06 October 2017 at 06:00 BST

Reputation management in the digital age

Crisis management needs careful handling to ensure the strategic needs of the company tally with litigation risk, says Benjamin Thiele-Long of Infinite Global.


Last week at the GC Futures Summit, I was privileged to be part of a panel discussion on reputation management in the digital age talking about how GCs, external counsel and communications teams all play a part in reputation management. Talking with Daniel Rozansky, partner at Jenner & Block; Michael Ellis, general counsel of Abercrombie & Kent and Tom Stein, VP and GM, Global Partnerships, American Express, we looked at exactly what it was that made the perfect team.

Protect and Prepare

Any incident or crisis will have a significant impact on the reputation of a brand. So, one of the key things to bear in mind is that the stronger your brand to begin with, the more resilient if an incident occurs. A crisis is also not the time to try something new, and having a strong existing social media presence and proactive media outreach programme can not only reduce the overall impact of a crisis, but also means you have a better pre-existing relationship with your stakeholders and journalists in the event you need to navigate trickier waters.

Fundamentals of crisis management unchanged

It’s also important to stress that the speed of the internet and social media has not changed the fundamentals of crisis management. Although they may have changed the tactics of communication and the context in which reputations are managed, the basic principle that an organisation needs to seize the communications initiative in a crisis to prevent a vacuum forming around them, meaning others have the deciding voice on the issue, remains paramount.To this end, having an established crisis communications plan in place is the only way to ensure you can deploy an effective response to an issue and ensure your position is made clear. And this plan needs to be developed in consultation between the GCs, external counsel and your PR agency to make sure all of the key potential issues are prepared for, but also to make sure everyone understands the approach to be taken in a crisis and prevent delays in agreeing or signing off messaging when the time comes.

Strategy and tactics

Crises can be expensive, both in terms of reputation, but also financially – especially when the profits take a nosedive and shareholders lose their mettle. The fallout from major crises in recent history has been a result not necessarily of the event itself, but the organisation’s delayed or mishandled response. Being able to respond quickly and effectively to an incident can be the difference between a crisis and a non-event. But the speed of a response is not only based on how prepared you are for an incident, but how well your legal and public relations teams can work together. They need to be trusted partners, not only to the company but to each other, in the same way you wouldn’t send out a team of top soccer players to play a world cup final if they’ve never played a game together.

Approach strategically

It’s also a question of balance. Unfavourable material sometimes needs a robust legal response, and sometimes it needs a softer negotiation process, requiring the media team to engage directly with the journalists. The decision-making process of whether to litigate is both complex and nuanced and if the legal and communications teams are not aligned on the approach, it can have disastrous effects. Remember, the outlet is the one with the ability to publish more unfavourable content if the process is handled badly.That’s why it’s important to approach any response strategically, rather than simply trying to respond with force to every potential negative comment, and ensure that your media team both know the key legal parameters within which they can operate and then reach out directly to the businesses key media outlets and personalities.

Counsel and contribution

GCs and external counsel are used to working closely together, and in times of crisis this relationship needs to be one of mutual trust and understanding. If an issue arises, legal teams both internal and external can provide extra manpower and expertise. But often when an organisation is caught in the eye of a storm, GC’s and external counsel can bring some much-needed objectivity when it comes to decision making, taking out some of the instant emotional response and tempering it to ensure consistency of approach.

The role of communications

Your communications team, however, need to fulfil this same role, and provide support that assists, rather than contradicts the legal team’s objectives. Too often, communicators try to be the loudest people in the room, just to show they’re earning their fee, which isn’t helpful when trying to coordinate a strategic response.And this is why it’s also important that your PR firm is experienced in working directly with GCs and external counsel, to make sure they’re working towards the same objectives. Any communications team needs to understand the working of litigation and regulation and have first had experience in understanding the myriad implications a crisis can have on an organisation, and deploy messaging that isn’t going to be making the situation worse.

Benjamin Thiele-Long is an Associate Director at Infinite Global


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