Interview with Ben Brugler – akhia communications
We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Ben Brugler, president and CEO of akhia.
He previously held the titles of president and vice president before being transitioned into his current position in 2018. Under Ben’s leadership, the agency has grown from 15 to more than 60 employees, earning a spot as a Top 100 Workplace in Northeast Ohio, as well as placement on the Weatherhead 100 list of fastest-growing companies in the region.
With more than 15 years of experience in the industry, Ben is well-known among clients and the regional business community as a master facilitator and speaker on topics ranging from content marketing to thought-leadership positioning.
In 2011, he was named to Crain’s Forty under 40 list for his contributions to akhia’s growth.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
I’ll start with how it relates to public relations because, at least for me, it was a core element of what I discovered PR to be—managing your (personal) brand in a way that positively aligns with your values and resonates with your key publics’ values.
This is so important because so much of how companies operate, interact (employees included), and grow is based on relationships and the reputation of your brand and your character. My concern with where reputation management is heading today is with how manipulated or controlled it can become as it shifts to digital management and programming. Using SEO, for example, to support or drive reputation management is key—however, there’s a lot of trust in that in the sense that what’s being returned is actually true.
This might sound like a soapbox but it’s proven every day as peoples’ and companies’ actions are shown to conflict with what the public actually thinks of them, creating a business crisis as well as a branding crisis.
At the end of the day, reputation management comes down to one thing: How do you feel about the person or company you’re doing business with/working for?
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
Timing is everything. That statement literally applies to 80% of the PR issues I see companies struggle with online. Examples include:
- Posting something once and thinking everyone will see it.
- Thinking everyone is online all the time and ignoring other channels.
- Not replying to comments or questions your publics have.
- Not adjusting to real-time events…or…
- Trying to capitalize on real-time events.
- Failing to address very public company news, good or bad, generated from a third-party source.
These could all be avoided by asking these questions and developing a plan and approach for how you will manage these types of issues, proactively. Companies often have a playbook for how they will deal with business crises, such as operational, manufacturing or leadership, but ignore their digital readiness plans.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
When you consider the first thing people do after meeting you, hearing about you, etc., is go to Google or LinkedIn, you realize just how important your online reputation management strategy is. It’s critical to treat social media as your own personal storefront to your brand and eventually your reputation.
Why the “eventually” part? Well, if you’re starting with a social strategy and people don’t already have exposure to you, there is an opportunity to build that reputation and earn the trust that you are asking they place in you or your company. Your social channels are an important first step in that process.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
Well hopefully they’ve already gone through this exercise and have a dark site (should the crisis be so severe) or, at the very least, have accounted for their digital channels in their crisis playbook.
Often companies “react” poorly if they don’t have these types of preventive measures in place, sometimes shutting channels down, or worse, trying to defend their actions. This just gives more fuel to a potentially volatile situation.
What I wish more companies would do is acknowledge the crisis head-on and issue a statement to the effect that “they are aware, are evaluating and will be acting quickly to resolve the issue.” The payoff, of course, is through follow-up. Once that statement is issued the company will have to work quickly to do what they said they would and resolve the issue as well as communicate to all key audiences.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Honestly, it isn’t up to employees to “help” their companies in a crisis situation. As part of crisis communications planning and scenario planning, companies should have a course of action for employees to be a part of. Then the employees can become a part of the solution as opposed to fighting the company battles in public forums.
Good intentions can quickly become mixed messages to your key publics.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
I know I sound like a broken record, but plan, plan, and then plan some more. The saying is old but the meaning is true—if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Ignoring a (possible) PR crisis your company could face is sheer negligence by leadership. No company would say they’ve failed to plan fiscally…or failed to plan for safety measures…but some continue to ignore public relations crisis situations that can do just as much damage to a company’s reputation and financial forecast as those other areas.
Today that planning has become more involved and should be stretched to cover more areas, largely driven by a growing digital environment. Your crisis planning should include scenarios such as cybersecurity, social equity, and personal brand histories.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
Without a doubt it’s getting harder. For many of the reasons I just listed in the previous questions—there is more runway for individuals to compromise your company’s brand and reputation; there are more channels for individuals to interact, positively and negatively, with your brand and employees; there is more distrust for company leaders in today’s social landscape, because simply having a channel or a presence doesn’t make you ‘unique’; and there is more time needed to proactively manage all of the channels your company is active on.
And on top of all of this…if you aren’t looking at this through an SEO lens, specifically, how you can be found and tracked if your efforts are working the way they should be, you are essentially flying blind.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
We manage crisis situations for our clients on a regular basis…and in order to keep doing so I won’t share any of them here. However, for me/our company, I would say it was less of a crisis and more of a reputation and branding challenge when our founder and CEO retired and transitioned leadership and ownership to me.
Our founder has such a strong reputation and is known in so many circles and industries that we started planning for her transition almost two full years prior to announcing it. Beyond the in-person aspect of this we put a lot of time into message consistency on our company digital channels and then our own personal channels. Knowing people would be looking at our online profiles more, professionally and personally, we began to look at how our own brands ran parallel to each other, as well as identifying and elevating those key tenants on our social channels. Of course, each channel is different, and the message felt unique to those channels, but you still felt it was on-brand and could link to the larger akhia story.
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