Rescuing Your Reputation

It’s 7 a.m. and your company is all over CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” led with his expansive take on your company’s latest headline-grabbing exploits, which are now trending on Twitter for the second day in a row.

And none of this is good.

Whether it is a corporate crisis like the 87-day oil gusher that polluted the Gulf of Mexico  and wounded oil giant BP’s reputation in 2010, or a massive credit card data breach in the middle of the holiday shopping season at Target Corp., corporate gaffes can cripple a company’s brand image.

That’s not just bad for the bottom line — it’s bad for the talent pipeline.

Thanks to social media and emerging attitudes among workers, employees and prospective new hires are increasingly conscious of an organization’s image.

Employees want more from their work than salary and benefits, according to Tonushree Mondal, the North America leader for human resources consultancy Mercer Group’s leadership and organization performance program.

Today, employees want to be part of companies that have clear visions for the future, contribute to society and focus on developing talent.

“The ‘What’s in it for me?’ comes through in the richness of the job that I’m going to do, the richness of the culture that exists at the company and how they work together toward a common purpose,” Mondal said.

The good news: With the right moves, companies can build recruitment brands resilient enough to withstand minor woeful events.

But building recruitment brand strength takes a lot more than just hoping the bad news goes away. Transparency, communication and social involvement are not only ways to keep an organization afloat; these traits can also bolster efforts to retain and recruit top talent amid the stormy seas of controversy.

“The most important strength any organization has is that its brand is stronger than any one person or any one mistake,” said Scott Farmelant, a principal at Mills Public Relations in Boston.

Addressing the Troops

Most public relations and recruitment experts say surviving an image crisis is all about open communication.

The most effective responses reflect an organization’s core values, Farmelant said. The best way to communicate is through direct, honest and forthright messages that acknowledge and address any concerns that might arise both internally and externally.

“In being straightforward, talent will have a greater likelihood of seeing leadership is up to the task and ultimately moving beyond a crisis,” Farmelant said.

That internal communication is imperative because it keeps employees from jumping ship when the waters get choppy. But it comes with a caveat.

“Bad news must come first from the company to its employees before they hear about it at their neighborhood barbecues,” said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of crisis communication firm Dezenhall Resources, in an email. He said the biggest internal problems usually happen when employees feel powerless and uninformed.

But never assume that what happens internally stays internal. Dezenhall said documents sent to employees should be treated as public information. More sensitive briefings should be done privately in person, teleconference or videoconference with individual or groups of employees.

Communicating with employees is only half the battle. For recruiters and talent managers, dealing with prospective hires calls for a more delicate response.

“It starts with what’s the value proposition that you’re offering to a prospective employee,” said Ravin Jesuthasan, a global practice leader for Towers Watson & Co.’s talent management division. “How does the brand fit into that, and what can you do to compensate for whatever perceived or real shortcoming there is in that element?”

Demonstrating what the company is doing to address a problem or offering a higher salary can get a candidate’s mind off short-term risks, Jesuthasan said. Corporate recruiters can also build confidence in a long-term future by emphasizing how the experience will make the organization stronger.  

Faster Than a Speeding Controversy

Regardless of the method or audience, the response has to come quickly.

The environment created by the 24-hour news cycle and social media is a double-edged sword for employers. Luckily, even as the environment helped spread the fire, it can also help put it out. Organizations should use that to their advantage while reaching out to workers, consumers and prospective talent.

In most instances, this means the more information you can give on a crisis, the better.

“In the absence of information, you think the worst,” said Larry Griffin, a founding partner of executive search firm Bridge Partners in New York. “You have to address it to the best of your ability at that particular moment, although you might not have all the facts.”

Legal restrictions can make it hard to produce quick communication that assuages the fears of employees and prospective talent. Crisis communications expert Dezenhall said regulatory and legal issues can often slow the process and make it harder to be transparent.

A company’s legal department’s responsibility to restrict what can be said publicly is natural in preventing potential exposure to legal liability, Mills’ Farmelant said.

Still, that’s no excuse for going silent in the face of controversy.

“In this day and age, ‘No comment’ is a death knell to your brand,” Farmelant said. “Your response is rightfully expected, and there is a lot to be said even in the worst of circumstances that will not put an organization’s legal standing at risk.”

Farmelant referred to a situation in 2007 when a JetBlue Airways Corp. plane left passengers stranded for up to 11 hours on the tarmac due to an ice storm. Instead of blaming the weather, the company accepted ownership of the problem and offered to reimburse food and lodging costs for those affected. CEO David Neeleman made a public statement on YouTube less than a week after the event and appeared on various news programs to apologize and discuss what the company was going to do to make reparations.

In most cases, organizations should operate under Murphy’s Law — what can go wrong will — by brainstorming what could happen as well as how to resolve it.

Farmelant recommended holding semiannual “table-top” discussions with the communications staff, marketing team, senior leadership and legal counsel. Sessions like these help establish who the decision-makers are in a media emergency while preparing for any possible situation that could crop up and packaging ready-to-run responses that are legally cleared.

“Because you don’t have linear crises that follow straight narratives and are easily contained, it’s important to be able to be nimble, quick, direct and forthright,” Farmelant said.

Talent management leadership doesn’t necessarily have a direct role, but it does have a major place in making sure the people involved are well-suited for potential crises. Namely, they have to make sure that the executive leaders they hire or promote fit into the organization’s crisis management approach.

Leaders who are decisive, can communicate well, manage stress, think critically and adapt to changes are usually the best suited for such positions. “Talent that has the capacity to analyze a crisis for what it is and understand the full consequences of any proposed solution — positive and negative — is better suited to manage a crisis than a candidate who instinctively reaches for ‘the playbook,’” Farmelant said.

The C-suite should instigate these planning sessions, Farmelant said, but the “who” of planning extends beyond the corner office.

Bridge Partners’ Griffin said organizations need people who can stay attuned to the public sentiment toward the company’s brand. This is important in developing the right message in response. A growing trend Griffin and partner Kathleen Yazbak said they’ve seen is an increase in companies bringing in political campaign workers to join their communications departments.

Brand ambassadors can also keep a company’s recruitment efforts afloat. Mercer’s Mondal said talent leaders should give proper attention to employees leaving an organization, as they are just as important to please as those staying.

If leaving employees “become brand ambassadors for your better practices, they’re not going out and talking badly about a company,” Mondal said. “They’re talking about, ‘Hey, that was such a great place.’ Then that, by reverse, becomes a great attraction to others considering working in the organization.”

Mission: Essential

Ultimately, it takes more than talk to restore or retain a company’s reputation in the eyes of its current and prospective talent. An organization has to have a stake in both the economy and the community by promoting its name through social service or sponsorship.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Farmelant said. “But a genuine mission-driven approach to a community, to a cause, really goes a long way. … You are going to always have the ability throughout the crisis to have key stakeholder buy-in to your organization and organization’s values.”

That support extends from the consumer to the talent pool, as those in the emerging workforce show increasing passion for issues involving social change. A 2011 study from Walden University in Minneapolis found that 90 percent of millennials had done something to participate in some type of social change in the year before the survey, a rate higher than Generation X (81 percent). That inclination to make a difference translates to the workplace, in turn influencing their decision on where to work.

Therefore, companies that do community outreach, adopt a cause or start a cause-related marketing campaign are more prone to build sustainable recruitment brands.

“By doing this you are going to always have the ability to throughout the crisis have a key stakeholder buy-in to your organization and organization’s values,” Farmelant said. “It’s good business all the way around, and it does have value to have communities still there for you who feel strongly about the organization.”

Learn more about the role CEO's play in crisis management here.

Learn how to best communicate during a crisis here.