Online Reputation Management Blog

Interview with Crisis Communications Expert Mark Lambert

I’m excited to invite Mark Lambert to join us for an exclusive interview on our Online Reputation Management blog.  Mark is president of Lambert Media, a communications consulting firm based in Louisiana. Mark has nearly three decades of communications experience, including several years as a reporter, editor and news executive in the print and broadcast fields and as the communications director of a large Louisiana state agency during Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav.

What is crisis communications?

Crisis communications is the process of making people aware of your point of view and persuading them to accept it in the midst of circumstances that are harmful or have the potential to be harmful to your reputation.

What are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with the media?

There are many mistakes people make, but most of them boil down to a lack of respect for the people with whom they should be communicating. This manifests itself in several ways, including:

  • a terse “no comment”
  • a prepared, distributed statement full of “lawyer language,” i.e., a bunch of hedging and passive-voice phrases that serve no purpose but to give the client wiggle room.
  • lying
  • half-hearted attempts or no attempt to show sympathy for victims
  • hiding from the media or not making key executives available
  • finger-pointing, blame shifting or transparent attempts to downplay present or future damage

How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?

I find that my clients are interested in social media more as an ongoing marketing tool than as a key communications strategy tool. However, more people are starting to understand the power of social media, and as it becomes more evident to key executives and administrators that social media can be a powerful and versatile tool, they become more willing to allow it to be a part of their strategy. The issue often is that top executives tend to be older and not as adept to social media as are the middle managers. I find that I have to persuasively pull some of my clients into social media.

What is the first thing a company should do when there is a PR disaster?

Ha! In my media relations seminar, I tell people the first thing they should do when there’s a crisis is to lock the lawyers out of the room. Many CEOs, executives, administrators, etc., are so focused on some inevitable looming court battle years down the road that they fail to see the problem in front of them. They lawyer up and inevitably make the situation worse.

The first thing a company should do is to stop acting like a corporation and Be Human. Demonstrate sympathy and caring for any victims. Get the facts, identify who your stakeholders are and communicate to those stakeholders in an appropriate manner. It is important to have a crisis communications plan, but it’s more important to be flexible to changing events. Too many crisis communications plans are so detailed and rigid that they fail to take into consideration that a crisis is a dynamic event.

How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?

They have to have a vision of what their company is, and they have to share that vision with their employees, customers, vendors, etc. If the CEO says his company wants to be involved in the community in a positive way, how can he show it? Does he give his employees paid time to volunteer in schools, work at a food bank or at an animal shelter? Does he encourage customers to do the same through company-sponsored programs? You can fake a reputation for awhile, but if it’s just a stunt, you will be busted. Be real, and walk the talk.

What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

This may sound harsh, but I believe the best thing employees can do is to hold their company’s leadership accountable for doing the things the leadership says it is going to do.

What can companies do to better prepare for a public relations crisis?

A crisis communications plan is a must. A good plan should:

  • detail the various stakeholders and message vehicles
  • lay out a simple org chart with duties relative to the crisis so employees know what to do and what is expected of them
  • identify spokespersons and guidelines
  • identify a specific communications vehicle (newsletter, intranet, e-mail) for employees

Many plans overlook the importance of communicating internally in a crisis. You have to let your own people know what is going on, and you should give them a channel of communications that is separate from the general communications vehicle.