How the Pros Defend Their Brand Reputations: An Interview with Levick’s Dallas Lawrence

levick

I hate the Example Company. Their product killed my dog. Their customer service gave me road rage, which in turn made me wreck my car. They bilked me out of a $5,000 insurance payment.

They are a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.

Oh, wait. That was Matt Taibbi’s description of Goldman Sachs. But you get my point. Example Company is the devil. Goldman Sachs is a vampire squid. Both companies are being hammered by public perception. (The first company is fictional.)

If you’re a member of the reading public, you may be momentarily astounded by the claims above. But if you’re affiliated with either company, those same claims, under the right distribution conditions, will leave you panicked for the foreseeable future.

Levick Strategic Communications, a DC-based crisis and litigation communications firm, might call your experience a bad day in the Court of Public Opinion. They specialize in techniques to help you survive perceptual whippings like the ones above–and prevent repeats.

They’re very good at it. Either Levick or its current employees have, at some point in time, managed the brand or reputation of:

AIG, during the financial crisis
-An order of the Catholic Church, during the sex scandals
-The tobacco industry
-Spinach, after the 2007 salmonella outbreak
-The Florida election recount
-The People’s Republic of China, on the subject of Taiwan

When a high-profile company or person makes a visible misstep, or is subject to a prominent attack, Levick steps in. Their highly cultivated media and public affairs techniques have earned them international acclaim.

I talked more about some of those techniques, brand equity, and online crisis management with Levick VP Dallas Lawrence, who heads their digital media team. Lawrence specializes in brand advocacy and defense using social media, the blogosphere, and Internet communications. You can find more of his work at Levick’s BulletProof blog, or through his Twitter feed: @DallasLawrence.

BP: What are the biggest online threats to a brand?

DL: Inaction is one of the greatest single threats today in a crisis. Years ago, you had a couple of days to pull together your crisis team, you could have meetings, you could talk to a reporter, you could get back to them in a day or two with the information.

Today, crisis moves on a 14/40 news cycle, or a cycle measured in minutes. They don’t give you a week to get back. That fundamental shift is not understood in many boardrooms and many corporate communication rooms. It can be a lethal mistake to think you can wait out a crisis in the digital age.

Big does not mean savvy. Domino’s Pizza was the textbook poster child for this earlier this year.

I’m sure you’ll recall the malfeasant kids who put up a graphic video (see YouTube clip above). Domino’s first corporate response to the media within the first 24 hours was, I believe, “we’re not going to comment on this.”

Because it wasn’t the CBS nightly news calling, or the New York Times, they didn’t think it was wise to engage. Meanwhile, millions of people saw that YouTube video, the blogs picked it up, and within 36 hours, every network had it. CNN, Fox were showing the video. And then they finally responded.

Imagine if they had had, within their corporate DNA, the reflex to know immediately that “this is going out on YouTube, we need to have a video out on this within an hour putting this to rest, and storm that video to our fans.” Millions of people order Domino’s pizza. They would reach out to those folks and mention that this was an isolated incident.

Instead, they were silent, for almost 36 hours, which was just lethal in that environment.

They were setting up their Twitter account in the middle of the controversy. This is a consumer-focused brand that sells their product to consumers across America, and never mind that they weren’t proactively sending out tweets, they didn’t even have a profile set up so that they could be monitoring all those tweets. I’m sure they learned their lesson, and the next time in a crisis, they’ll be much better prepared.

In the 48 hours that followed (after the first 48 hours), they finally got it right.

BP: Let’s say there’s a company that does something ethically off. That company calls you and says we’re getting bad PR, can you help us. What would you tell that company to do?

DL: Nine times of out ten, the solution is to rip that band-aid off yourself and set the narrative.

It’s better for you as the brand that has made the mistake (or is so accused) to be the one that establishes the narrative, be the first one to the mic, and really get established at being open, transparent, and accountable. Those are the 3 key terms in 21st century crisis communications. You must be seen as open. You must be accountable, and everything you do has to be transparent.

The broad key theme is to have a company that’s prepared to run to the light, it’s prepared to not duck and cover and hope it passes, and it’s prepared to engage in a sustained dialogue that protects and proves its brand, encourages its investors, and reaches out to its consumers.

sixflags

BP: As a company, what is one way to convince dubious people that you’re being transparent and telling the truth?

DL: I’ll give you an example of something a great company has done. Six Flags, a major theme park, is in the middle of a financial restructuring. They can say and do the press releases until they’re blue in the face.

The CEO of the company, Mark Shapiro, decided to go out and reach out to bloggers personally. Not through a corporate communications director or a press release, but to sit down and have a conference call with 25 or 30 of the most influential bloggers covering his industry. These are roller coaster enthusiasts, these are mommy bloggers, investor bloggers concerned with the financial health of the company.

He threw it open to questions. They talked for more than an hour about their questions. And he said to them, “I don’t want this to be the last time we have this call. At the end of this season, let’s get together and chat again.”

He followed through on that. This week, he did a follow-up call with a couple dozen bloggers, sitting down with them and recapping what they talked about before, how the season went.

I think you can see by how open and honest his answers were, that he was telling it works and all. Bloggers are just as smart as all of the journalists. They know when they’re being spun, and they can’t stand it. They want someone to be honest with them.

BP: Some of Levick’s clients operate in potentially volatile reputation industries. Tobacco and drug companies come to mind. What kinds of strategies do you encourage them to take in order to build their reputations during peacetime? How does that help when a media firestorm hits?

DL: The first thing is that we encourage all of our clients to use their peacetime wisely. You don’t want the first time you’re telling your story to be in the middle of a crisis. You don’t want something to explode in the middle of a crisis that someone else has already defined the narrative for.

During that peacetime, our company builds our database of third-party ambassadors to reach out to potential people we use as message echoing chambers when crisis hits.

We build those relationships now. We reach out to them before we need them. The people we reach out to—industry bloggers, social networking connectors—it’s not the first time they’ve heard of us, when we need a favor.

BP: Who are your 3rd party ambassadors?

DL: They run the gamut. It depends on the crisis. An ambassador could be a university professor, a scientist, a think tank director, or a foreign policy expert. It could be mommy bloggers or fans of your brand on Facebook. The potential universe of brand ambassadors is only limited by the potential number of products & brands.

BP: How do you predict future brand assaults?

DL: Quite honestly, one of the greatest tools for that is the social and digital media space. If your company or brand has the ability to listen to the comments and dialogue that are going on around their brand now, they’re in a far better position to nip potential crises in the bud before they emerge on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s important that companies and brands stay active in that space. For example, a firm that might be trolling for victims of a class-action lawsuit might be setting up a Facebook page now, asking users whether they were affected by a certain product, and to join their class action.

You can even go one step further. An example that I love is Marriott Hotel. They’ve got a fantastic system in place for social media monitoring.

If you have a bad experience at a Marriott hotel, and you send out a tweet before you check out, they want to catch that and correct your user experience before you leave the property, so that you leave a happy customer. You don’t leave a customer who’s then going to tell fifty of your friends and post a negative review and inflict long-term damage.

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Image: Cipherdyne


BP: I’ve relayed negative brand experiences that customers have on my own blog. Sometimes customers agree with me, but sometimes commenters post a professional-sounding defenses of the brand. They’re anonymous, so the nature of their defenses sometimes makes me wonder whether they’re PR folks posing as individuals. Is that also something you guys do to defend a brand, put up a positive comment or other kind of comment to try to disarm a blogger’s argument?

DL: We as a firm do not try to do any black hat operations like that. Burger King last year had to fire their VP of Communications for doing just that, going out and fake blogging.

You have 118 million bloggers out there who are all policing and looking for the next corporation that’s taking the easy route. So this is not something we do for our clients.

Does it happen? Absolutely. I know that it happens.

What we might try to do is take the Barack Obama playbook. Chris Hughes and their team wrote the playbook for how you organize your supporters to be your voice and response.

So when Barack Obama was being pilloried in a local Chicago news channel for the Reverend Wright issue during the campaign, the campaign didn’t engage. Instead, they reached out to all their supporters and said “bombard this news site with what you know to be the truth!” And that’s what happened.

We encourage people to use their peacetime wisely, because you can’t unleash your hundreds or thousands of third-party ambassadors during a crisis if you didn’t take the time to connect to and make those relationships.

If someone is posting a negative comment or negative review, you can reach out to your reporters and say hey, we’d sure love it if you could share what you know to be your experience with the brand, and turn them loose.

BP: Speaking of spin, one thing that occurred to me is that it could be said that you guys are manipulating peoples’ opinions of evil companies, or something like that, because you do defend tobacco companies and other organizations that are controversial. How would you respond to that?

DL: I would say that everyone deserves their day in the court of public opinion. That’s what we offer our clients.

We represent a broad swath of clients, from Fortune 500 companies to small individuals to environmental companies doing good. For example, we have a great relationship with a client that has saved school districts more that $1 billion in electric fees. They just won the EPA partner of the year award for what they do to help the environment.

I think that you can look within the client roster and think of one or two examples…but I think that every single one of our clients falls into the category of deserving a day in the court of public opinion. We show up every day to give them that strong representation that they deserve.

BP: How do you determine when a controversy gets safe for a company? How do you determine that it’s a little flare-up that you don’t have to pay attention to?

DL: One of the worst things that can happen is that a company can overreact in a non-crisis situation and actually create the crisis.

One of the questions you have to ask, even if it’s a horribly negative story, is: “Is this really a crisis?” Do you really want to put the CEO of the company out there? Or is this just an issue that requires the response from a corporate communications executive who can just address a couple of quick questions?

That is probably one of the first steps that you have to take in any kind of crisis. You have to put the decisionmakers around the table and ask the right questions.

Obviously, if 60 Minutes is knocking on your door and you know that something’s gone terribly wrong, you probably have a crisis.

But if a lone blogger who’s sitting in the basement of his parents’ house and coming down from his Red Bull high has just hit your company with a snarky blog post, do you need to respond? No, probably not, because that’s exactly what that particular person hopes you do, is engage them. Read the situation and calibrate your initial response and everything after that.

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Image: Wikipedia


BP: How many hours a day does it take to monitor and defend a big company’s reputation online?

DL: It can be a full-time job for a very big team if it’s a big enough crisis.

We were involved with the pet food recall, the toy recall, the spinach recall, the financial crisis this year, a number of global litigation issues, the baseball star Roger Clemens. All these folks have an enormous amount of public interest around them.

Our clients had as many as 15-20,000 blog posts and tweets posted about them in a single week. Every single one of the those has potential to be a serious brand threat. So, it really depends on the size of the company and the scope of the crisis.

fincrisis
Image: XPigs

BP: One of your clients is a major financial services firm. Because of the financial crisis, the only thing that comes to my mind about defending its reputation is waiting until the negative media cycle blows out. Do you guys have a more active strategy than that?

DL: In every crisis, there are a couple moments during the before/during/after arc of a crisis. You reach a point in the “during” part where consumer anxiety and tension reaches its xenith. Just after that tipping point, where consumer anxiety begins to relax, you have an immediate opportunity, a teachable moment to build equity.

The world’s attention is still focused on you, but they’ve just exhaled. They now know what the concern is.

For example, during the pet food crisis a few years ago, once they identified that melanine was the issue, Americans relaxed. They realized “oh, now they found it and we can know what the crisis is.”

There was an immediate teachable moment after that. The pet food industry rushed into that moment, to educated consumers, that really calmed anxiety and returned sales right back to where they were.

Every crisis has kind of the same phases. There are opportunities to limit and mitigate the damage impact upon the brand during each of those. There are also opportunities to grab the spotlight during when the world is watching you.

What you do next really does matter. You can show a proactive, transparent, and accountable strategy. You can actually win over a lot of critics during a crisis.

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Here’s an interview with Dallas where he talks more about brand ambassadors and strategies:

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For more on social media and crisis management, as well as reflections on current events, visit Levick’s blog here.