Reputation management

(Editor’s Note – August 27, 2014: Ruth Atherley has written a second blog post to update the situation.)


Many people are outraged after seeing a video showing a man in an elevator kicking a one-year-old Doberman pinscher dog and then hauling the dog off the elevator by its leash.

If you don’t know about this deplorable act, you can learn about it here.

Desmond Hague, CEO of American corporation Centerplate, Inc. (which has contracts with BC Pavilion Corporation, the Crown Corporation responsible for operating BC Place and the Vancouver Convention Centre) was identified as the person abusing the dog (who is named Sadie) in the video and he has apologized, via a letter through his legal counsel, to Global Television.

Responding to this type of issue is quite sensitive – and never easy for a PR or communications team. While I wasn’t in the room and don’t know what was discussed or recommended by Centerplate’s PR team, I do have to say the response of a letter coming to one media outlet through Hague’s lawyer isn’t good enough. The fact that the CEO’s corporate Twitter account and the company’s Facebook page were shut down tells you: a) how strong reaction is to this incident of animal abuse and b) that the company – and by the company, I mean Hague – doesn’t want to hear what we, as the public, have to say.

I work on a lot of issues and have had many where a high profile individual had to step forward, take responsibility and say he/she is sorry for their actions. One of the key elements of the apology is that it has to be authentic; the person truly needs to be sorry for their actions – not that they got caught. People aren’t stupid – they can smell when it is fake and can see through someone who is saying the right thing without meaning it. To me, Hague’s letter stinks to high heaven. I don’t believe him and I don’t think many do.

I also found it interesting – and I have searched for it – that no one from his personal or professional life has stepped forward to defend his character. A good person who makes a bad decision will have a community of people who will jump into the fray on social media and support that person. There wasn’t a peep or a tweet or a public FB update out there that did that.

Hague should have immediately made a video where he apologized and explained himself to us and publicly to Sadie’s person (apparently Sadie is not his dog). He should make a sizeable donation to the BC SPCA or another group that helps abused animals. And he should take the heat on social media – by shutting it down, he has effectively locked himself in his office and closed the curtains, refusing to speak to his stakeholders. That is not how you handle an issue. While Hague can pull his Twitter account, he can’t get rid of all of the tweets about this issue and it is clear that it touched a nerve.

There are also questions that remain unanswered – the SPCA said that when they went to the apartment, the dog was found in its cage, surrounded by the stench of urine, and her food and water bowls were out of reach. There is more to this case than what happened in the elevator – which was bad enough.

Success in reputation management and issues communication only comes when there is integrity, authenticity and a commitment to making things right. If you are facing an issue because of the actions of an individual or a group of individuals, and the person or persons just want it to go away, you can put lipstick on a pig for the short term… but in the long term, it doesn’t work. Our world is far too connected. The person or persons involved will do something else that puts them in the spotlight for the wrong reason. Videos in elevators, cell phones with videos, social media, electronic messages… it will come back to bite you – lipstick and all.

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office boardroom peopleInternal communication is an important piece of an organization’s brand reputation and, in the past few years, it has undergone a shift from being an HR function to becoming a crucial component of strategic communications.

Here at AHA, we develop communications plans for clients on a regular basis. During this process, one of the first questions we ask is about the organization’s current approach to internal communications – and how the external communications will be supported and reflected internally. This often results in an interesting discussion about employee engagement, how to best communicate with internal stakeholders, and the task of developing an internal communications plan in collaboration with both the communication and HR departments.

Internal communication provides an excellent opportunity for the senior executive or leadership team to move away from “top-down communication” and create channels that are open, direct, authentic, two-way and more personal. It also provides the opportunity for two-way dialogue – an important piece for an organization that wants to attract the best and brightest in their industry. Creating an opportunity for employee feedback, participation and involvement helps to promote engagement. When staff is engaged, they are more productive, morale is higher, and the organization is seen as a good place to work – which attracts talented professionals.

A solid internal communications plan also provides employees with the ability to tell the organization’s story. There are no better ambassadors for an organization than its employees, when they understand and believe in the brand story. No advertising or PR campaign will be effective if what is being said externally is not supported internally. Encouraging employee involvement in a range of internal and external communications initiatives helps to tell the brand story in an authentic way. The people who come to work each day can be exceptional assets in building and maintaining a good culture, in maintaining a positive brand reputation, and in communicating the organization’s values to each person they come in contact with during their workday.

In developing an internal communications plan, it is important to create a consistent approach – random or ad hoc communication doesn’t work. The communications efforts need to be planned out and delivered on a regular basis. The objective of the plan has to be clearly defined. If employees are asked to participate, expectations and reasons why the outreach is being done need to be clearly communicated. Two-way dialogue, including negative feedback, has to be encouraged and the feedback has to be acknowledged and respected. Staff members need to know that they are being heard – especially if your organization has challenges.

Strategic internal communication does take time and effort to plan and to implement, but the results can provide exceptional return-on-investment. Building relationships internally and ensuring the employees are informed, engaged and are provided opportunities to authentically participate in developing and sharing your brand story creates a strong workforce. It increases productivity, attracts good employees, improves morale, and develops a positive work culture – all of which support your organizational objectives. Should an issue or crisis happen to your organization, you have created credibility among your staff, which results in their support during a challenge. By focusing on internal relationships, you increase trust – one of the most valuable assets an organization has.

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