We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Esther Buchsbaum, APR, FCPRS, President and co-founder of energi PR.
Esther is a seasoned public relations and marketing strategist with over 35 years of experience. She is President and co-founder of energi PR, a national and independently owned Canadian firm with offices in Montreal and Toronto and network affiliations around the world.
Esther specializes in corporate communications strategy and development, crisis, issues, and reputation management and has a core competency in the negotiation, development, and implementation of CSR programs. She has provided brand development and strategic PR counsel to such clients as P&G, the Lufthansa Group, SunLife Lumino, Pom Wonderful, Hotels.com, Sunbeam, Hilton Canada, His Excellency The Governor General of Canada, The Caribbean Tourism Organization and The Italian Trade Commission to name but a few.
In her role as senior counsel for the Caribbean Tourism Organization, Esther sat as a member of a global crisis communications advisory panel mandated to develop communications strategies to deal with hurricanes, Hepatitis A, SARS, and the increasing number of crimes against foreign travelers. In her capacity as senior counsel to Hilton Canada, Esther was instrumental in the development of the communications strategy to address the aftermath of 9/11 and its impact in the Travel and Tourism industry.
Esther holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science. She is active in community affairs and has served on several Boards of Directors including the Executive Committee of the Montréal Holocaust Museum, Montréal’s Centaur Theatre, and Tostan International. She is an accredited member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and was the former Canadian Representative on the Executive Committee of the Public Relations Society of America’s Counselor’s Academy. Esther is an internationally accredited APR and is a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society, which recognizes her significant individual contribution to the field of public relations.
She is a member of the CPRS, PRSA, Counselors Academy, the Travel Media Association of Canada, and The Society of American Travel Writers. Esther is a regular guest lecturer in McGill University’s MBA program and she sits on the McGill Desautels Faculty of Management Global Marketing Expert Panel.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
Reputation management, in the classic sense, is defined as controlling and/or influencing a person’s or group’s reputation. From a PR perspective, reputation management is everything. It can build a brand or it can also destroy it. A brand and its ambassadors are accountable for how they behave, how they treat others, what they say, how they operate, how they perform, and how they give back to the public and communities they serve. They are guardians of the brand and are responsible for protecting the integrity of their products or services. Everything they do or say, the people they surround themselves with, will be scrutinized from a reputation point of view, and in a day and age of social media, it’s immediate.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
We see any number of mistakes over the course of a given day. They include but are certainly not limited to, lack of transparency or authenticity, poor choice of affiliations or brand ambassadors, denial, outright lying and the list goes on. We also have a pretty good idea when legal counsel is directing the communications strategy. It’s typically “no comment” which of course in our PR world represents the kiss death. It smacks of something hidden, which of course drives media to dig even deeper.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
It’s first and foremost. Social is deeply integrated into our strategic communications approach for all clients, especially as concerns reputation. We are all acutely aware that anything and everything is in the public domain and anyone with a phone is a journalist. And so what we say, how we react, how we look from a brand perspective – and that includes who a brand chooses to keep company with – everyone is under a microscope. We not only monitor our clients, but we also monitor their stakeholders and competitors as well to determine how they are managing issues.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
Make sure that the right people are on the front line monitoring the situation and who are in a position to speak/react on behalf of the company. This is by no means an entry-level task. The crisis must be dealt with in real-time – we no longer have the luxury of space or time to create a buffer or to assemble a war room, the chief executives, or train spokespeople. Regular “drills” and coaching sessions are a must in anticipation of an online event. Planning and practice are key. Be proactive.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Employees are a brand’s best ambassadors and strongest advocates. They are a key stakeholder and open and honest communications with your rank and file is critical at all times. Keep them updated, share key messages, keep an open-door policy, provide professional support and resources as required. Keep them informed and equip them with the right tools and they will continue to feel good about where the work and the brand(s) they represent.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
Planning is of utmost importance. But as the saying goes, “the best-laid plans…”. Regardless, have a plan of action. At the very least you will have a playbook, a point of departure. Be prepared. Run media preparedness coaching workshops with your senior executives and spokespeople. Keep them fresh and on their game. That goes for online preparation as well. In this day and age of instant communications, where anyone and everyone with a phone is a journalist, any misstep is likely to go viral.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
One would think that in a day and age of corporate governance and brands being scrutinized relative to every move they make it would get easier. But to the contrary – and for a number of reasons. Brands are continuing to take risks and are pushing the limits of creativity. And often without the benefit of a second pair of eyes – namely the reputation management folks. This has resulted in a number of gaffs that have forced brands to apologize, pull creative, pull product, etc. The rush to sell their “widgets” at the expense of reputation shows lack of judgment, insensitivity and a deaf ear to the environment within which they operate.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
Too many to even list. We’ve dealt with death, negligence, product recalls, misappropriation of monies, the KKK, abuse of all kinds, hurricanes, disease, 911, pandemics, rising crime, you name it. They are all different but at the end of the day, there is one underlying value that we encourage our clients to practice- the truth. Be honest, be transparent, be authentic, and get in front of the bad news with your truth and don’t allow others to speak on your behalf. Of course, there are circumstances that don’t allow for full immediate disclosure e.g. the file is under police or fire investigation. But I would counsel clients to bring legal and communications to the same table. Determine what you can and cannot say – and “no comment” is not an option.
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