Recent controversies ranging around everything from Confederate statues to transgender restrooms and health insurance coverage for birth control all have the potential to suddenly create chaos for an organization—internally and externally.
Even when brands decide to “stay out of” a sensitive public discussion they may be pulled into the fray, driven by internal rumblings and even vitriolic employee sentiment. Here are a few prime examples to illustrate:
1. What if you’re a retail store owned by a staunchly Christian conservative and faced with a decision of whether or not to provide contraception coverage for employees? Ask Hobby Lobby.
2. What if you’re an auto manufacturer that publicly proclaims: “The Group’s goal is to offer attractive, safe and environmentally sound vehicles which can compete in an increasingly tough market and set world standards in their respective class,” but it’s revealed that senior leaders—up to, and including, your CEO—were well aware of and even covered up inaccurate emissions data being shared with the public that failed to reveal the true nature of nitrogen oxide pollutants being released into the atmosphere? Ask Volkswagen.
3. What if…?
Today there are any number of situations that can quickly create controversy, escalating exponentially as fast-moving and highly populated social media communication outlets pick up and run with stories that often have yet to be fully vetted through internal channels.
Focus on Employees First
Even while a team of leaders and PR/communication professionals may be convening at an early stage in a potential brand-damaging communication situation, another key audience may often be overlooked—the employee audience.
When a company has hundreds, thousands—even millions—of employees, how they assess and address internal sentiment around any given issue is likely to have a significant effect on the development and timeline of external sentiment. If employees are behind a company’s position, they can support it. If not, they can be potentially dangerous detractors.
In a national climate of continuing polarization, it’s likely that many issues will create an internal divide that spans both sides of any issue. While organizations certainly aren’t in a position to attempt to change employees’ personal values or beliefs, they are in a position to clearly—and proactively—convey their own.
“High reliability organizations are those that successfully avoid crises, through preparation and processes, in situations that would normally occur,” says Stephanie Bailey, managing director, corporate, for the UK-based FleishmanHillard. These organizations, she says, pre-frame and manage employee perspectives through culture and training. Bailey explains, “HR has a central role to play in this through effective training, identifying the right talent, implementing effective rewards systems and driving a culture of continuous improvement.”
And she adds, “Crisis response is not solely the responsibility of communications professionals—it is a collaboration between HR, communications and others.”
Partnering to Manage Messaging
Kith CEO Bill Coletti is a crisis and reputation management expert, and the author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He works with clients including American Express, Home Depot, Target, The College Board and Cargill—recently providing strategic counsel to American Express related to its sponsorship of Shakespeare in the Park, which featured a play depicting Trump as Caesar (and his subsequent assassination).
“It’s imperative that companies have a venue where critical thinking about reputation growth and risk can take place among key company leaders,” says Coletti. Whether these venues occur on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis—the goal should be faster response and more rapid problem solving when issues emerge, he says.
Importantly, these sessions need to include representatives from different areas of the organization, says Coletti, including HR, PR, operations, finance, legal, etc. “We’ve created this venue, which we call a Reputation Management Council, for many clients who have subsequently reported a better understanding of risks facing their organization,” says Coletti.
Too often he explains, “I see companies in crisis get bottlenecked by internal misunderstandings. PR people are working from one set of vocabulary, while operations is working from another. Taking a proactive approach is critical if companies wish to emerge from crises relatively unscathed.”
But what should that approach be? It depends on the company’s values, says Dan Hill, CEO of Hill Impact and a crisis communications expert. Navigating sensitive issues and determining whether or not to enter the conversation, he says, is all about corporate values. “You should never chase current events or conversations,” he says. But if you do get pulled into the fray, Hill says the best route is always sticking to your values and mission.
Doing so, of course, doesn’t guarantee that your brand won’t become the subject of dissension—even ridicule. Hobby Lobby is a good example of this. Consistency, alignment and transparency are key.
As Polonius advised in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” That sentiment is as relevant for organizations as it is for individuals. Together HR and PR can effectively partner to work with corporate leaders to define, manage and support the mission, vision and values of the organizations they work for. Employees, clearly, are an integral part of this mandate.