The long term corporate public relations strategy of crisis management has undergone a transformation in the rise of the information age, the internet and social media. Those of you still trying to figure out a career path to long-term success unlikely to go the way of television repairmen or get outsourced to India should start looking into the possibilities of becoming a pioneer in the burgeoning new industry of reputation management.
You may not yet find any college with a degree in Reputation Management, but don’t despair. Reputation management is basically just the public relations job of crisis management with the twist of using the internet and social media to turn the tables on those who file complaints against Big Business.
BP’s crisis management strategy and response following the wholesale devastation of many communities along the Gulf Coast (shortly after most of the leaders of those same communities completely ignored or downplayed the potential for an environmental disaster when Pres. Barack Obama announced he had become one of them by signing his autograph to legislation that opened up nearly the entire coastline of the Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling) is perhaps the single greatest example of how not to handle a major crisis in recent history. Amazingly enough, BP’s utter inability to handle the oil spill crisis came not longer after their almost-brilliant ability to nearly keep their attempt to corner the propane market out of the 24-hour news cesspool. Almost everyone knows about the BP oil spill; hardly anyone knows this company came within a hair’s breadth of cornering the propane market in an attempt to drive up the price by 50%. How could the same company create one crisis management strategy that worked almost perfectly and then soon after follow a crisis management strategy that makes Exxon’s response following the Valdez spill look positively statesmanlike?
The transformation of crisis management in reputation management is merely the acknowledgement of the previously unacknowledged. At the top of every company’s crisis management outline is the goal of quashing the crisis before it can be taken over by the media . The most important loss for any company caught in the grip of a crisis has nothing to do with the lives of those affected by the crisis, but things like share price, market share and competitive edge. This means very quickly and often somewhat rashly coming up with assessment of the potential risks along with the hastiest of step-by-step action plans. As soon as possible after a major corporate crisis has taken place, there will take place within the company’s headquarters several meetings designed to issue plans for handling the crisis as well as training anyone who may play a part in that plan. What is less well publicized is that at the same time these plans are being developed, a far more intensive training program is underway . This program views crisis management not in terms of actually managing the crisis, but in managing how much the perception of the seriousness of the crisis by the public is going to hurt the company.
The next time a corporate crisis becomes fodder for that orchestral swelling of music that precedes the words Breaking News, you should head online to the company’s web site. There you will find the initial press release issued to deal with the crisis. This is what the press release will contain, regardless of the what the crisis may actually entail: the company is not in possession of every detail of how the crisis occurred, but the media will be constantly updated and informed and in the meantime (fill in the blank) is being done to resole the situation as quickly and efficiently as possible with the goal of making sure all parties injured as a result of the crisis will be fairly compensated.
The saddest part of the entire crisis management strategy is that most companies treat its development and implementation no differently than they treat coming up with a commercial to air during the Super Bowl that features Paris Hilton dancing in her underwear on a stage next to Pauly Shore. An effective crisis management strategy considers elements commonly utilized in the advertising department such as identifying target audiences, getting input from the largest shareholders, bringing in affable spokesman in an effort to maintain folksy credibility and nearly continuous consultation with lawyers to figure out how to keep from paying out money thanks to the inevitable lawsuits.
Crisis management is all about protecting the reputation of the company in the aftermath of a major crisis on a grand scale. It was just a matter of time before a cottage industry rose around protecting a company’s reputation a small scale. Another way of looking at some tactics used by reputation management companies could be framed more accurately as trying to block the democratization of capitalism afforded by the internet. Time was that a few thousand complaints filed against a company could go unnoticed for, well, forever. The complaints would be filed away and it was not only difficult to access them, but most people never even knew you could. Now people can complain about companies all over the internet and it only takes a few dozen or maybe a few hundred for those complaints to get noticed. Rather than attacking the substance of the problem addressed by the complaints, however, Big Business merely downsizes the crisis management model to a more individual level . You give a bad review of a company on a site like Ripoffreport.com and the ninjas engaged in the Reputation Management game will be coming after you. How long a matter of time it becomes before coming after you means legislation that infringes on your First Amendment rights to publicly post that complaint remains to be seen.