The best crisis response is taking actions that prevent a crisis from occurring. The best protection for a reputation – an organization’s most valuable and most vulnerable asset – is to tell your brand story before someone else tells it and undermines it.
Issue audits are designed to identify potential crisis scenarios that an organization might face. Issue audits are essential to prepare in advance for a crisis response. They have an understated, but equally valuable function of identifying safety hazards, sloppy practices or other vulnerabilities that can be fixed or mitigated by management actions before they turn into a crisis.
Issue audits can be expanded to consider reputational strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses can be included as potential crisis scenarios. The strengths can become talking points for an organization’s brand story.
A reputation is the face of a brand. As such, a reputation is only as good as stakeholders, customers and employees think it is. Relying on advertising, media coverage and press releases to define your reputation is insufficient in today’s environment when a reputation can be trashed in seconds online.
There is no foolproof way to indemnify your reputation, but you can fortify it by telling your brand story in credible and shareable ways. Crisis counselor Mindy Hamlin offers some useful, practical storytelling suggestions on how to fortify a reputation before it faces an assault through brand storytelling.
The first step Hamlin recommends is developing brand story content. She suggests pulling together an organization’s community involvement, assembling employee profiles, creating video or infographics showing safety procedures and beefing up internal preparedness for crises. Find content that highlights organizational values and invites engagement. Look for reputational content that resonates with key audiences whose confidence you would need to retain amid a crisis.
Next comes sharing your reputation-centered brand story as widely as possible. Hamlin encourages brand journalism with a multi-channel approach, using websites, blogs, social media, podcasts, newsletters, intranets and even paid advertising. Brand journalism differs from standard-issue PR by embracing a news writing style and perspective. It’s a real story, not a thinly veiled pitch. You don’t need to quote the CEO.
Brand journalism only works if it is central to an organization’s overall communication strategy, not just an offshoot or a one-off exercise. Hamlin says telling your brand story – sharing values, shining a spotlight on employee achievements and inviting key audiences behind the scenes – should be an everyday communications priority. Sharing brand stories should become an essential element of an organization’s reputational storytelling.
Brand journalism is telling or showing informative, credible stories about an organization in a format resembling news reporting as opposed to advertising.
Failing to tell your brand story opens the door for others to tell your story, usually in a dimmer, unflattering light, often captured on cellphone video and circulated via social media. The public is left to form an opinion of your reputation based on a malign image and in the absence of a more authentic one systematically created by your organization.
Telling your brand story shouldn’t be considered synonymous with whitewashing your reputation. Authentic stories address the truth, good or bad, favorable or unfavorable. Instead of trying to bury bad news, you focus on positive news, including how you dealt constructively with the bad news. Hamlin’s point is that you aren’t silent about your reputation. You actively protect it by demonstrating what you stand for.
Hamlin cited a client example that faced a reputational challenge in the form of a lawsuit alleging the organization wasn’t inclusive and failed to support employees of color. “I start searching on their website and social media channels,” Hamlin said. “All I found were announcements about white men being promoted.” Painting a credible reputational picture wasn’t an option after the lawsuit, Hamlin explained, so the organization wound up agreeing to a spendy out-of-court settlement.
Reputations can be challenged by more than lawsuits. Misinformation and disinformation campaigns are becoming common, playing off growing societal divisiveness and skepticism. Advertising campaigns intended to show solidarity with social causes can ignite protests and boycotts. Events can trigger a dangerous domino effect.
Relevant Case Study
ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, provides a revealing case study of the damage that can occur in the absence of a convincing and widely shared brand story. The once obscure agency came under intense pressure last winter for deadly blackouts because power plants of all kinds weren’t prepared for intensely cold weather. After its CEO was fired, the agency responsible for 90 percent of Texas electric transmission finds itself back on the hotseat this summer as it copes with unseasonably hot temperatures forcing massive conservation efforts to avert widespread outages.
After the winter blackouts, Texas lawmakers enacted legislation requiring ERCOT to ensure the state’s power plants, which range from thermal plants to wind farms, are weatherized. However, weatherizing power plants does little good when an unusually large number of power plants are offline because of mechanical problems. Texas is the only state in the continental United States not connected to an interstate electric grid, which means Texas is really on its own when the grid has insufficient power to meet demand.
ERCOT manages an electric grid that serves 26 million households over 46,500 miles of transmission lines, but it doesn’t control power generation and only coordinates competitive wholesale power transactions. The agency compares itself to air traffic controllers who direct traffic, but don’t own the planes or hire the pilots.
To apply Hamlin’s admonition to tell your own story, ERCOT might have anticipated weather-induced power grid complications and developed content to explain what could happen and how the agency would be forced to react. There could have been a public version that was informative as well a version intended for policymakers that raised the red flag about potential risks, like the ones experienced last winter and this summer.
Texas officials take pride in their independence, even though that independence has exacerbated the effects of untimely power plant closures because there is no back-up. Plan B is rolling blackouts. ERCOT’s reputation has suffered in the eyes of the public because it failed to fulfill its mission, in part because it failed to tell its story and point out serious potential risks beyond its control before it was too late.
Telling your story must be a priority before someone beats you to it and turns your reputation into a blackout.