protest angryI wanted to write a quick update on the example I used in my most recent reputation management and issue communication blog post.

According to a Global News report, Centerplate, the company whose CEO Desmond Hague was seen in a video kicking a dog in an elevator, has released a statement. It says that they do not condone animal abuse and are undertaking an internal review. The statement also says that Hague has agreed to undergo counselling for anger management issues and has pledged a significant, personal, multi-year financial commitment to help support the protection and safety of animals.

In theory, what is outlined in the statement are the right things to do. However, I find it interesting that this statement comes out after many of the company’s clients, such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Mariners, have made their own statements of concern about this issue.

As I said in my earlier blog post, I don’t know what Centerplate’s strategy is for managing this issue. I don’t know the specifics of why it was decided to respond via statements. My opinion is based on how it is being played out in a public forum.

However, having said that, it is clear that this reactive, hiding behind statements from lawyers and PR people is not working. People are angry, they are calling for Centerplate’s contracts to be cancelled, and are threatening to boycott the food that is sold at stadiums that use Centerplate. It’s time to change up the strategy and get authentic about this.

Is Hague or his PR team reading the tweets and comments on articles about this issue? Centerplate’s website is still up, but the list of clients has been taken down. That’s not transparent.

To me, the Centerplate statement is clearly reactive and having these statements coming from lawyers and PR people is not helping. Not to mention that social media sites have been taken down and the website is being changed, so we can’t find specific information about the clients. They have taken an “information out” approach, instead of finding a way to engage in a dialogue. (It would be a very tough dialogue.)

Hague needs to stand up and visibly get in front of this – and take the heat. In my professional opinion, he needs to do a video where he acknowledges what he did wrong and fully apologize. He needs to do a media tour and go to the breakfast shows or morning news in the cities where Centerplate has clients and talk about his mistake, what he is doing to make it right, and what he is doing to help abused animals. And he needs to do it now. I don’t want to hear “we are doing an internal review and he has pledged money” – I want to know what is being reviewed, how much money he is going to contribute, the names of the animal organizations, and that he realizes that this is unacceptable behaviour.

He needs to do more than send out these statements to media. I want to see a real person who is truly sorry for what they have done and realizes how horrific his actions were. It seems that many other people do too.

It feels like he is hiding behind his legal and PR teams and using statements that he doesn’t have to actually speak about what he did. In my opinion, until he steps forward and shows us that he realizes what he did is wrong and takes full responsibility for what he did, the anger of the stadium food-buying public isn’t going to stop.

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The work we do here at AHA Creative Strategies often seems to come in groups. Right now, we are working with several clients on issues communication and this comes right on the heels of writing quite a few issues and crisis communication plans for other clients.

It’s important to understand that an issue is different from a crisis. An issue is one that keeps you up at night worrying about it – inappropriate behaviour by an employee or senior executive, the unexpected or unexplained removal of a CEO or president, plant closure and employee layoffs, a strike vote by your union, a change in legislation that will affect how your organization does business, etc. Issues are often – but not always – played out in the media (both traditional and social media). An issue threatens your brand, image and organization’s reputation.

A crisis is immediate and there is more at stake than just your reputation (although how you handle a crisis and take care of those affected by it could impact your reputation). A crisis threatens the survival of your organization. It can be a natural disaster (earthquake, flood, tsunami, hurricane) or it can be created by humans – an accident or act of violence at the workplace, mine collapse, hostage situation, airline crash, cruise ship sinking, etc.

In speaking with our clients – from the large multinational organizations that we work with, to our entrepreneurial clients – we always recommend putting an issue and crisis plan in place. When something happens, having a plan that has a complete checklist that provides you with a step-by-step way to move forward is crucial. During an issue or a crisis, your focus must be on managing the situation and ensuring that you are clearly, authentically and transparently communicating with your stakeholder groups – especially those affected.

With clients, we often present a workshop that provides the opportunity to role-play situations specific to their industry or geographic location, so that the key people who would be involved in helping to manage an issue or crisis get a sense of what would be expected of them at that time. It is of huge value to the individuals who participate and it provides them with context so that when we write an issue and crisis communication plan, they can provide input and feedback.

Making sure that your organization – no matter how small – has a plan is important. Thinking about the worst-case scenarios and developing an issue and crisis communication plan is a business asset. You don’t want to find yourself dealing with a big problem and not knowing what your next step should be.

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CrisisBeing prepared for an issue or crisis is important. Even if you don’t think something negative will happen to your organization, take a moment and think about all the worst-case scenarios that could possibly happen. Then, at the very least, outline the chain of command for communication, how you would provide this information to those affected and to other stakeholders – including media – and how you would follow up and ensure that you consistently communicate and update people as the issue or crisis evolves or is resolved.

Here at AHA, we have worked with clients on some incredibly challenging issues and it’s not easy on anyone. Days are long, pressure is high and depending on the issue or crisis, there can be non-stop media attention, which has its own set of challenges. Planning is important. In fact, for many organizations it is crucial, but I know that there are many people out there who will never be convinced of that and refuse to plan.

Below are some key points to consider when creating an issue/crisis communications plan. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, but the information below should get you thinking about what to do in order to be prepared.

Define Communications Vehicles

It is important to know how your key stakeholders (staff, friends and family of staff, customers or clients, community members, board members, media, etc.) should receive information during an issue or crisis. Defining how you will share information – and confirming that it is the right approach for your stakeholder group – is crucial.

Develop a Straightforward Approval Process

Understanding the approval process for sharing information is also crucial. Setting up a complicated, time-consuming approval process creates unnecessary pressure and stress – and the fact is, during an issue or a crisis, there is no time. Information needs to be accurate, it needs to be timely, and it needs to be communicated quickly. Make sure you have put a process in place that lets the communications person have direct access to the CEO, president or senior executive who is in charge at that time. Don’t put barriers in the communicator’s way.

Communicate with One Voice

Speaking with one voice is critical. Sending out information that contradicts other information because there are too many people communicating publicly only confuses and frustrates everyone. Identify one spokesperson, with one or two backup people (should the spokesperson be unavailable). If you need experts to explain complex topics, have them available with the spokesperson and ensure that they only speak on their specific topic. Make sure there is one communications person in charge of the communications team (if you have more than one person). Let that person update his/her team and manage the messaging directly with the senior executive who is in charge.

Be Transparent

Be as transparent as possible and respond to questions as much as possible. If you can’t respond to a media question, explain why you can’t. (For example: “This situation is evolving and that is a matter for the police, fire department, government, etc. to deal with; we are in the process of understanding just what happened and when we do, we will make a statement.”) Don’t hide, avoid questions or refuse to respond to specific questions. That only makes you look guilty or like you are hiding something. Be upfront; if you made a mistake, say so. Explain how it will never happen again and how you are going to make it right. And for crying out loud – apologize. If you messed up and did something illegal, unethical or wrong, take responsibility for it.

Don’t Take Responses Personally

Don’t take negative or critical responses or attacks personally. This is easier said than done – especially when people have been working late hours, under high pressure. Responding emotionally to comments online, to critical people who come at you as you go to work, or even in the coffee line can create a bigger issue. Sometimes the critics are right, and reviewing negative comments can help you to understand the public’s perception – but that is a job best left to the communications team.

Be Ready 24/7

Realize that the news cycle is 24/7 – and during an issue or a crisis, it is relentless. Social media has changed how we respond to a challenge. It is crucial to understand the social media world and to know when and how to provide news and updates, share information and respond.

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