We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Bob Hope, president and co-founder of Hope-Beckham in Atlanta, is a 40-year veteran of the public relations and event marketing industry and one of the most experienced public relations counselors in the country.
His extensive background includes public relations director for the Atlanta Braves when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record; vice president of both the Braves and the Atlanta Hawks teams, while also handling Ted Turner’s personal publicity; executive vice president with the global public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, working with high profile products, companies and individuals, including: Wayne Huizenga, Fred Smith, Roberto Goizueta and Charlie Loudermilk, The Coca-Cola Company, Turner Broadcasting, Federal Express and General Electric.
Active in the Atlanta community, Bob is a director of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Covenant House of Georgia, the Georgia Global Health Alliance, Wesley Woods Foundation and is co-chair of the advisory board of the Celebration Bowl. He is a member of the Investigative Committee of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. Bob is a member and program chair of the Rotary Club of Atlanta and was selected District Rotarian of the Year for 2012. He is a founder of HAVE Foundation, which builds and maintains schools in rural Honduras. His is the chief executive officer of Atlanta Peace Inc., working to bring the Nobel Peace Summit and the Nobel Peace laureates to Atlanta. He is on the board of councilors for the Carter Center and has represented the Carter Center twice as an international election observer in Nepal. He was recently honored as Father of the Year by the American Diabetes Association.
Bob received the George Goodwin Award from the Public Relations Society of America, the President’s Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation, twice named Director of the Year for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and has been the recipient of the International Service Award, the Hospitality Award, the Ivan Allen Club Service Award and the Community Leadership Award by Rotary Club of Atlanta – the only Rotarian to receive all four awards. He also received Rotary International’s highest honor, the Service Above Self Award. Bob received the 2018 Archie Crenshaw Impact Award for Christian Service by HOI. He was a 2015 inductee into the Atlanta Hospitality Hall of Fame and the only communications professional selected. He is also a 2015 recipient of the Richard Stormont Award for promoting the city of Atlanta internationally.
The Atlanta Business Chronicle named him one of the 100 Most Influential Business Leaders in Atlanta in 2015, as Atlanta’s Most Admired CEO in 2017, and he was recently inducted into the Atlanta Hospitality Hall of Fame. Atlanta Magazine lists him as Legend on its list of the 500 Most Powerful Atlantans.
Bob received a B.A. in journalism from Georgia State University. He has written two books: “We Could Have Finished Last Without You” about his early years with the Braves and “Greater Late Than Never” about people who achieve success after age 50.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
Companies are like people: they are known for what they do and how they do it. Companies have a personality, a certain approach and style, and identifiable characteristics. Reputation management is defining what they do and their way doing it, while staying within their code of ethics. Public relations links who they are to what they do through storytelling. Public relations explains and exemplifies a company’s approach in line with its reputation. You cannot have one, without the other.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
There was a time not so long ago when there were only three major TV networks and mainstream daily newspapers in big cities. Those were the pipelines of news flow. If those pipelines were managed well, keeping stories accurate, fair and consistent could be easily managed. Now, everyone has a pipeline; anyone with a computer or cell phone can distribute news, or in some cases, phony news. It is impossible to control the flow of what is posted on social media, whether it be real or inaccurate. The greatest problem is when inaccurate information is shared. Companies need to ensure the content that is shared online is consistent and accurate. Standards must be set, an approval mechanism must be in place, and news flow must be orchestrated. The only way to prevent misinformation is to have a system in place that monitors and fact checks all content before it goes out.
Companies, and individuals for that matter, need to keep in mind that once something is posted online, it is out there for the world to see. You can no longer delete a story or a tweet without it being noticed. Companies must evaluate what they are sharing and posting to make sure it is sensitive and appropriate. The last thing companies want to do is put something out there that is divisive and controversial. This will only lead to more problems. Companies need to have standards and review online content, keeping in mind all angles individuals may view the information, and ask themselves if the content is in line with the company mission and reputation.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
Social media visually reflects a company. This can be a tool to help shape the company’s reputation by sharing its personality, mission and core values. Today, social media is as much of a news pipeline as newspapers or television. Content must be consistent through all channels of communication. The same content your company would share on other outlets, must be appropriately modified for your social media channels. Social media is a public relations tool where a company can exemplify its style and unique characteristics for the world to see.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
Until a company has figured out a plan of action to correct the crisis, the first thing a company should do is remove the post that caused the crisis. Once the post is removed, the company must quickly come together to address the crisis. Whether the plan of action includes addressing the crisis in a statement of apology, responding to those reacting to the crisis, or making a statement of correction, the company must be ready to quickly and efficiently address why the post was removed.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Employees are assets in many ways. There was a steel mill that once used the theme, “Steel is our product, but people are our strength.” That is true in many ways. Employees are important voices internally as well as externally in communities where they work and live. Employees are the trusted voices who represent the company wherever they are. As part of the company, employees deserve to know the entire picture of what is going on. It is important that employees be aware of the crisis, of what the company is doing to respond and how they as employees should respond to any mention or question of the crisis. They have the ability to speak out on behalf of the company, so they must be provided a clear, consistent and truthful message regarding the crisis. There is no point in telling the media one story, and not sharing the full truth with the employees—that will only lead to a larger crisis. The key is to have one unified and truthful message across the board.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
When preparing for a crisis, senior executives need to have a general crisis plan in place. There are two things executives can do: ensure general crisis messaging has great clarity and is simple for everyone to understand, and to ensure there is a response mechanism in place so they may quickly respond to the crisis. Senior executives can brainstorm general crises and general responses, so they may be tailored quickly for use when needed.
Senior executives have the easy part in responding to crisis, but they seldom do it well. First, they need to accept there is a crisis and be contrite in accepting whatever responsibility they might have for creating it. That sounds obvious, but a lot of denial can be present when bad things happen. Second, they need to assess the degree and scope of the crisis. Third, they need to determine one point of contact that assures all information is accurate and consistent. Fourth, they need to be forthcoming, accessible and tell the truth. Honesty is always the best policy. Fifth, keep communication simple and to the point. Do not create more questions by saying too much. Finally, they need to use their moral compass. Doing the right thing is the only good option.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
Reputation management is becoming more difficult. Every disgruntled employee or customer has access to voicing complaints on social media or by contacting reporters. It is hard for a news reporter to keep from being influenced by angry employees sending out a volley of accusations when a company makes an announcement. Social media is a marvelous tool, but the underbelly of social media is that unsubstantiated claims of misconduct can be so steadily communicated. When media is so easily accessible to everyone, everyone has a say, and it can be even more difficult to manage and navigate all of the voices.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
I have been around a long, long time and have been involved in almost every kind of crisis you could describe. To say I have been in the middle of the most famous crises is like Maxwell Smart saying he is the world’s most famous secret agent. If I was so good, why were the crises so famous? However, I will mention a couple of famous crises I have experienced over the years.
In October of 2001, it was revealed Enron, one of America’s largest companies, was committing accounting fraud and was involved in corporate corruption. Senior executives would face jailtime for their actions. I was one of eight PR practitioners from around the country on the initial Enron call. For some background, I am historically prone to downplay any crisis, saying there is much less of a chance that people outside a company will be as upset as the people inside who feel they are under siege. In this case, it was different. After all of the practitioners listened to the call intently, everyone was asked how they felt about the problem. I was next to last. Each before me said the scandal would not be a big problem, and I was about to burst at the seams. When it was my time, I blurted out, “Somebody’s going to jail.”
I noted I knew a crisis when I saw one, and this was a CRISIS. I was told I was being alarmist, but luckily, the last practitioner to respond after me was Joe Lockhart, the former White House press secretary. He said, “I know what a crisis looks like. Bob is right.” To this day, I have never met Joe Lockhart, but am thankful for him.
In one conversation, they wanted to tell the media “shredding documents” was common practice. Our advice was two words not to volunteer to the media are “shredding documents.” It would pour fuel on the fire. The Enron scandal turned out to be a lesson in senior management denial.
Another example was the reveal of the new Coca-Cola recipe. I was summoned to the “bunker” on a Saturday morning to be made privy to the upcoming announcement of the “biggest marketing story in history.” When I was told Coca-Cola was changing its formula my response was, “You’re going to get your socks blown off.” However, I was shown extensive research proving me wrong, and I bought into it like everyone else involved. And, of course, they did get their socks blown off.
The official announcement was made in New York and not Atlanta. When local Atlanta shareholders complained, I was then assigned to create a giant event in downtown Atlanta. In just three days I would need to create an event that looked like it had been planned for six months. So naturally, I rerouted two circuses to Atlanta, and we created the “Step Right Up for the Greatest New Taste on Earth” outdoor circus to toast new Coke to Atlanta’s civic elite. We set up a green room for executives, and I was calling role when the CEO of The Coca-Cola Company asked me when he would go on stage to toast new Coke. I sent a trusted assistant to check with the emcee, and he came back and reported, “You are on right after the elephants and the human cannon,” which he was.
Later, I was called to a meeting to discuss an important matter on the same project. When new Coke was released, it was hoped the CEO would not be subjected to the backlash of new Coke and unrest would die down. However, it had been learned that the CEO listened to a particular country music radio station, WPLO, in the morning on the way to work and in the afternoons on the way home. Our assignment was to ensure only good news was reported about new Coke on WPLO, regardless of what it took to get that done.
As things continued to get worse, a secret meeting was held in New York. The assignment was to find a solution, to come up with the idea that would turn the tide and make new Coke a success. We were there a week and whenever we would say there was nothing that would work, we were told that was not an option. What we did not know was that there was another secret meeting across town determining how best to bring back the original formulation of Coca-Cola, labeled Coca-Cola Classic.
The new Coke crisis did not put lives at risk, but it did not do much good for a few careers. It was an interesting journey, and one I will never forget.
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