For more than 30 years, Cathy Decker has helped travel and tourism clients reach their communications goals on time and within budget. Her efforts have garnered numerous HSMAI awards, including leading teams three times to the coveted Platinum Award. A fixture in Caribbean hospitality, Decker is winner of the prestigious Marcella Martinez award, recognizing a public relations career in service to the Caribbean, where she has worked with some of the region’s most well-known and respected brands including for over 25 years, Sandals Resorts International. In 2014, together with partner Stacy Royal, Decker founded The Decker/Royal Agency, an integrated marketing and communications company that merges traditional public relations with a digital-first approach to connect, engage and influence consumers wherever they are, whenever they are. It’s storytelling for a new era, now with offices in New York City and London.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
When I began in this business, reputation management was not considered apart from public relations but part and parcel of it, alongside media relations, thought leadership, crisis management, and so on. Today, the term has almost been relegated to the literal practice of ameliorating negative online comments, but our work, all of it, ultimately ladders up to the issue of reputation. As public relations pros, our job is to effectively manage the reputation of our clients. How customers, vendors, employees, and the general public feel about the brands with whom they interact may be the most important metric that is not always measured.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
I think the biggest communications mistakes are being made by companies attempting to take advantage of circumstances too quickly and without careful consideration of changing dynamics – such as the Edelman layoff controversy or fully understanding sentiment, such as the unfortunate Tweet that resulted in the CEO of CrossFit resigning. I think the most important thing communicators can do is scrutinize why you are communicating with as much intention as to how the message is crafted. Often, if the message is to benefit the brand rather than your audiences, it’s probably worth a second, third, and fourth look.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
It’s incredibly important; it should never be considered as an afterthought but rather an opportunity to engage with audiences where they are, when they are. Social is a platform best suited to experience the personality of a brand, its sense of humor (or not), its generosity, its values, and so on. In this way, social best tells a brand’s story in real-time and at this moment – that’s where reputations are made and broken.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
Immediately halt automated postings. The last thing a company needs is an ill-timed message that makes the first gaffe worse. Certainly, however, the first thing companies should do before anything is to recognize that there will be a crisis and to prepare for that eventuality before it happens.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Employees are brand ambassadors. They can help by making a point to understand the information being shared by the company, ask appropriate questions internally, and appreciate that only approved company spokespeople may address questions to the press. Companies can help employees by being as transparent as possible and arming their people with information. Trust is broken when employees learn “truth” in the press.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
Again, the single most important thing companies can do to prepare for a PR crisis is to acknowledge that is it unavoidable and that no business plan is complete without the careful consideration of communication, particularly should a crisis befall. This means simple things to the very strategic; from knowing how to contact key people 24/7 and ensuring that key communicators are media trained to processes for securing accurate information quickly. Senior execs must let their teams know that when it comes to reputation management, almost nothing is more important to the success of the organization and that junior staff will always find a senior team receptive and willing to action concerns.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
In a word: speed. The speed at which messages are carried online is making managing reputation harder.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
Throughout my career, I’ve managed crises from crime and corporate malfeasance to devastating weather, but no crisis was quite like the “Bowling Green Massacre,” which actually never happened.
In defense of the travel ban, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, cited the “Bowling Green Massacre” during an interview with the MSNBC’s Hardball. Her misstatement regarding a non-existent event went viral prompting a trending topic on Twitter (#bowlinggreenmassacre) and widespread press coverage. Bowling Green, KY, a burgeoning destination that had just recently begun touting its tourism assets on a national scale, immediately saw this as a crisis situation, concerned about misinformation being shared from the highest levels of our government. With a need to defend the destination, but also not insult anyone for believing #alternativefacts, we helped the destination act quickly to leverage the viral moment, spreading positive awareness on what REALLY happens in Bowling Green, KY and all the cool things waiting to be discovered there. It was a classic “how to make lemonade from lemons” moment that turned bad news to excellent coverage for the destination.
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