A company that once had dominated a subset of the publishing industry but has since seen a decline in new business contacted our irm. he problem, its leaders believed, was simple: A handful
of authors from recent years were unhappy with their contracts and had complained on literary blogs and industry websites. “How quickly,” the executives asked, “could we ix the problem?” The underlying brand and reputation management challenges were more complex than they expected. he company lacked a digital footprint other than a website, and critical postings by the authors quickly rose to the top of search result pages before inding their way to industry inluencers and the media. Following the publisher’s repeated
denials of wrongdoing, a complete breakdown
in communication between the company and
its authors escalated the problem—and the
narrative—to a genuinely hostile level.
A company that communicates
openly with stakeholders
during good times is better
positioned to avoid the pitfalls
of a communications spiral
during a crisis.
he unhappy authors constituted a small
proportion of the publisher’s portfolio. But
the image crisis they generated was quite
real. It was compounded by the fact that the
organization was entirely unprepared for
how much harder it was to “ix” the problem
than it would have been had it sought advice
earlier. In the end, the publisher rejected
the options we presented, including a subtle
marketing campaign that would leverage
counter-narrative from their many satisied
clients and a reconciliation initiative with the
authors it already had lost. he self-soothing
“wait and see” approach was a mistake and
something the publisher still is struggling to
recover from, independent of us.
While most crisis and issue management
professionals in the PR world focus on
activities that take place from the moment
a reputation management scenario begins,
I’ve found success working with clients
using a more holistic strategy. his approach
begins long before a brand’s legitimacy and/
or bottom line are at risk. his foundational
approach to reputation management—one
that establishes fundamental stability and
then layers on more advanced PR tactics
over time—can be impactful. In the case of
the aforementioned publisher, the company
and brand would have had greater resiliency
entering the credibility crisis. Executives also
would have been in a better position to make
informed decisions about recovery options.
Here are six foundational benchmarking
tactics to use as cornerstones for your
reputation management strategy. Together,
they will help preserve your organization’s
standing in the eyes of its stakeholders:

1. Regularly assess your ‘façade’ proile
vis-à-vis the competition. In an era
when brand storytelling has dominated,
the ways that consumers engage
with an organization have never been
more complex or more important to
managing its image. Compile a list of
communications assets and publicfacing
interface points—call centers,
retail locations, social media assets and
websites, for example. hen simulate the
journey that stakeholders such as customers,
investors and media outlets take
when they interact with your brand.
he odds are strong this simulation
will reveal faults you hadn’t noticed.
Poor language choices on websites,
incomplete executive proile pages on
LinkedIn and inactivity on social media
pages usually top the list. Ater you’ve
made these improvements, benchmark
your inished products as a litmus test
to see how well you stack up against
your competition. hese types of façade
housekeeping should be done anyway,
but pursuing them with a reputation

management mindset will produce
sharper messaging and additional returns
for everyday business needs.
2. Be proactive about managing a robust
digital presence even if you lack
immediate needs or objectives. I oten
work with companies that prefer a
minimalist digital footprint, either because
their industry predates the need
or, in the case of certain startups or B2B
professional service irms, because they
don’t see an opportunity for ROI. Our
collaboration usually leads them to embrace
a more thoughtful approach. Dilution
is the solution to pollution, and
in the case of reputation management
that simple premise has never been
truer. he more you can do to foster
an abundance of positive information
through organic and paid mediums, the
easier it will be to bury your critics on
page 15 of online search results and prevent
them from gaining critical mass.
3. Develop an all-hazards crisis response
plan that will allow you to automate
the company’s response in the initial
phase of an urgent scenario. Whether
they are external or internal, most
threats to an organization’s credibility
will originate outside your immediate
sphere of inluence. As a member of the
communications team and thus a leader
of crisis response, your irst step needs
to be triaging the damage and ensuring
that your actions (and those of other
corporate leaders) are being performed
with military-style, mission-oriented focus
and precision. his requires a hard
look at priorities.
Brieing the press and addressing investors
are examples of things that can,
generally, wait. Ensuring that a reporter
won’t catch your CEO of guard at home
cannot. As a minimum threshold for
reputation management response planning,
drat a notiication protocol and
rally plan (a predetermined conference
bridge will suice during of-business
hours) for your corporate principals.
Follow up by issuing quarterly reminders
about what people should do and
avoid during the irst minute, hour and
day of a crisis scenario. Relying on common
sense to prevail during dynamic
events is never a reliable backup plan.
Identifying a single spokesperson for
internal and external communications
and action items that will streamline
a professional and organization-wide
response certainly are.
4. Cultivate a wide range of surrogates
for your brand and key organizational
leaders. Explore networking opportunities
within and even beyond your core
industry and marketplace to showcase
your organization’s strengths—and
those of key team members—to as
many people as possible. his kind of
broad based approach to raise brand
awareness and visibility will ensure a
virtual 360-degree wall of inluencers
whose baseline impression of your
brand is positive at the outset of a
reputation management scenario. he
invisible bufer zone of neutrality they
create will be hard to quantify in real
terms but will oten lessen collateral
damage during extended events such as
labor disruptions, litigation and product
5. Establish a baseline working relationship
with the industry and media
outlets that are most likely to pick up
and report on a reputation management
event. We are routinely asked to
work with companies that lack a communication or press shop, or even a
working understanding of how media
engagement could beneit their business
model. While this isn’t surprising to
ind with startups and small businesses,
it’s enlightening to see how many midsize
organizations—some generating
tens of millions of dollars in revenue—
manage to exist in this fashion.
Members of the media may one day
be an important conduit for information
that will reach the eyes of your
customers, investors, industry and governmental
partners, and the public at
large. Identifying and then developing
standing relationships with reporters
who cover your ield is equally important.
If a full-blown courtship with the
press isn’t something you’re prepared to
manage, start with low-impact outreach
on everyday issues, drating press
releases on major hiring decisions and
operational changes that will have a
positive economic impact on communities
you serve, and the like. You can
cultivate relationships further through
personal contact as your comfort level
with media engagement grows.
6. Increase transparency about the
strengths and weaknesses of your
organization. he companies you work
with may not have dedicated staf for
community afairs, corporate philanthropy
or environmental sustainability,
but they are probably already taking positive steps in each of those categories.
Compiling a periodic crib sheet on
corporate sustainability that includes
each of these three areas—and potentially
many more of relevant interest—is
a good irst step.
Similarly, a company that communicates
openly with stakeholders during
good times is better positioned to avoid
the pitfalls of a communications spiral
during a crisis. Weaknesses you’ve
communicated about openly in the past
make less attractive copy for reporters
and will lower your overall risk proile.
Even one-of (truly unanticipated or
unlikely) crisis scenarios will be less of a
concern to stakeholders when the company
and its leaders have an established
record of transparency.
It’s not surprising that America’s most
trusted brands have some of the strongest
corporate communications platforms
and that reputation management is an
inherent consideration in nearly all major
C-suite decisions. Integrating brand
and issue management in your everyday
communications and public relations
program is just another form of preventive
maintenance, one that will infuse resiliency
into every corner of your organization during
times of crisis.