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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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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