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Building a Brand, Managing Threats Call for a New Leadership Style

The CEO and Reputation

By John Garvey

John Garvey

John Garvey

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Warren Buffett’s advice on protecting the most valuable commodity an individual or organization possesses is spot on. In business, however, it helps to know what ‘do things differently’ means, in advance of the next crisis.

As a business leader, what not to do is well-known. If you are unsure, just Google ‘Travis Kalanick’ or ‘Oscar Munoz’ and the word ‘crisis.’ Don’t be those guys. Essentially, they and most business leaders get in trouble or impact negatively on their organization’s reputation by not thinking enough about reputation — their company’s and even their own.

Reputation is not only worth worrying about, it should be regarded as a market advantage.

Reputation is your sustainable differentiator. It’s why a lot of customers come to your door, why influencers send you referrals, and perhaps why parents tell their children to do business with you. Most businesses invest quite heavily in enhancing their reputation, an effort that conveys to their audience, “we are here to help you with our products and services.”

Anything that threatens or damages that message is a reputational threat. It’s that simple.

The complicated part of reputation management is that threats have changed and responses have not. Today’s threats are fueled by algorithms. You’d recognize those computer programs as the Internet, primarily search engines like Google, and social media. Algorithms add fire to smoke, and that fire spreads quick across audiences and sometimes into traditional media. Then your phone rings.

The typical response is to answer it, and here is where the CEO is most often thrown under the bus, or better put, steps out in front of it. The CEO answers the call, makes the statement quickly to put out the fire, and days later is apologizing for that quick response. Don’t be that CEO.

Recently, when Facebook faced a crisis because of a data breach, Mark Zuckerberg did not pick up the phone. Instead, the organization met behind closed doors and went to work on the problem. The fire grew hot in the interim, but when he finally did talk, he apologized and suggested that the organization would do better. The crisis is not over of course, but Facebook took proactive steps to manage it — rather than be managed by it.

Knowing what causes threats is a good place to start the process of protecting your organization’s reputation. Threats sometimes come from national issues that have nothing to do with your individual company but are, instead, targeting your industry. Similarly, local issues that you may have a loose tie to, e.g., one of your customers did something wrong, also can be a source of threat.

Social media, where haters go to hate, often is where micro-threats eat away at your reputation like termites. Customers, former employees, or anyone with a grudge can become the troll that chips away on the reputation that you have worked so hard to enhance. Just about anything you do in a community can have negative consequences, e.g., that new office that you opened or a merger that you recently completed.

So, now that you are thinking about threats to your reputation, let’s move on to the doing. First, don’t jump out in front of the bus. Just don’t. Think baseball: the CEO is the closer, maybe the reliever at times — not the starting pitcher. CEOs get in trouble when they push aside professional staff or are encouraged by the same to jump into the fray early. Build crisis resilience every day. That is your job.

Have you set your north star, meaning the values that your organization stands for? Does everyone, including your executive staff, board of directors, and customer-facing associates, know what those values are and how they are turned into action? They all should, because they are your first line of reputational defense.

You should develop a crisis-management plan. It doesn’t have to be a big plan, but it should define potential threats and determine who is responsible for managing them (including the starting pitcher). You also always want to buy time to prepare, know any interview questions in advance, and contemplate the mediums where your message will be carried.

If it is a TV interview, you will want to contemplate the setting for that interview. If it is a print interview, you will want to provide photo images (of yourself, perhaps) and helpful images like infographics. You also want to outline your options: respond, avoid, or divert.

Back to a few more do’s and don’ts: If and when you do get called in front of the microphone, stick to the script. If your thought is from your heart, leave it there. This is about your organizational values — the ones you have worked so hard to instill (your north star). That should be reflected in the message and should be in your head, not your heart.

Here is something to think about: don’t immediately consider posting your message on social media. The trolls will eat you alive. Conversely, traditional media will do a better job of getting your message right.

Finally, harking back to the famous line from Hill Street Blues, “be safe out there” — it’s a dangerous world, and CEOs need to treat it as such. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life — your life — that some crisis or even everyday business could provoke someone to confront you or even do you harm.

John Garvey is founder of GCAI Digital Marketing and PR. He has more than three decades of public-relations experience. He holds a certificate in reputation management from the Public Relations Society of America. He was also a keynote presenter on “Managing the Media and Your Reputation in a Crisis” at the Massachusetts Bankers Assoc. 2017 Executive Officers Conference.