On April 24th the Czech news weekly Týden published an exclusive interview with a character who many reporters would have loved to have on their covers just a few months ago: Roman Janoušek.
The influential middleman – I stay away from the word lobbyist or entrepreneur, which are both respectable professions that have nothing in common with corruption, dodgy deals and lack of transparency – spoke for the first time in years about the car accident that turned his life upside down. If I hadn’t followed the affairs tied to Janoušek’s name, the interview would have almost managed to turn him into the victim of a wrong decision – drunk driving. Janoušek showed a human face, apologized, talked about the impact of the accident on his personal life and showed remorse. I don’t know who is in charge of his crisis communication, but it’s obviously a good advisor: this interview was the right thing to do in such a situation. Yet, there is one situation when not even such human interviews work: when it’s too late.
The weight of personal histories
We all carry with us a personal history; we all might have done things we are not proud of. It may have been a crazy party when we were teenagers, a former life partner who left us with a bitter taste, or a deal when we closed our eyes on certain aspects that were not truly ethically aligned. All of these little things can turn into big issues once we decide to step into the limelight. That’s why spicy private details make the delights of American presidential campaigns. Fortunately, the hard core tabloid news made in the UK missed the Czech market, but we never know where we will head with fresh direct presidential elections in the pipeline.
One thing is clear: we all have our skeletons in the closet, small or big, less or more relevant to the public interest. The question is: how do we deal with them when these problems arise?
Here are five steps that you should consider when you see your reputation in danger:
- Evaluate. Who brought the news to light? Which media covered the news? What would be an accurate response to the development? An excellent example is the construction company Skanska and its reaction to the negative campaign against it by the Czech Ministry of Transport. In less than 24h Skanska hired a crisis communication manager and decided on the steps to be taken. Skanska took 48h to analyze the allegations internally. Then, once things were clear, it answered the allegations publicly. Now, Skanska is still in business, while the former minister of transport Vít Barta is convicted for corruption.
- Need for speed. When a bad thing happens to your reputation, your quickness to react is the key. However, it doesn’t mean that you need to jump head-first and speak on things which you haven’t properly considered. Share with the public that you are aware and concerned with the situation, and that you are acting to evaluate the issue, then release a statement and go meet the press. As a recent post by Rick Amme, the owner of Amme & Associates noted on Ragan.com, it’s not the speed of reaction that matters, but the speed of decision.
- Speak up. Once you have it clear in your mind what happened, and once you have prepared what to say, go out and speak up. However, bear in mind that you need to keep a proper balance: it’s not in your interest to send a press release with your statement to the national media if your negative news appeared in a small local newspaper, and you clarified the issue after one phone call with the local reporter.
- Be consistent. Once you decided what to say, share the same message on all communication channels, including social media, and remain faithful to your truth.
- Remain positive. The wide public will appreciate the combatant who is open and willing to look for a positive solution in anything that may happen. This is why Vít Barta’s campaign against Skanska was seen as an attack rather than a move to defend public interests.
All these are useful tools to bring down a fire that may risk burning away a reputation that you’ve built over a lifetime. However, crisis management is nothing but the ultimate skillful approach of a good communicator. There are two more aspects to this issue.
One is preparation. Numerous Czech companies work with crisis management scenarios, where people know more or less what to do in a challenging situation; very often though these scenarios aren’t backed up by crisis communication scenarios that are clear to everybody. It’s true, we cannot foresee everything. However, in crises you will want to have spent more time explaining to your employees why they shouldn’t cover their faces, push the camera and run away from the TV crew that just wanted to figure out where the manager’s office is.
The second aspect is prevention. This goes beyond manuals. Part of prevention is the fact that you develop a long-term trusted relationship with the key media of your interest. This is something you can do only if you speak with reporters on a regular basis, if you understand their needs, and try to accommodate them as much as you can. It comes down to a mutually respectful relationship. This is why I find Janoušek’s interview untrustworthy: one doesn’t change his view of the world over night. The interview is a work of art in terms of crisis communication – yes. However, will it help changing Janoušek’s reputation in the long-term, so that people he cares about won’t avoid sitting with him at the same table in the future? For that he needs more than crisis communication. No communication magician can take away the years of silence, disrespect for the media, public funds and human lives he showed in the past. That is a reputation he will carry with him, accident or no accident.