only serves to reflect badly on both you and the company you represent. Conducting yourself calmly and professionally ensures you keep your dignity and reputation as intact as possible.

PR jargon

Honest and simple communication is key. Do not try to confuse the media and stakeholders with jargon and acronyms which you think might make you appear more knowledgeable.  Keep your messages and language as human as possible, and more importantly, keep it consistent. This will reassure your investors, employees and other stakeholders that you are fully aware of the crisis, understand the severity of it, and are prepared to handle your company in a professional way.

If a crisis is well handled, it can prove to be an opportunity to demonstrate the company’s resilience, quick response and transparency. It also provides a platform to potentially build an even stronger reputation than before. Keep calm, breathe and keeps these tips in mind and you should be able to get through a crisis just fine.

We all know that a rumour, speculation, allegation or a blatant lie can be half way around the world before truth has got its shoes on, and sadly we also know that mud sticks.

Gone are the days when brands had the luxury of time to consider a response to a crisis – social media allows for huge and fast amplification of any reputation threat, with citizen journalism adding fuel to the fire.

Last year, a law firm interviewed PR professionals who, between them, had handled over 2,000 crises. More than 25% spread internationally within one hour and 75% spread internationally within 24hours. Six out of 10 crises had been brewing for days, if not months, and it took an average of 21 hours for companies to respond, leaving them open to a ‘trial by Twitter’.

More than four in ten of those organisations had no crisis plans in place.

With this in mind, on 11th March 2014, Firefly hosted a PR crisis event using an interactive social media simulator, so that attendees could experience what it would be like to be in the thick of an online crisis.

It served as a good reminder of the importance of preparation when having to deal with a crisis,  enabling you to react quickly and attempt to minimise the damage.

Before the simulation started, the room heard from Firefly’s founder and CEO, Claire Walker, who set out her four top tips of how you might pre-empt a social media nightmare.

1. Be prepared:

You must think the unthinkable, imagine the worst, and plan for how you would respond over Facebook, Twitter etc which is not just pumping out a media statement to all.

Proactively monitor your brand using social media monitoring tools. Depending on the type of business you work in, these should certainly run beyond office hours, and in some cases 24/7.

2. Create a goodwill bank:

You cannot establish a reputation during a crisis, although if handled well, you may enhance it.  Build a positive balance of goodwill through your social media feeds and PR activities and this will support you. Pay attention and constantly build up your friends, fans and followers. If no-one knows you’re there, it’ll seem suspicious if you burst into action on your social media feeds mid crisis.

3. Seek independent substantiation:

Where possible, and as frequently as possible, refer to and use independent research or information from trusted sources to back up your arguments. Don’t just rely on your own data and opinions that could be dismissed as spin. The internet can be a great source of misinformation; you need to fight back with facts, and perhaps a bit of wit and self deprecation.

4. Know your audiences and channels:

Make sure you have identified the right channels for your audiences, use them regularly and become familiar with them so you are not experimenting during a crisis.

Ensure that your team is fully trained for every channel and all eventualities to ensure you can prevent an issue from becoming a crisis at best, or minimise a crisis at worst.

At our event, Magnus Boyd, from law firm Hill Dickinson, asked us to question the allegations. With much of the information coming from citizen journalism, i.e. untrained journalists using unchecked sources, it’s important to challenge claims before responding.

Furthermore, Magnus highlighted that news is no longer tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. Blogs and news sites lengthen stories and Google makes them easily searchable. The best form of crisis management is anticipation and preparation, which includes correcting inaccuracies living on the web before they inevitably get into the wrong hands.

Magnus made the valid point that social media may fuel a crisis, but it also provides brands with a way to handle the crisis, and even turn it to your advantage.

That can only happen if, as Claire and Magnus state, you’re fully prepared.

Practicing is also an important element and we’d like to thank Tamara Littleton from eModeration, who ran the simulation. At the event, attendees were able to try different techniques to respond to the ‘angry public’ on social media channels (and see how the public would react); experience how social media influences news channels, blogs and forums; and discuss different kinds of crisis responses in small groups.

Here are some photos of the teams in action:

 

Firefly crisis comms event

 

Firefly crisis commes event 2

 

If you’re interested in hearing more about how Firefly can help you anticipate, prepare for and manage a crisis, please visit – http://fireflycomms-com.stackstaging.com/reputation-crisis-management – or contact hello@fireflycomms.com, or call us on +44 (0)203 170 8008.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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