September 5, 2021

Chris Clark conducts interviews with leading corporate directors and subject matter experts for NACD Private Company Directorship, a bi-weekly e-publication about private company board leadership and governance best practices, on critical issues from ESG, crisis communications, and cyber-resiliency to succession planning and board composition. Here, he interviews Michael W. Robinson, Chair & CEO of The Montgomery Strategies Group.

 

You have always been an evangelist of the importance of reputation management. Given the debacles at Solar Winds, Kaiser Permanente, and Nikola…what lessons learned can you share with an outlook to 2022?

If a brand is a promise, then a crisis threatens to break that promise, often with dire consequences. In turn, the value that derives from a demonstrated track record of quality performance results across the widest possible breadth of KPIs (and not just from a financial perspective) have the capacity to serve as the critical foundation of “reputational insurance” for an enterprise. Executing this approach requires three equally important components. First, the commitment to sustaining the effort over time. Nothing falls shorter, especially with the Google algorithm, than a momentary burst of interest that quickly goes stale. Second, the underlying initiatives have to be based on substantive programs and accomplishments. Trying to pass off the corporate reputational equivalent of “vaporware” does more harm than good and will leave an unflattering taint in the aftermath. Finally, the effort needs to be authentic and truly represent the company and its brand. An apparel company, for instance, that donates a percentage of its products to people recovering from a natural disaster or displaced refugees, is clearly making a commitment that aligns with its business. Simply put, the goal in situations where a company’s behavior is being called into question is to have already built a recognition sturdy enough to enable a sufficient number of stakeholders to view the particular issue as a one-off exception – and thereby prevent it from becoming the company’s defining narrative.

 

What is on your to-do list as a global crisis communications expert?

Continuing to learn more about, so as to be better able to integrate, the full breadth of social media tools into strategic crisis communications preparation and response. Largely because private companies are newer arrivals in the marketplace, they have a distinct advantage in their ability to inculcate the discipline to leverage social media as a part of their corporate DNA. By way of example, be wary when the call goes out for “a digital media strategy.” Wrong. In fact, social and digital media are part of a unifying strategy and are essential communications conduits. At a minimum, a company’s owned social media platforms give its executive team a great gift — the ongoing ability to communicate directly with its stakeholders outside of the media filter. The lynchpin to ensuring that this tool is “at the ready” is the foresight to build the platforms in advance and then the steely-eyed dedication to nurture and grow the right communities over time so that they come to trust these venues. The old axiom of relationship building is true: “know ‘em before you need ‘em.” At the same time, careful social media listening is one of the most effective early warning networks available. From the unvarnished opinions of employees and prospects on Glassdoor to real-time customer feedback about products and services, the ability to gather, and act, on this level of information is immensely valuable.

 

Can you identify the three top takeaways for private company directors with respect to crisis and reputation communications?

For the directors of companies that find themselves in the crosshairs of a crisis, recognizing these fundamental tenets can help guide the organization through its challenges and, ultimately, speed its recovery. At the outset, it’s instructive to define the company’s communications objective in a crisis situation, which is fundamentally different than that of virtually all of its other external and marketing efforts. Indeed, the “win” in crisis is battling to a tie — where the company’s information and point of view are represented accurately and fairly in the initial reporting. Companies that try too hard and pivot too quickly to a pure play sales approach will make the organization appear aloof. The more effective approach is straightforward, fact-based communications, delivered with a situationally appropriate cadence. To that point, no company — or board — has the ability to decide when a crisis is over, that decision rests with its myriad of stakeholders, each one of whom will adopt a different expiration date. Also, while communications is always one of a company’s most horizontally-focused functions, that is never more true than it is in crisis. As it looks across the enterprise, the communications team will bring the sensitivities necessary to see potential dangers in enough time to forestall potentially negative outcomes. A company under scrutiny for alleged financial irregularities, for example, would be well advised to cancel the long-planned five-star resort celebration for its sales team, lest that image become additional fodder for the company’s antagonists.

 

Michael W. Robinson, Chair & CEO of The Montgomery Strategies Group, draws on three-plus decades as a trusted counselor and strategist to corporate and government leaders to help them successfully prepare for, and navigate through, complex crisis situations and build durable reputations with their most important stakeholders. Mrobinson@tmsgr.com