The art of public relations is perhaps more relevant today than ever. In the current climate of instant notifications of news, fake news, and distrust of companies, business people and politicians, PR professionals have their work cut out for them. Combine this with some of the recent reputation management crises involving celebrities being fired from networks due to controversial statements, sexual harassment allegations, and a host of other public missteps – it is clear that effective PR strategies are critical for managing these situations.
In this two-part blog series, we interviewed some of Baltimore’s industry leaders in public relations to find out their tips on how to manage crisis situations, deliver effective messages, and keep up with the fast-pace of not only the news cycle, but also technology trends that have impacted the industry. The first part of this series will focus on brand management and crisis communication.
Panel of Experts:
- Barb Clapp, CEO, Clapp Communications
- Wayne Schepens, Managing Director, LaunchTech Communications
- Amy Burke Friedman, President, PROFILES
- Jessica Tiller, Executive Vice President, Weiss PR
- Adam Yosim, Senior Account Executive, Stanton Communications
- Peter Stanton, CEO, Stanton Communications
What are some best practices for companies dealing with a crisis situation?
Jessica Tiller: “The first thing we tell clients is that you have to tell the truth, 100%. Make sure you are out in front of the crisis – you want to control the crisis, you don’t want it to control you. One example that comes to mind is a case we had with a well-known real estate developer who encountered a problem with a structure. For an entire year they dodged the media, opting to deal with it behind the scenes instead. However, their customer made it public. This resulted in losing public trust, as well as a variety of negative business repercussions. Once on board, our efforts to guide the CEO through an extremely stressful situation ultimately resulted in a positive impact on the business.”
Barb Clapp: “Start with the truth. You will never get ahead of it if you don’t start there. But, it must be in a contained fashion. Acknowledge what happened and ensure people you are working on solutions and a positive conclusion. Also, preparation is key. Sometimes you know something is coming or could happen, so you need to have a plan in place, as well as crisis training with key players.”
Peter Stanton: “My recommendation is to not rely exclusively on a scenario-based approach to crises. Instead of thinking of any specific incident that might occur, consider how your company will make decisions under pressure and under scrutiny. This is best done through a core team approach that can be applied to essentially any circumstance that arises.”
Amy Burke Friedman: “Be transparent, be honest, be human. Seek outside counsel. Let us help you. We offer an outside perspective and have experience managing a variety of situations and working with audiences of all kinds. Don’t be afraid to admit when something went wrong and to apologize.”
Wayne Schepens: “In the cybersecurity space, where LaunchTech conducts most of its business, our clients are often called upon to assist and educate on the latest crisis situation, breach or exploit. We are constantly working to stay ahead of the latest incident to provide credible commentary. My advice to those falling victim is to be as up front and transparent as possible. Staying ahead of the story and being sincere keeps you from challenging every negative remark and appearing defensive.”
Can you share some of your tips on brand and reputation management?
Peter Stanton: “A brand facing a communications crisis should make sure that any response aligns with the organization’s values and principles. Questions that will help evaluate all potential decisions include: Does this conform with our principles? Does it demonstrate responsible management action? Does it reflect our concern for those affected? Is it consistent with our prior statements and actions? The sense of urgency during a crisis can prompt brands to rush to get ahead of the situation. This further strains everyone’s decision making capacities. Fast is not always best. Long before any crisis occurs, brands must establish a set of guiding principles that will shape how a company approaches a crisis while also ensuring that all strategies are in alignment with corporate values. Pre-planning will help streamline the process when a crisis arises, since companies will have already done the leg work in anticipation of negative situations.”
Jessica Tiller: “So many hear the word ‘branding’ and automatically a logo, or a website, comes to mind. The reality is your brand permeates every aspect of your organization. What an organization does and says across all facets of the business needs to align. This is critical in today’s competitive landscape. Developing a positive brand will only build customer loyalty and help increase sales”
Barb Clapp: “One of the most important things to consider is your internal PR – making sure the leadership is clear on what they want their reputation to look like. It starts from within. If the management doesn’t know what you stand for, they can’t represent the company well. This means working on mission and vision, doing focus groups and workshops with employees, and having a strong social media policy in place. I also think it is important for companies to be socially responsible. People are looking to do business with companies that give back or do the right thing.”
Wayne Schepens: “The tech industry is very competitive. Company reputation and credibility is everything. Our clients are selling to the most cutting-edge organizations in finance, retail, media and government. Like any consumer, they are looking for validation and a reason to trust. Third-party credibility is an important part of the sales cycle and can come in the form of a testimonial, referral, or being quoted or featured in a credible publication or analyst report. It is important for companies to position themselves thought leaders that are providing valuable insights and solutions to the challenges they are solving.”
Amy Burke Friedman: “Know who you are, what you offer and what you stand for. Recognize that when you and your team speak, post, present, etc., you represent the brand.”
One common tip in communications is to be authentic. What does authenticity mean to you and how can communicators achieve it?
Amy Burke Friedman: “Authenticity means understanding what I’m trying to put out there and believing in it. It also means having a relationship with the people I’m dealing with and presenting the information to my audiences in an honest manner. “
Adam Yosim: “Being authentic means being honest. Companies should take ownership of any mistakes made in the wake of a PR crisis or that led up to it. Be real. The public can tell if you are just going through the motions. You can’t fool anyone. Being authentic can also mean identifying how the story ideas you are pitching will impact your key audiences. The types of positive stories people share on social media are usually heart-warming.”
Wayne Schepens: “Authenticity means building credibility campaigns that educate and inform the market and consumer. It’s about putting the client first and delivering insight to the entire industry. If I can get my clients to buy-in on that approach, it’s a good sign that we’re going to have success. Education equals authenticity.”
Barb Clapp: “If you are a company who understands your brand, the agency you hire will be able to understand it if you communicate clearly. When you work as a team to put it out there, you will stay true to the brand. I always recommend staying away from fluff; it isn’t good for anyone. Reporters can see right through it. It is far more beneficial to be honest and real in your approach.”
Jessica Tiller: “When someone says to be authentic, it means to be truthful, to be true to yourself and to your organization. Your actions have to meet your words. If you lie, you get caught. The consequences of getting caught are worse than if you told the truth in the first place. It all goes back to being truthful.”
Can you recall a particular PR or media challenge that you faced in the past and how did you overcome it?
Barb Clapp: “Working on the Freddie Grey PR was monumental for us. It was an international story. We didn’t have enough lines on our phones to answer the calls we were receiving. We had every international and national news outlet calling. We had the challenge of having to counteract some negative comments from the FOP leadership and messaging based on trends (i.e. Black Lives Matter). The future of five officers depended on us getting the right messaging out. We won tons of national awards for these efforts. Aside from this high-profile experience, anytime we help raise someone’s profile in the community, it is a success.”
Adam Yosim: “Today’s media landscape means newsrooms continue to shrink, which leads to diminished opportunities for reporters to be “in the field” to cover stories. Communicators need to find new ways to deliver the story to them. For one client, we’ve capitalized on their partnership with a video production company to make a short compilation of the event for news media to use at their discretion. In one instance, A major national entertainment outlet based on the west coast covered the event based on the video we sent them, even though they didn’t attend the event.”
Wayne Schepens: “One of the biggest challenges I face with technical thought leaders is having them adhere to on and off the record protocols. They often get so comfortable with a reporter that they start to share – more than they should – and then retroactively request off-the-record status of certain comments. For the most part, the reporters appreciate the situation and accommodate but sometimes it results in having to do damage control. The interviewee him or herself can often be their own worst enemy.”
Jessica Tiller: “One of my bigger challenges is being just as creative and resourceful for those clients whose budgets may be a little tighter than those of our typical client. We want to ensure every client sees a good return on their PR investment. Also, determining our clients’ strengths (and weaknesses) means being flexible and creative enough to service in a manner that ensures their success. One size does not fit all. This means that we need to adjust our recommendations based on their individual needs and the personality of each organization.”
Amy Burke Friedman: “As a PR professional, a big challenge I have always faced is perception — I still have to work with people who don’t trust PR professionals or believe we are a roadblock. I work hard to be honest, helpful, strategic, and a team player – building relationships with media, clients, etc. to make their jobs easier while supporting their end goals.”
About the Panelists:
Barb Clapp, founder and CEO of Clapp Communications, brings more than 30 years of advertising, marketing and business development expertise to her agency. She opened the agency in October 2001 and has won a multitude of industry awards and recognition since then. Barb is a coveted crisis communications speaker and has been a sought after speaker on other critical issues such as women’s leadership development, mentoring, and the resilience she gained from her own experience in overcoming difficult circumstances.
Wayne Schepens is the founder of LaunchTech Communications and has over 20 years of experience in emerging technology and cybersecurity. With an advanced technical pedigree that includes launching a successful startup of his own, Wayne offers a unique perspective to his clients. Wayne takes a hands-on approach and becomes intimately familiar with all facets of his clients’ operational, sales and marketing goals to advance companies and products from the initial planning stages to a successful market launch.
Amy Burke Friedman’s career began in 2003 after meeting with Amy Elias, the founder/CEO of PROFILES, which led to an entry-level position with her firm. She’s been there ever since and became president in 2015. Over the past 15 years, she has worked with clients in industries ranging from development, tourism, hospitality, education, arts & culture and beyond. She has provided clients with media relations, event planning, social media, strategic partnerships, branding, and crisis communications services.
Jessica Tiller began her PR career with an internship at a utility company during a crisis power outage. As a young intern with little experience, she was thrust into the role of company spokesperson and learned a lot about crisis communication as a result. She started Weiss PR with a colleague in 2008 during the recession and is now celebrating their 10 year anniversary in business. (Photo Credit: O’Dell Graphic Solutions)
Adam Yosim’s understanding of what makes a story and the inner works of newsroom decision helps him with personalized, targeted media outreach to earn positive media coverage for his clients. He spent seven years as a TV news reporter in North Carolina, Kentucky and Baltimore before joining Stanton Communications.
Peter Stanton is the CEO and founder of Stanton Communications. He is a crisis management expert who has been published on the subject in key PR trade publications, including O’Dwyers and PR News’ Crisis Management Handbook. His agency, Stanton Communications, executes strategic communication plans for a variety of clients, including national and international organizations, where they excel in spokesperson media training and crisis communications.