We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Hinda Mitchell, the founder and president of Inspire PR Group, a nationally recognized, midsize communications firm representing valued brands across the United States. At Inspire, Hinda leads a team of public relations and digital professionals shaping communications strategies and delivering strong results for a diverse group of clients.
Hinda is a trusted public relations advisor to national organizations and corporations and provides direct counsel to CEOs, c-suite executives and association leaders on complex business matters. She has extensive experience in providing strategic, high-level communications support to companies, state and national trade associations, advocacy groups, restaurants, education organizations, and nonprofit groups. Hinda has led communications strategy and response for numerous high-profile national crises in manufacturing and production, construction and real estate, environment, nonprofit organizations, schools, activism, food safety and animal agriculture.
Hinda has assembled a talented team of experienced communications professionals, who are writers, content creators, counselors and strategists. With her leadership, Inspire’s team works with clients to help identify and amplify their vision and values throughout their internal organization and with external stakeholders. The firm deploys those values across audiences through effective, tailored communication strategies, from media relations, digital marketing and social media, to advertising, design and internal communications.
Hinda believes that the best communications are built on a platform of mutual trust and values. Her firm forges robust relationships with its client partners and relies on those relationships to achieve the highest outcomes. The Inspire team works with purpose, and always with clients’ goals and success in mind.
Inspire is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, and serves clients nationwide.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
A brand or business is only as good as the reputation it holds. Reputation management is about establishing a strong reputation, and then communicating and engaging in foundational ways that positively advance that reputational image. Reputation management also is about anticipating, identifying and mitigating reputation risk, before it harms the reputation.
Maintaining a strong and favorable reputation results from trust. PR is a critical tool in building trust. By helping companies or brands connect with their stakeholders, leveraging shared values and creating meaningful conversations, trust is established. And when stakeholders trust a company or brand, it builds a positive reputation. Having a strong reputation pays into the “bank of goodwill.” When a business or organization faces a challenge or crisis, being able to lean into that strong reputation and brand image will help weather the storm and decrease negative impacts on the brand.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
I see two significant mistakes being made right now. One is that companies are pushing information out, but they’re not listening to stakeholders. The digital and social space is a back and forth conversation – push and pull, talk and listen.
The second is that many companies are “tone-deaf” when it comes to what they share online. The Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movement is a great example. When taking public/online positions about social issues like racism or the pandemic, it is essential that the words you use and the posts you make are fully aligned with the values of your key stakeholders. This includes employees, customers, Board members, shareholders and others – if there is a disconnect in the company position and their positions, at best, they will ignore the company, and at worst, they may become angry and disillusioned about their relationship with the brand.
The messages that you share matter – and it’s called social media for a reason. It’s social – it’s a two-way street. Companies must engage their online followers in meaningful dialogue – online conversations always should be a priority, but especially now, when more people are online than ever before. It’s not something that should be a secondary communication or just a marketing platform, nor is it something that should be delegated to an admin or an intern. Online engagement is an essential part of the marketing strategy, and it should be budgeted and led as such.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
Social media is the best and worst part of reputation management. It’s the worst because it is so easy to step on a land mine. We’ve seen so many business leaders and executives forget to “pause before posting” and the result is a post that is inappropriate or offensive that gets widely shared – which creates the digital and reputational crisis. Or companies post when they should be silent, or fail to monitor online sentiment effectively, allowing them to quickly spiral out of control.
That said, social media also can be a valuable tool to reputation management, as it allows real-time listening to key audiences, and if the company monitors conversations and sentiment taking place online, it can use those metrics and understanding to shape its messages and to quickly address any misinformation or conversation that would put its reputation at risk. Social media also can be a tool to reputational recovery, as it provides a swift and targeted way to reach large numbers of stakeholders at once with a unified message and to create a feedback circle to gauge where reputational opinion lies.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
Assign someone to start monitoring the conversation, and make sure they are doing so 24/7. Crises online move swiftly, and they can escalate in a matter of minutes, not hours. Also, being early to the conversation and providing frequent updates matters. Keep all eyes looking at your company to define what is happening. A lack of communication cedes the crisis to others to be defined.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
There are conflicting opinions about the role of employees in a crisis. I like to make them ambassadors for the brand. The bottom line is, they will be asked about it by family and friends regardless. Why not give them some (basic) tools to respond? I advise clients to get a brief memo to employees, as early as possible, to reassure and inform them, but also to give them 2-3 general talking / response points they can use if asked about the crisis. We also always remind employees that they are not media spokespeople, and how to handle it if they are approached by a reporter.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
Have a plan! So many companies still don’t have a crisis response plan for communications. Identify what are the most likely crises to happen, then those that could have the biggest impact on reputation, and then prepare response scenarios and materials for those situations. Then, train the team in how to respond through tabletop exercises or full-on crisis drills. Consider having a “dark page” hidden on your website and ready to go live for major crises.
This act of practicing helps identify any gaps in the plan, refines the roles of leaders and illuminates any areas that need to be addressed. The crisis response plan should be reviewed at least every six months and updated as necessary.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
Overall, I believe it is more challenging. Mobile phones, social media and the ways we all are now connected has made everyone a “journalist” in their own actions. What might in the past have not made news or not blown up into a large-scale crisis now may travel quickly across digital platforms and become much bigger than it would have been before the internet.
The other challenge is that misinformation travels just as quickly as information (and sometimes faster – if it is particularly salacious.) Getting in front of the digital rumor mill and staying in front is critical.
It should also be noted, though, that the availability of social/digital platforms for companies in crisis also is a valuable tool. For the same reasons it helps advance the crisis, it also gives companies a swift way to engage all their online stakeholders with one message. If they’ve done a good job building rapport with followers and paying into that “bank of goodwill,” then their digital following can be a great resource in helping drive a favorable message or clarifying misinformation in a crisis.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
As a rule, I don’t talk about the crises I’ve been involved with. I often say some of the best things I’ve ever written in my career never were used, as we were able to avert difficult situations through preparedness and management.
Generally, though, the greatest challenge comes in dealing with leaders or executives who don’t understand that they (or their company) have done something wrong. If you must spend the early hours of crisis response convincing them there’s an issue, you lose valuable time in engagement.
I’ve also been involved in crises where the right response was going to require termination of an employee(s) or cost the company millions of dollars to do the right thing. These are tough situations – it’s not easy to advise a client to do this, and it is difficult for the client to make that call, even when he or she knows it is the only real path to recovery.
The worst crises, by far, are when there is loss of human life. It is hard on everyone, it is emotionally volatile, and it requires a deft touch and firm understanding of the implications of each word that is released in responding.
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