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HMC NEWS: Words alone can’t save you

“You can’t communicate your way out of a situation you’ve managed yourself into.”

This is a great quote uttered at PR Institute of NZ’s annual conference earlier this year by a senior PR colleague, Sarah Fraser who is the Communications Manager at NIWA. 

When she said it, I quickly scribbled it down and I’ve been repeating it at every opportunity.  It’s brilliant.

Basically, the premise is: if your company has made decisions that have put you into a situation where your reputation is in the gurgler (or about to be sucked down), a few great words crafted by your communications manager are not the universal panacea.

The only way out of a reputational black hole is the same way you got in – through your actions.  If you’ve managed your way into the abyss, you’ve got to manage your way out. 

And in today’s environment where social media spreads news like wildfire and journalists lurch at the slightest whiff of corporate wrong-doing, a reputation can be demolished in a flash. 

And it can rarely be restored as quickly.  In fact, sometimes a reputation can’t be restored at all – but let’s assume we’re talking about situations that won’t lead to the death of your organisation.

The role of your senior communications manager is critical when you’re in the mire.  But be prepared that their advice around the actions you’ll need to take will include a lot more than words alone. 

Every situation is different, but if you find your organisation in need of a reputation repair, your leadership team can manage your way out with a few of these essential actions:

Apologise when you’re wrong.  If your leadership team has managed your company into the red, employed staff who did something wrong or inadvertently said something that offended others, it’s important to quickly say you are sorry.  And make sure it’s meaningful and heartfelt.  ‘Sorry, not sorry’ is worse than saying nothing.

Be authentic.  Speak the truth and be transparent.  If you’ve made a mistake, you can restore trust and integrity through genuine actions and words.

Speak up, don’t hide.   Our human nature causes us to shy away from the shame of admitting mistakes.  It’s so much easier to avoid conflict and public criticism.  But if you want to get your reputation back on track, you’ve got to face the music.  Be open and willing to start a dialogue with your audiences even when you know that means dealing with some harsh judgements.  In most situations, people will respect you for taking it on the chin.

Communicate your action plan.  After you apologise, then tell your audiences how you plan on repairing the damage and fixing things or putting things in place to avoid the situation happening again.  And when appropriate, communicate the results and how you are going as you move forward. 

Repair relationships.  One of the first actions you need to take on the journey to reputation restoration is repairing your relationships.  Start with anyone your company has personally wronged.  And equally important is repairing any relationships with staff.  Remember that they are your ambassadors and if your company’s image has been damaged, they will bear the brunt of questions in- and outside of work hours.  Relationships might also need to be repaired with customers, your community, industry colleagues and media.

Build up the goodwill bank.  Odds are that even though you’re in the middle of a reputation crisis, your organisation is still doing great things.  Be careful about how quickly you begin to trickle out any good news, as your audiences will be sceptical of any communication for awhile.  But, slowly start to regularly release some good news stories to begin building up the goodwill bank.

And most importantly, a great way to minimise the risk of a reputation disaster is to give your senior communications manager a seat on the leadership team. 

That’s because competent communications professionals are highly skilled at assessing the potential reputation ramifications of the business decisions a company makes.  We’re trained to put a reputational lens over top of business decisions and actions and we know to raise potential risks as soon as we spot them.  The advantage our keen assessment affords is the opportunity to change tack to avoid the worst case scenario.

By Heather Claycomb, HMC Communications
First appeared in Waikato Business News December 2017