Ruin or recovery? With reputation, it’s only a click away

Wading into controversy over a serving prime minister allegedly paying an underage girl for sex is never going to be an easy move to make, even if you are a PR guru like Max Clifford.

Still, for knowing more secrets of the rich and famous than anyone - thanks to 40 years in the reputation game, the publicist is surely a worthy source of PR advice for the accused PM, Silvio Berlusconi.

Not so, says columnist Janet Street-Porter. Finding fault with Mr Clifford’s suggestion that the Italian premier simply “needs to get Sophia Loren to come out and say what a wonderful man he is”, she scolded:

“The idea - that the half a million Italian women who marched in protest at Silvio’s tawdry antics would be swayed by an ageing actress - is risible.”

Commenting as editor-at-large of the Independent, she went further than merely trashing the PR expert’s idea. It is, she wrote, “Almost as risible as Max advising a prime minister.”

Street-Porter can’t have known the headlines that were to follow – and MCA, Mr Clifford’s Mayfair firm, hasn’t announced it is newly representing a government. Even so, her last swipe is about as unfortunately timed as it gets.

On Saturday, the Financial Times reported “Hungary hires PR experts…” after a “reputation management” firm and a “communications consultancy,” based in London no less, confirmed they were on Budapest’s payroll.

The following day, The Sunday Times splashed ‘Gadaffi hired PR gurus…’ citing evidence that the Libyan leader had appointed Brown Lloyd James, another City-based firm, for reputation management and other PR services.

If Libya, Hungary and Italy were corporations, it would be ‘risible’ if they weren’t on Twitter, or didn't have a meaningful social media presence, but still expected their reputations to remain untarnished.

That’s the consensus of marketing, crisis and reputational management experts who, not dissimilar to Mr Clifford, believe there are some empirical lessons to learn about how to effectively use communications and PR in 2011.

“When it is a crisis of [significant] size, digital and social media doesn’t make that much difference but it certainly can on a smaller scale, bringing what once may have remained low-key to a much wider audience,” said Paul Allen, of Rise PR.

“This understanding of how social media integrates into broader communications programmes is crucial to any PR consultant and freelancers are no different.”

More than that, argues Nigel Morgan of Morgan PR, companies – actually of all sizes - need an effective social media presence if they are to defend themselves. “And that presence will take time to build,” he says, “so you need to start now.”

If they don’t, companies risk becoming “the good, the bad or the downright ugly” without knowing about - potentially until it’s far too late, cautioned Stef Brown, founder of On Pointe Marketing.

“They were all there for us to see and join in [online]” she said of corporations’ differing reputational success last year. “We can safely say that 2010 was the year of ‘power to the people,’ when social media came into its own.”

Even if the rise of digital hadn’t happened, Mr Allen believes that one factor separates the winners from the losers when reaching out in a crisis. The fact it has happened, makes that factor all the more determining

“Whether you are a start-up or a blue chip corporation,” he said, or even a country, “crisis communication is all in the preparation”

Evidencing the claim, he pointed to BP – “the biggest PR disaster” of late. He said that, in responding to the oil spill in the Gulf, the company’s chief executive Tony Haywood consistently made it “look like BP simply wasn’t ready to deal with the media spotlight.”

Another corporate leader, Timothy Melgund didn’t fare much better with the media when, as chief executive of Paperchase, he flatly dismissed claims that the stationery giant had used a freelance artist’s work on one of its products without the freelancer’s permission.

“[Mr Melgund] gave an ill-considered interview,” explained Morgan PR.

“[It] denied any wrong doing and made disparaging comments about ‘these people’ on Twitter. Those people outdid themselves and even ventured into leaving negative reviews on Paperchase products on Amazon.”

Eventually Paperchase was forced to apologise, as it emerged that the freelancer’s work had indeed been copied, albeit by another artist who supplied an agency which in turn supplied Paperchase.

Anyone doubting that preparation, or its lack of, is the making - or undoing, of crisis-hit companies only if those companies are in the UK should consider Air Canada.

“A 10-year-old boy with a terminal illness travelled to New York City and when he landed his family were told that his wheelchair had been damaged in transit,” Ms Brown recalled.

“After hours of ‘phone-tag’ and muddled communication, the boy’s aunt used Twitter to pressurise the airline. Over the next 12 to 24 hours, the airline regularly failed to respond to online comments and criticisms. [In short] Air Canada was relatively silent; the Twitterverse was not”.

Although the airline has since sharpened its online preparedness, she believes the difficulty that most corporations faced in 2010 when assessing their social media strategy is about to become even more acute.

“We’ll see a further widening of the gap between traditionally-focussed PR agencies which lack social media understanding, experience [and] execution and niche social media experts [who don’t].

“So, PR consultancies which lack social media skills will rely even more on social media freelancers…” Ms Brown projected, “to help them fulfil the growing number of briefs with a social element.”

For Mr Allen, the key for such freelancers then becomes being truly social even if their employment status and lifestyle doesn’t naturally allow it.

He advised: “When you are working on your own it can be easy to become siloed and feel like you are getting left behind. Freelancers should immerse themselves in as much social media as possible.

“It not only provides freelancers with a chance to network but also [lets them] keep up-to-date with the latest techniques and industry trends.”

Giving his outlook, Mr Morgan preferred: “The simple truth is that viral justice via social media, whether right or wrong, equitable or grossly unfair, is going to continue and increase”.

That means “the sooner you get involved, the sooner you will be ready to defend your reputation in a crisis”. Surely this is good as well as qualified advice for those of us hit by potentially damaging claims, whether they come from a voluptuous belly dancer or a hard-nosed newspaper columnist.


9th March 2011

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