We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Ashley Davidson, Senior Director, Media & Industry Relations for Fish Consulting, a national communications consulting firm specializing in public relations and marketing for the franchise industry.
Fish’s clients include FOCUS Brands, Best Western Hotels & Resorts, Regus, Neighborly, Chicken Salad Chick, FASTSIGNS International, Inc., and Sola Salon Studios, among others.
In this role, Ashley leads the agency’s crisis communications, new business development, and executive speakers bureau. Since joining Fish in 2012, she has led national media relations strategy for brands across the restaurant, retail, fitness, and health/wellness segments, securing coverage with CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, FOX Business, Cheddar, and more. Her crisis communications experience spans a variety of issues from the COVID-19 pandemic and foodborne illnesses to sexual assault allegations, data breaches, natural disasters, and fatalities.
Prior to joining Fish, Ashley held various agency and in-house PR and corporate communications positions with O’Connell & Goldberg, Femwell Group Health, and Burger King Corporation.
Ashley is also a freelance writer who has contributed to national and local media outlets like HuffPost, Wine Enthusiast, RunnersWorld.com, The Washington Post Magazine, Chewy.com, and USA TODAY NETWORK’s sponsored content studio, GET Creative.
Ashley received her undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Miami and currently lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
Reputation management is the practice of managing the public’s perception of a brand or individual. With the growth of social media, reputation management has come to be synonymous with how your brand is perceived online through these channels. It’s a significant part of public relations, as PR’s primary goal is to influence the public to have a favorable perception of a brand or individual and, ultimately, to do business with them. I think your PR strategy will not be nearly as effective if you don’t have effective reputation management. A favorable image can take years to build, but can be destroyed through one viral Facebook post that damages your reputation.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
I primarily work in crisis communications and constantly remind brands and small business owners not to get defensive when someone attacks them — whether the criticism is true or not. It’s easy to get emotional when you’ve spent so much time building a business and any attack on it feels extremely personal. So, when people respond from an emotional place, situations can easily spiral out of control and hurt your reputation. Composure and empathy are valuable learned skills that are incredibly useful in these instances and can help you avoid a single comment turning into a larger PR crisis.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
Social media gives anybody the power to publish almost anything. If we look at the recent Black Lives Matter protests, countless videos documenting police brutality, destruction of property, and more were disseminated on social media as it happened. We saw things on Twitter hours before media picked up the videos. Any person with a phone can make or break an organization’s reputation and, unlike in traditional media, you don’t have the luxury of a reporter giving you a courtesy call to get your statement before the world hears about it. Brands have to be prepared to implement their crisis response strategy at any given moment because of the speed of social media. There’s much less time to think about how to react.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
Assess the situation to the best of your ability. What was posted/shared? Who posted it? Where was it posted (e.g. a personal Facebook page, a private group page)? Is it gaining traction, meaning, are people responding and sharing the post? And don’t forget to take a screenshot of the post, just in case it’s later deleted and you need to refer back to it. The first thing I ask when I get on the phone with a client dealing with a crisis is, “Tell me everything you know at this point.” So, having that information is helpful. That way, I can understand the current situation, gauge the seriousness of the issue and urgency of our response, and advise on next steps.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Resist the urge to respond to social media comments or speak to media unless specifically advised to do so. It’s important during a crisis to have consistent messaging and that’s often achieved through a single spokesperson. Having other voices chime in to defend the business, no matter how well-intentioned, can reignite a fire that was in the process of being put out. When in doubt, employees should ask their supervisor if and how they can help. If the answer is to do nothing and let the crisis communications team take the lead, trust that leadership has it handled.
Of course, there are always exceptions. If, for example, a company is under fire for serious allegations like sexual harassment, an employee may feel it is their duty to speak up. However, I recommend doing so through the appropriate channels, so they’re protected.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
First, conduct a vulnerabilities assessment. You don’t know what to prepare for if you don’t know where your business is most vulnerable. Secondly, create a crisis communications plan with protocols for responding to each of the potential crises the business could face. Finally, conduct a crisis simulation where your senior executives and other key team members work through a potential crisis in real-time. It may seem silly to practice your crisis response, but it’s beneficial to work through the kinks now, so when a real crisis happens, everyone knows exactly what to do and can do it quickly.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
A little bit of both. When brands first started to have a presence on social media, I don’t think anyone anticipated how important of a role it would play in the daily life of a business. Back then, there were no best practices, which made reputation management harder. However, there were fewer platforms to monitor and fewer people on those platforms. Today, there is so much more content spread across countless websites and apps, but now marketers know what they’re doing and we have technology to help us manage it all.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
The COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. hadn’t been impacted by anything of this nature in 100 years and the world was very different back then. There was no playbook and everything was changing so quickly. The only thing we could do at the beginning until we had our bearings was to listen and react. We were listening to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was saying about how the virus is spread and how to prevent it, listening to what clients were hearing from their franchisees in dozens of local markets across the country about possible shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, and listening to how other brands were communicating their own safety protocols. We essentially transitioned to a crisis firm overnight. We work with over 30 brands, so it required an agencywide effort to share information and resources, so we were providing consistent guidance and no single team member was spinning their wheels. I’m extremely proud of how our team came together.
The other day, I listened to a video from Catherine Monson, CEO of FASTSIGNS International, Inc., and chair of the International Franchise Association, where she talked about how stress and resiliency are like muscles — the more you exercise them, the stronger those muscles, and you, become. COVID-19 strengthened those muscles for many, if not all, of us working in PR and crisis communications.
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