I am very excited to kickoff a series of monthly interviews with some of the most successful public relations and crisis communications experts in the business. Our first guest is Wiley Brooks, founder of The Wiley Brooks Company, a Seattle-based crisis communications consultancy. Mr. Brooks has counseled companies and organizations on crisis communications and issue management for more than 20 years. He began his career as an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor before becoming media relations director of a large healthcare organization. In 1988, he opened his own PR agency. In 1991, Wiley turned his personal professional focus entirely to crisis consulting.
What is crisis communications?
Most people think of crisis communication as what happens after the s&%t has hit the fan and they’re facing long-term damage to their organization’s reputation. Actually, most of what I do in crisis communications is trying to keep it from hitting the fan in the first place.
For some clients, their crisis is already in bloom when they call me. Many, though, reach me once they realize they have an issue that could go sideways on them.
So what do I do? Mostly, I help them size up who they need to communicate with, how they should do it, when they should reach out and what they should say. That last one – what they should say – really has to fit who they are. When a company is in crisis, its soul is exposed. You can’t be someone you’re not.
The challenge is that a typical crisis is constantly evolving. This constant state of change is especially true when social media are involved. And social media often are involved – whether the client realizes it or not.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with the media?
The biggest mistake I see executives make is not being accessible to the media. Too often, they want to work out their answers and run it by too many people. That doesn’t work anymore. The world now exists in a constant, non-interrupted news cycle. You must stay abreast of the news. With social media, if a traditional medium gets something wrong, it can and often does go viral. You have to engage virtually everywhere.
How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?
You can’t have a reputation management strategy today without a social media strategy. Some companies are going to be more impacted by social media than others, but it’s a rare crisis where social media isn’t driving the story once it is in play. It didn’t used to be this way. I know that some people rue the day that it changed. Not me. I think that social media give us the tools to act and interact directly with our customers and other important audiences without the filter of the traditional media.
How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?
CEOs live in an era when anything that might be exposed often is. Today’s world requires a commitment to transparency. It also relies far more on an honest-to-god partnership with customers. Companies with good reputations get there by listening to their customers, even when those customers are saying things the CEO doesn’t like. A good reputation is like a good marriage. Both rely on a healthy give and take on things that are important to both parties.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a PR disaster?
This is going to sound self-serving, but it is absolutely true. When facing something bad, a CEO’s first call should be to a crisis communications expert. Crisis is not business as usual. Most organizations are designed to sell products or ideas, not deal with an assault on their core values, which is what a crisis can bring. A company needs someone with a good track record in crisis control who’s not there to build a long-term relationship with them, but to tell them exactly what they have to hear and suggest what they can do about it. There was a guy named Red Adair years ago who went around the world putting out the worst oil rig fires. Companies didn’t hire him to sell oil. They hired him to put out the fire then go away. That’s what I do. I help companies put out the fire and then I say goodbye.
What can companies do to better prepare for a public relations crisis?
This one’s easy: plan and practice. I was surprised recently to see research of nearly 700 publicly traded companies from around the world that found that 30 percent of them had no crisis plan, yet 35 percent of the companies had actually experienced a crisis in the past five years. I suspect that if you asked smaller companies you’d find that even fewer plan for crisis. My guess is that they just aren’t willing to make the investment – both money and time – to create a crisis plan. But that’s not a valid reason to avoid planning for something that could devastate the company in short order. Crises happen to very good companies. They make mistakes. Or they are victims. Or their company just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every company should have some kind of plan and revisit it at least once a year.