Interview with James Cooper – Ascendant Communications 

James Cooper - Ascendant Communications

We are very excited to start our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with James Cooper, Principal of Ascendant Communications.

James has worked in B2B public relations for 20 years. Having been a PR Director for two US technology companies, he has a deep understanding of the challenges clients face. An expert in PR and Analyst Relations, James has delivered successful PR programs for global businesses such as Microsoft, IBM, and SAP.

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

Reputation management covers a wide spectrum of activities and needs that help define a business, or individual’s, public perception, reputation, and brand equity.  These can range from general awareness and news to crisis management and headline developments.  In other words, reputation management is what underpins PR, and is what PR ultimately helps support and deliver.

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

One of the biggest common PR mistakes we see companies make is doing nothing.  The number of third party companies, or prospects, we talk to whose websites do not even have a news page, or who do not send out or publish press releases is staggering.  A press release was, and is, the cornerstone of any PR, for a business not to be communicating regularly, and clearly, its key news and announcements is a massive opportunity being lost.

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

Social media plays a critical role in helping businesses communicate their news, updates and opinion.  Our experience is that PR is generally now a content factory, providing news and fuel for the multi-channels of communication that now need servicing.  Certain social media channels like Twitter often requiring more content than others.  In terms of crisis management, social media is now critical, as it allows direct broadcast communication to the public and all key audiences, so proper protocols and procedures need to in place at such times to ensure mistakes are avoided and social media is carefully and correctly managed

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

Ideally, a company should have a ‘fire drill’ planning document prepared for such occasions, with roles and responsibilities within a core team already agreed, rehearsed, and defined for such a contingency.  This will make managing any crisis a lot easier, and straightforward, and minimize the chance of easy mistakes being avoided, and precious time lost.  The first step is to identify the full scope of a situation or problem, see how this can be contained, and create news and messages to support this.  Equally, a realistic approach needs to be taken to deescalate any crisis, and also head-off escalation of news in the media by ‘no comment’ or similarly poorly thought out approaches.

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

Employees can play a key role in helping to support messages being given, avoid ‘loose talk’, and giving interviews to the media which are not authorized.  The degree to which employees need to be briefed and part of any crisis management needs to be decided on a case by case basis.

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

The communications team in a business, and/or the PR firm they employ, need to ensure that senior execs all receive training to manage communications crisis situations, and also have agreed on roles in a crisis situation.  Ideally leveraging one central spokesperson, and then others providing support, as needed.  Adhering to agreed messaging and news us also important.

Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?

Reputation management is, in many ways, getting easier when times are good with social media allowing businesses to create their own image and reputation.  Conversely, in the event of a crisis social media can blowback with equal force, allowing widespread negative and unfettered news and comment.  The media, although smaller, continues to be critical, as its content also feeds into social media, and it is still seen as more trustworthy than citizen-generated content.

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

My biggest communication challenge was when we had a client appearing in the Financial Times that mentioned incorrect data on a client at a very sensitive time for their business.  We faced the prospect of the story gaining traction or ‘shutting down’ the story.  We were able to discretely approach the reporter, point out the fact the data was incorrect, with proof.  The reporter, realizing that they had reported data which was incorrect (no fault of theirs), issued a correction to the story, and a potentially very damaging situation was avoided.  This shows, that if a situation can be resolved quickly and efficiently it is the best way of dealing with a crisis or potential crisis.

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