Interview with Chris Boehlke – Bospar

Chris BoehlkeWe are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Chris Boehlke, Principal at Bospar.

Chris has logged 30+ years of success in leading PR for several hundred of the best-known consumer and technology brands in the world. She spent the first third of her career working with packaged goods giants like Procter & Gamble, Oscar Mayer, Kraft, Johnson & Johnson, Mattel, and Levi Strauss, in senior management positions at Edelman and Burson-Marsteller, before starting her own firm in the mid-90s. Her personal trademark has been to bring global brand sophistication and ultimate consumer pull-through to B2B and B2C clients alike. Chris has special branding expertise – creating memorable campaigns ranging from Cisco’s “The Human Network” to Dolby’s “The Sound of History.” She personally leads strategy, branding, core messaging, and regular quality review sessions for every Bospar client. Her clients have received more than 300 awards and special industry acknowledgments for outstanding marketing and PR. Chris has won multiple Silver Anvils – “the Oscar of PR” – and has served as a judge for Silver Anvils and other agency awards. She served on the Executive Committee of the Counselors Academy of the Public Relations Society of America where she spearheaded the organization’s first re-branding initiative. She holds a BA from The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Chris’ favorite mantra: “Only when you learn how to see the invisible, can you do the impossible.”

What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?

Over time, what we used to call “your reputation” has come to be known as “your brand.” The concept of “branding” comes largely from the marketing space – how to analyze your environment, choose the positioning that best differentiates you, and then create the look and feel of that branding across all analog and digital channels.

The concept of “your brand” itself is tied to the reputation you earn.  And the best definition I’ve ever heard is “a brand is the way a company behaves.”  Performance equals brand reputation.  And just like branding lives mainly in the world of marketing, reputation performance inhabits the world of PR.

This is the world of good deeds – or misguided ones. On one hand, it is so simple.  But it’s also the world of skillful communications that set expectations among a broad variety of publics, across a great many venues, which gets complicated.

What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?

The biggest PR mistake companies make online is realizing only the tiniest potential of how virtual presence can bond their brand to each of their audiences, bringing value that goes well beyond the pure product or service itself. Online allows an amazing level of virtual brand presence that no one could ever afford if trying to execute that in the analog world.

Companies have recently awakened to the possibilities of what online can do for their brand, due to COVID-19.  It is heartbreaking that this has become necessary.  At the same time, the innovation taking place around online brand performance right now is exhilarating.  Restaurants are helping people to turn their home dining into levels never dreamed of, while offering the full enchilada to make a rarified experience. Galleries and performance studios are bringing the artists to the viewer in ways far more intimate than achieved in actual theaters. Exercise venues are achieving such success with homegroup classes that clients are asking to keep them going even as they also return to the physical studios.  And the list goes on and on. The cost-effectiveness of “killer apps” like Zoom is a game-changer for brand performance – and now everyone is learning that.

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

Often, a lot more attention is paid to content than to distribution. But effective reputation management obviously requires that you go where your audiences go! So – duh – the first step of distribution is to map audience consumption behavior and then follow that map!  These days, the vast majority of a map is usually made of social venues.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, social allows for the continual feedback loop essential to the moving target of reputation management – with lots of great built-in feedback. On the other hand, social is like a bonfire that can easily flame out of control on multiple fronts. But if given the proper respect, skill, and care, social is the greatest tool ever given to reputation management professionals.

What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?

The term “when there is a crisis online” is not quite accurate. “There is a crisis” is accurate – and it may have flared up first online.  But the crisis tracks back to something the company has said or done – and that’s where the patient needs to be treated, back where the problem started.  And then online intervention needs to be addressed immediately – but first, you need to get to the root of the problem!

And then you need to address the problem everywhere it has flared up, without inadvertently spreading it beyond where it has gotten on its own. Most crises are spread by – guess who – the company executives themselves. The big thing to remember is to stay reactive – only go where the problem has gone.  Don’t seed the problem into new areas by trying to be too thorough.  In order to do just the right amount of containment, research is essential.  Guessing is not allowed.

What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

The best ways employees can help their company during a crisis are ways we all know because we learned them back in grade school. The first is “stop, look, and listen.”

When a crisis erupts, employees can play an invaluable role in keeping their ears to the ground – across both the online and analog worlds.  The company should be doing hourly online sweeps to keep abreast of what is being said on all fronts.  And depending on the scope and consumer-facing dimension of the issue, it may need to conduct daily third-party quantitative opinion and brand research.

But no quantitative sweeps can drill down to the actual pulse of the company’s changing environment like its own employees can. These are the people who know the people who can play the biggest role in helping the company through this. A company should set up a hotline for employees and encourage them to submit summaries of what they are hearing – and from whom – throughout the day as they go about their course of business.  This can provide some of the most relevant input a company can get in times of crisis.  And the company can use this information to help build its circle of “friends of the company” who can help turn the tide to a more positive stance.

Employees also can follow the tried and true success advice we learned in school – “do your homework.”  It’s hard to get people to remember what a company says – and especially during a crisis, where drama tends to overshadow the less exciting pure facts.  Employees should strive to understand the details of what’s happening – and the company’s position on every aspect of them – so that they can be the most educated supporters out there.  This is true while the crisis is happening, as well as after the fact, when brand reputation needs all the “repair” help it can get.

The best defense is a strong offense. Often, a crisis sucks all the air out of the room, and all the positive news comes to a halt as everyone focuses on how to stop the negative.  This may be appropriate for the very early stages.  But as quickly as possible, you want to get back to the pre-crisis situation of the good content far outweighing the bad.

Remember – good news goes viral the same way bad news does. Employees need to be the best cheerleaders of the company, helping to gather the positive stories throughout daily operations and sharing with the communications team; following whatever communications guidelines the company provides; hopefully being able to help build positive social presence, and talking about the company’s strengths among all they encounter in the course of both business and pleasure.

What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?

There’s a lot of lip service paid to crisis planning, but the follow-through is often not there. Large public companies tend to do a much better job of it, no doubt driven onwards by board members who have dealt with their own over time and know the ravaging effects crisis can have on a company’s reputation.  Many large companies take crisis preparedness so seriously that they have full days or even weeks of enacting simulated scenarios. I’ve participated in a number of these, and they are extremely powerful and effective.  But that takes a major commitment.

In my experience, smaller to mid-size companies see the need for a crisis preparedness plan, but in the crush of business they just usually don’t get around to it.  Or they do a little bit of it and put it aside for something else and never get back to it.  That’s unfortunate, because when a crisis does hit, it’s so fast-moving and distressing that it’s at least 10 times harder to conduct the actions needed that could have been handled in much calmer times.

I think the main reason most crisis preparedness plans don’t get completed is because someone makes them way too complicated.  The phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly holds true here.  If a company simply follows the following steps, the process can go quickly, and team members then will at least have a solid framework to start from when and if something happens.

  • Appoint a crisis team that should faithfully meet once a month. This likely would be driven by the person who heads the corporate communications function.  Choose a high-level executive from each operational area of the company, including operations, product development, marketing, HR, and finance. You want people high enough up the chain that they have the ear of top management and the board of directors, since speed is essential if a crisis hits.
  • Inventory the company’s vulnerabilities. This is similar to getting your annual physical. Map this out by systematically discussing each operational area and listing what could go wrong. Then each member of the crisis team should study the ins and outs of how they would go about addressing various scenarios, just to get a better feel for it themselves.  The monthly crisis team meetings should focus on one operations area at a time, so that everyone on the team develops a big-picture understanding of what could happen.
  • Map the company’s audiences, along with the “who needs to hear what” influencers among them. Prepare the contact list, along with who would contact whom – and how – if a crisis hits. And keep it current!
  • Develop “straw man” positions and message tracks for each potential crisis scenario based on vulnerabilities. There might be one to two dozen of these, depending on what the company does and how it’s structured.
  • Create a list of keywords that map to areas of concern, and ask the communications team to do daily monitoring for world events that could cause a crisis or alter the company’s position on certain elements as time goes along. A brief weekly report to the crisis team based on these daily findings should serve to keep the team current.
  • The crisis team should present these components to the board of directors, so that any significant adjustments can be discussed early on. And it should update the board quarterly with any significant changes as the company and its environments evolve.

Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?

Reputation management has gotten exponentially harder as communications channels have increased and time to communication has decreased. I actually laugh when I remember how there was a time when we would tell clients to appoint just one spokesperson, with all inquiries flowing to that person.  Ha!  Someone in their 20s likely can’t even conceive of a day when control like that was actually possible – or desirable.

We now function in a “real-time” crisis environment, where everyone has the ability to publish their own observations and opinions within seconds.  And we have the ability to track what’s happening in real-time as well, all on a global basis.

The only real way to fully address crisis communications in today’s world is to make it part of the DNA of a company, with employees kept up to speed on what’s happening from the company’s point of view. Everyone should be enlisted to help get the story out correctly – and across a myriad of channels.

What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?

I’ve worked on a vast variety of crisis situations in my career. High-level embezzlement.  Leukemia clusters.  Sexual misconduct. Union strikes. Product recalls from tampons to turkey and pimentos to Girl Scout cookies.  I once helped write a sermon for an archbishop to deliver on a Sunday morning during a church-related crisis.

Each crisis has its own unique set of challenges and potential solutions, and I’ve loved them all. But I think the one I found most rewarding was when I helped lead the crisis team for the now-infamous Tylenol recall.   The reason that stands out among so many other crisis situations is that Johnson & Johnson was an incredible leader in gathering and sharing of information and of “doing the right thing.”  This was one of the first times that a hugely popular consumer product had actually caused death.  A few of the highlights that caused this case to “write the book on crisis communications” include:

  • This was a hallmark case of addressing brand equity. Tylenol was a free-standing brand of Johnson & Johnson. The company could have let it “hang out there to die” on its own, and that scenario was definitely discussed.  But in the end, the company came forth to take ownership of the problem – and put all the power of its Johnson & Johnson brand behind the solution.  This was one of the first huge milestones in “brand parentage” decisions.
  • There were many discussions early on about whether J&J should try to protect the Tylenol brand – or just kill it. Massive daily consumer research throughout the entire crisis helped to direct its decision making.
  • Internally, the company had to turn on a dime to determine how one of its products had caused death – was there a disgruntled employee on a manufacturing line somewhere? One of the most sophisticated operations efforts ever quickly determined that nothing had happened in an actual plant – but that the product had been tampered with on a grocery shelf.
  • In many ways this was a larger problem. There are ways to better secure an internal manufacturing process, but the idea of patrolling the entire world distribution system was daunting.
  • Once product tampering in the distribution channel was determined to be the culprit, J&J took the big picture view and declared that this was more than a Tylenol problem – it was an industry problem. It called upon the entire Grocery Manufacturers Association to drive an initiative for safety packaging.
  • The media quickly turned its attention to how fast safety packaging could be rolled out for ALL products.
  • The Tylenol brand is still a brand leader; J&J’s reputation continues to inspire great trust; and products everywhere are safer because of J&J’s pioneering leadership and bravery – a case where excellent crisis management literally made the world safer for all of us.

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