How to save your reputation from the digital mob (review of Molly McPherson’s Indestructible)

You said or did something stupid.

And now you’re being called out on social media by the digital mob. Reporters, your employees and customers are watching from the sidelines.

What you do next will seal your fate. Do it wrong and you’ll get yourself cancelled. You may very well lose your job, your business and your reputation.

Now is not the time to throw yourself a pity party, run and hide or hope the mob gets bored and moves on to its next target.

“The online shunning is not random nor is it unfair,” says Molly McPherson, author of Indestructible and an expert in public relations and crisis response in the digital age.

“The people who are targeted for cancellation or the brands that find themselves in the public’s crosshairs are in that position for a reason.

“The outrage is typically not from the questionable act that took the notice of the public, but from an inadequate response to the questionable act. The blowback is caused by a collective repudiation of the response itself or the hubris behind it.”

Brace yourself for extinction-level blowback if you’re defiant, snarky, tone deaf or slow off the mark.

McPherson has a far better three-step response that can save your reputation.

Own it. Acknowledge and accept responsibility for what you’ve said or done. Be sincere, humble and show genuine remorse. “An apology is critical to rebuilding a reputation and shows respect to people impacted or victimized by an incident. Accepting responsibility may seem risky, but it’s far riskier from a reputational point of view to try and avoid it.”

Clarify it. Give background that puts what you said or did in context. Explain, but don’t try to excuse, yourself. Use your weekend words when explaining yourself. “Speak to your stakeholders in a language they understand. Speak clearly and as jargon-free as possible.”

Promise it. Put yourself on the path to redemption. Announce your plans, priorities and the changes to come. Take real steps to make amends. “It goes without saying that this is not the time for token efforts – you’ll need to show how serious you are about mending the situation if you expect your reputation to emerge intact without being cancelled.”

And if you do these three steps, you have a shot at winning it and not getting yourself cancelled.

McPherson sees the same mistake being repeated by leaders facing a digital revolt. “The most dangerous thing a leader can do the moment they hear of pushback from the public is dismissal. They dismiss the complaint. They dismiss the complainer. They dismiss the power of social media. I have never, ever worked on or have been aware of a situation in which such dismissal hasn’t hurt a business in the short or long term.”

So why are leaders so quick to dismiss and make things worse for themselves? The number one reason is fear, says McPherson. “Fear of consumers rising up against their leadership. Fear of social media. Fear of information taken out of context.”

There are also leaders who still believe everything is private unless and until they chose to release it. The game has changed, says McPherson. Not only do we want information, we expect it on demand. “Being told ‘no’ is an invitation to ask again and to ask even harder because the reluctance to share arouses suspicion.”

In a world where everything you say and do can and likely will be used against you on social media, McPherson says leaders now more than ever need to practice honesty, humility, genuineness, transparency, responsiveness, relevance and accountability “Leading with these core values will help you navigate the environment and digital landscape in ways that older, outdated paradigms will not.”

So if you find yourself being called out online, silence, denial, defiance and non-apologies are not winning strategies. McPherson will show you a far better way to avoid getting cancelled and come out of a crisis with your reputation intact.

This review ran in the July 17th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

What’s the worst that can happen? Imagine it & have a Plan B, C, D & E (review)

frankWhat To Do When Things Go Wrong

By Frank Supovitz

McGraw Hill

$34.78

This review first ran in the June 22 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

There are 80,000 souls in the stands.

More than a billion people are watching worldwide.

You’re doing a media interview.

And suddenly the lights go out.

This was the crisis facing Frank Supovitz just over a minute into the second half of the 2013 Superbowl in New Orleans. Supovitz was the senior vice president of events for the National Football League and ringleader of the planet’s biggest sporting event.

“It was not a time for guesswork,” says Armen Keteyian who was interviewing Supovitz for 60 Minutes Sports when the partial power failure hit. “What our crew witnessed (and captured on video) was a cool, collected leader assessing information. As the delay stretched into what would become 34 of the most surreal minutes in NFL history, Frank made one clear-eyed decision after another.”

Supovitz, an award-winning event producer, applied five principles during the “Blackout Bowl” that he’s outlined in his book What To Do When Things Go Wrong.

“I guarantee that if nothing has gone seriously wrong for you at least once so far, something is going to go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong sometime, somewhere and somehow despite your very best intentions, your painstaking and expert planning, and your unfailingly optimistic worldview,” says Supovitz.

“And when you get past the first thing that goes terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong, guess what? There’s another crisis coming, and when it arrives things will look dark all over again, and very possibly worse. And I’m an optimist.”

Here’s how Supovitz mitigated risk and expertly managed crises during his 30-plus years leading major sports and entertainment events.

blackout bowl1.     Imagine how your event or project will play out in a perfect world and then picture everything that can go wrong. “Apply a dark and fertile imagination to visualize as many potential threats to our success as possible. Then we can spend the time, money and energy to keep all those monsters securely under the bed.”

2.     Prepare by building solutions to potential crises into your work plan. Hope is not a strategy, says Supovitz. Instead, you need a plan b, c and d. “Effective project leaders invest time and talent developing contingency plans that they truly hope, like an insurance policy, will turn out to be a colossal waste of time. But, having these plans can prove invaluable if something goes wrong and you need to work quickly to activate one or more of the plans.”

3.     Execute your plan and stay vigilant for all contingencies.

4.     Respond effectively when things go off the rails. “Try to resist the temptation to act too quickly, without regard to how your response may affect the outcome in other areas. That doesn’t mean don’t act fact. Just act fast enough to keep things from getting worse, but not so fast you end up making things worse.”

5.     Evaluate what happened and how you responded. Postmortems are key, as Supovitz points out that we learn more from things that go wrong than from those that go right. Of course, it’s always preferable to learn from the mistakes of others.

So when things go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong with your next project or event, remember Frank Supovitz and the 2013 Superbowl. Together with a quick-thinking team of well-prepared professionals, Supovitz kept calm, carried on and saved the Superbowl from a premature end.

No one was injured when the Superdome went dark. Play resumed after a 34-minute delay. Oreo put out a dunk in the dark tweet that ranks among the all-time great real-time marketing moves and cost nowhere near a Superbowl ad. And the NFL set a Superbowl record for concession stand beer sales during the blackout.

Jay Robb serves as manager of communications for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Reviews are archived at jayrobb.me.

The 8 expectations you must meet when a crisis hits your organization (REVIEW)

This review first ran in the Sept. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Crisis Ready

By Melissa Agnes

Mascot Books

$34

The answer to the question “can people really be that stupid?” is always yes.

I keep this reminder in a frame beside my phone at work.

You may want to get one too for your office.

desk

Even if your organization is blessed and loaded with really smart people, it takes just one employee to ignite a crisis by saying or doing something illegal, unethical, immoral or wildly inappropriate.

You should also assume it’s been captured on video. It’s one of the rules in a new book by crisis management expert Melissa Agnus.

The world watched a dazed and bloodied Dr. David Dao get dragged off an overbooked flight so a United Airlines crew member could take his seat. We saw an Uber driver get berated by former CEO Travis Kalanick. And we lost our appetite over a video of two Domino’s Pizza workers who grossly violated every imaginable health code standard.

“We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” a Domino’s spokesman told the New York Times. “Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair.”

It may not be fair but it’s the reality for every organization.

When a video goes viral and spawns a crisis, there are eight expectations you must immediately meet if your organization has any shot at minimizing the financial and reputational hit. It took United Airlines two days to issue a public apology. In those two days, the airline’s market capitalization fell by $1.4 billion in pre-market trading.

  1. Notify your key stakeholders immediately and directly. If they matter to your organization, they need to hear the bad news from you first and not through the media or social media.
  2. Be transparent. Your attempted cover-up will be worse than the crime. “A mistake can be forgiven. The appearance of a cover-up will not be,” says Agnus.
  3. Deliver timely, consistent communication. “The longer you wait to communicate in a crisis, the more risk there is of the crisis spiralling out of control, and the more you risk losing trust and credibility.”
  4. Listen and validate feelings and emotions. In a crisis, emotion will always overpower reason. “If you want your message to be heard by emotional people, they need to feel as though you truly care about them, the situation, and its consequences.”
  5. Engage in two-way communication. “Gone are the days when you could deliver your statement, turn around, walk away, and go back to managing the incident behind the scenes.” In a crisis, we’ll be on social media, expecting real-time, back-and-forth dialogue.
  6. Communicate as a human and not as a lawyer or a logo. Yes, you’ll need a legal strategy to deal with a crisis but Agnus says it can’t be the public face of your response. Never leave stakeholders with the impression that covering your legal liability is your number one priority.
  7. Answer the most pertinent and pressing questions. “The longer you take to give people the answers to their primary concerns, the more frustration and loss of trust you will experience against your organization.”
  8. Hold yourself accountable and responsible. Prove that you’re serious about righting wrongs and committed to change. “People aren’t fooled by meaningless words, no matter how good they may sound.”

It’s no longer good enough to just have a crisis management plan, says Agnus. “It used to be that organizations – the smart ones, anyway – would create a crisis management plan, store it on a shelf or in a file, and rest assured that if a crisis were to strike they would be ready, as they had a plan just waiting to be activated. Today, choosing to rely on a crisis management plan is no longer sufficient. In fact, it puts you at a disadvantage.”

Instead what you need is an organization-wide and deep-rooted culture where your people are taught and empowered to mitigate risks, meet expectations and make smart decisions in real time.

“Crisis management isn’t a linear strategy,” says Agnus. “Unforeseeable, unexpected developments will occur, sometimes amplifying the challenges and other times lightening the load. You want to get your team to a level of preparedness that is instinctive, rather than solely being dependent on a linear plan that cannot possibly account for all the variations, bumps and turns that may present themselves.”

Agnus shows how to get a crisis ready program in place before you get the call about someone behaving badly and putting your organization’s reputation at risk.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Eric Dezenhall’s Glass Jaw – A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal

glass jawThis review was first published in the Nov. 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal

By Eric Dezenhall

Hachette Book Group

$30

David doesn’t needs a slingshot to take down Goliath in 2014.

He only needs a Twitter account.

Thanks to social media, David and Goliath have traded places.

“Technology has made us more self-important, empowered and promiscuous in our ability to injure targets,” warns Eric Dezenhall, founder of one of America’s leading crisis management firms and author of Glass Jaw.

“Individuals and organizations that were once thought to be indestructible are, in fact, uniquely fragile in the face of reputational attacks from conventionally weaker adversaries,”

Attacks by social media’s bathrobe brigade can trigger coverage in mainstream media where scandal is Grade A clickbait guaranteed to deliver an audience.  Chasing the story is a new generation of journalists steeped in what Dezenhall calls “the traditions of celebrity-fueled career advancement.”

Prolonging the media coverage are pundits with their  play-by-play analysis on how the crisis is being mismanaged. “All parties involved gain from the perpetuation of hostilities, and consumers of news are not innocent bystanders.”

What we end up with is a reputation-shredding Fiasco Vortex. “The Fiasco Vortex is one part crisis and three parts farce, the farce encircling the crisis and whipping it into an exponentially destructive beast beyond mitigation,” says Dezenhall.

So what’s an individual or organization to do? Dezenhall cautions against public relations firms peddling crisis management cure-alls  that can prolong the pain and even inflict irreparable harm. “I believe the cookie cutter counsel about crisis management is what’s wrong with the whole enterprise. The development of cures begins with getting the diagnosis right rather than promoting superficial salves and palliatives.”

Dezenhall calls foul on eight crisis management clichés.  Getting ahead of the story comes in at number one. Believing that your act of full disclosure “will be greeted with prim appreciation as opposed to being used as a weapon against the principal” is a dangerous and naive assumption. “The next time you hear someone recommend getting ahead of the story, ask them how and play out each scenario associated with that recommendation with respect to human nature and the Fiasco Vortex.”

Dezenhall also questions the perceived wisdom of responding immediately to a crisis, telling your side of the story, educating stakeholders and changing the conversation.  While Twitter may have gotten you into a crisis, don’t bank on it getting you out. “When it comes to crisis management, social media is of marginal value and often a disaster.”

Unfortunately, there’s no proven gameplan for escaping the Fiasco Vortex. “The new crisis management road map is that there is no road map because there is no road, at least not yet. The road is being built, destroyed and rebuilt every minute.”  What worked for one organization may not work for yours. What worked 25 years ago won’t work today thanks to a technology-driven change in the conductivity of controversy. “Crisis management is an improvisational art, not laboratory science. And sometimes the improvisation works; other times it doesn’t.”

From experience, Dezenhall says organizations that stand the best shot at surviving a crisis have a battle-hardened leadership team at the helm who’ve weathered controversy before, are committed to resolving the crisis at hand, possess a clear-eyed view of their organization’s shortcomings  and have a credible counter-narrative. An unfettered budget also helps.”The realistic objective of crisis management is to endure controversy, not escape it.”

Think of a crisis as an iceberg, says Dezenhall. What you see above the waterline are the much-hyped PR and communications tactics of crisis management, the majority of which are of no value whatsoever. “What remains unseen is often more important than what is seen, and the best damage control efforts are often resolved discreetly. Most crises that are successfully resolved are resolved due to business and operational considerations.”  Smart organizations keep these considerations quiet. You won’t find their tactics laid out in case studies and showcased at conferences.

This isn’t your book if you’re looking for how to manage a crisis in 10 easy steps or need reassurance that a crisis is an opportunity.  But if you want to survive your darkest days and emerge with your battered reputation still intact, Dezenhall’s brutally honest facts of life memoir is required reading.