Interview with Julie Koester – Dragon Horse Agency

Julie KoesterWe are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Julie Koester, President of Dragon Horse Ad Agency.

Julie Koester thrives on challenge and seeks to do hard things, as taking the easy way is terribly unfulfilling.

Julie is a 25-year resident of SWFL. She has volunteered with the Conservancy of SWFL, chaired the MS Walk, lead the Columbia University Alumni Association, been a Guardian Ad Litem and is the Founding Board Chair of the Children’s Museum of Naples, for 10 years, until it opened. In her spare time, she earned two National Gold Medals in Taekwondo, is a voracious reader, food lover, passionate traveler and considers wine a form a juicing.

Julie has founded several companies in SWFL including Mr. Toad’s Toy Company, Life with Moxie, co-founded Moxie Creed, an organic skincare company, with partner Patrick Blake Renda and co-founded Dragon Horse Ad Agency with partner Patrick Blake Renda and is managed by Patrick Blake Renda, Edward Clay and Julie Koester. The one common thread through all of these companies is Julie’s insatiable want, to help people do better.

Mr. Toad’s was conceived when Julie was unable to locate a specific filigree carved alphabet block set for her soon-to-be first born. In Julie’s mind, that meant she needed to open a store.

Life with Moxie was established when Julie became overwhelmed with requests for guidance on healthy eating from family members who were distraught from new medical diagnoses. It grew into several years of a weekly one-hour radio show and a weekly column in two online papers. Likewise, Moxie Creed was created to counteract the now well-known issue of toxins in skincare.

Julie has a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. a.b.d. in Public Health, with dissertation work focused on deceptive food company marketing to children. The combination of her psychology degree with her dissertation research delving into their nefarious marketing methods made her realize not only the most powerful methods of spin, messaging and advertising, but also the desperate need to counteract these methods and use it for good.

Today she is the President of Dragon Horse Ad Agency providing marketing, informed by business strategy.

Ms. Koester believes that business owners truly want to help their clients have a great experience with what they have to offer and to make a living as a result of a job well done.  Julie prides herself on her ability to understand and connect with potential clients, what attracts them, how to speak to them, and where to find them. She refers to it as being like a match-making service, we just connect customers with businesses.

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

Reputation management is the proactive protection of a company’s identity by actively promoting all the amazing things about the brand, while attempting to drowned out any less than glowing content.

People often confuse, even collapse reputation management and public relations. Most simply stated, public relations is the internally crafted development and maintenance of a company, brand or personal persona, while reputation management is to redress external influences on the perception of that persona. Public relations done well creates a positive understanding among the target audience about the brand. Reputation management comes into play when that well-crafted persona is attacked in some way, such as a bad online review or a CEO scandal.

What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online?

PR mistakes tend to fall into two areas where decision making about how to respond is critical. First, if an issue is discovered internally, think data breach for example, do you front run the news, or do you wait to react. If the company decided to wait, on the off chance that no one will notice, take aggressive and immediate steps to address vulnerabilities internally. If the company decides to front run the news proactively, the communications team needs to push the release to those whom they’ve nurtured supportive friendly press relationships with that will create a more favorable presentation of the information as the first impression.

Second, with the current social state of very opinionated defensiveness, and assertive fault-finding, we are seeing more and more PR missteps occurring from businesses of all sizes due to not understanding the inherent nature of “movements”. Many brands are trying to stay relevant by attempting social advocacy. Most recently, with the variety of movements like Black lives Matter that we are witnessing, many companies are impulsively reacting. Often believing that being first on the scene will garner them accolades while not realizing the significance and obligations that go with the space they have so boldly entered.

Unfortunately, for many brands it’s landing as short-sighted empty promises. Backing away from the issue a bit further, the other component that many companies didn’t realize when they declared their position, is that to be seen as being part of the solution and making a difference, they actually have to do the work of making a difference – within their own organization. If this is not party to the companies social advocacy, consumers will quickly and assertively call out the hypocrisy and what a recent Fast Company article labeled “Black Power-washing”, repurposing the greenwashing label of the environmental movement. The moral of the story, be authentic, seek to understand, and be open to the change that may be required.

How could these mistakes have been avoided?

To avoid these missteps, as with most circumstances in our lives, if we give ourselves permission to really get clear on what is happening before doing or saying something about it, we make better decisions. Stephen Covey’s “seek first to understand…” the 5th habit of his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” couldn’t ring truer. If we don’t fully understand the issue, we can’t devise an effective solution.

The adage, “think before you speak” should be the foundation of every decision when the need or want to react is in play. It should be unnecessary to need to declare this, yet this also keeps being an issue for many – Be. Honest. Hiding from or lying about something will always be a futile tactic. Authenticity and vulnerability will help take the edge off, as well garner support from those willing to support the change that the company/person/brand has declared they will make. Knowing that the truth of almost every situation will eventually be uncovered, avoid having to deal with it twice by doing it right the first time. Aggressive defense of the company/person/brand does not equal denial of the issue, it means addressing it head-on and owning responsibility.

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

Social media platforms are a significant component of any reputation management strategy as they are the easiest, most accessible and inexpensive way to push out all the positive messages regarding the company/brand/person in support of the brand’s persona. Social media is also the only tool that allows you to connect directly to the constituents you are specifically trying to reach. Understanding the demographics of each platforms gives brands a powerful tool to access those being sought to influence. The company’s reputation is the brand and, as Jeff Bezos said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” If the company doesn’t plant seeds of something great to say about the brand people will decide what to say for themselves. If the brand has a strong, healthy, positive influence and following, it will be significantly harder for a negative story to get traction. If a crisis does make its way to social media, influencers and supporters can be called on to help stem-the-tide.

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

The very first thing a company should do when a crisis online has been discovered is to take a deep breath, publicly acknowledge that there is a problem, get very clear on what the actual issue is, then decide a course of action. Triggered, defensive knee-jerk reactions are never the best course of action and often create a situation where even more recovery is required as a result. Understand clearly where the company’s responsibility for the issue is, what they are going to do to rectify it and apologize.

The one and basically only time that releasing a statement and apology may not be in the company’s best interest is if the issue at hand is legal and where an apology could be deemed an admission of guilt. The communications team would need to craft any public facing statement together with their attorney.

Once the information is out there, both the initial issue and the response, monitoring is critical. Be extremely cautious when replying to the public (less is always more and stay on point) and be vigilant about learning what they are saying and stay ahead of it.

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

Once in crisis, the team lead for crisis communications must brief the employees as to the situation at hand, the strategy that has been decided on and provide talking points should an employee be caught off guard. The next tier of affected parties, stakeholders, business partners, etc. should then be notified.

How employees can help during and after a crisis is determined by the company culture. Employees learn from leadership whether or not they are supported in expressing concerns and having them addressed. So, the first line of defense is to never end up there in the first place and open valued communication with employees can help guard against that.

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

Crisis leadership training is essential for leaders in any public facing business of decent size. This training teaches leaders to anticipate potential threats, how to manage conversations from the hot seat, adapt to change, gain insight into stakeholder perspectives, learn how to build an emergency plan, and ultimately create individual and organizational resilience.

Much of how successful a company is during PR crisis has to do with how leadership handled the business before the crisis. Leadership that is authentic, trustworthy, forthright and empathetic as opposed to controlling, secretive and protective will always manage the storm better. A company culture that supports and trusts their employees will have the privilege of learning about potential crisis issues internally and will be more trusted to have them addressed by management before they ever become a crisis.

Simon Sinek , in an interview with Inc. specifically speaks to the leadership trait of “Grace under fire” noting that being in the hot seat “is enough to make people dishonest and to sabotage their performance.”  Being stressed and unable to properly redirect anxiety is a set-up for failure in a crisis. Knowing this, an extraordinary understanding and use of stress management tools is essential. This, in addition to the ability to think critically while remaining objective and not taking anything personally.

A most basic requirement for every organization is to designate a point person for crisis communications. If the company is sizable, a team should be put in place that includes the marketing agency and an attorney.  Parallel to the communications team is having significant monitoring systems in place to be able to identify negative messaging trends online, so they can be addressed before they gain traction.

Maya Angelou’s “when you know better you do better,” brings us to our last suggestion. Once a crisis is over, do an intensive audit including timelines, actions taken, responses and results to try and uncover where internal issues and processes can be improved. Then, get back to restoring a positive image with a variety of good news.

Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?

Reputation management continues to become more difficult as the ability for information to spread continues to grow, both in speed and breadth. It used to be simpler. Thirty years ago, bombshells dropped in the local paper and those who became aware were those who read that paper, then a few more who were told about it over a phone call. Very few of these would make it to the media level. If you didn’t like the restaurant you went to, you told your four friends who asked how your night was and that was the end of it.

Flash forward and the Internet hosts more “news” sources than can be counted with more coming online every day. Hundreds of review platforms, hundreds of social media platforms, they all have the potential to be weaponized depending on the issue. Here is a sample of a completely normal reputation management issue – one person can simply tweet an inflammatory (let’s say fabricated accusation for good measure because this is from a recently fired employee) restaurant review declaring health violations, horrible food quality, insulting waiter, being overcharged, etc. It could be seen thousands of times, shared to innumerable restaurant groups, and even get picked up by a local news station within days, causing a noticeable difference in business for the short-term. If the restaurant doesn’t have systems in place to monitor their reputation online, they won’t even know about it until it’s too late.

In the same spirit, larger companies with bigger issues can have a story break and millions will see it within hours, causing the stock to drop or result in the resignation of someone involved. This is why it has become so much more difficult. Online there is no way to build a dam to stop the flood once the storm has started.

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

An interesting recent crisis communications challenge was a result of COVID-19. A client was forced to cancel a nationally recognized outdoor art festival, featuring 250 prominent national and international artists and 25,000 guests a few weeks before the event. This happened at the very onset of COVID-19 restrictions being put in place, including the application of do not enter tape around the client’s property. We immediately moved the entire 250 artist show online in just 5 days. The communications ranged from press announcements explaining the cancellation and restrictions we had been placed under and how disappointed we were, press releases about the entire show being moved online, managing upset artists both on and off-line, managing upset national artist associations both on and off-line, threats of litigation and boycotts both on and off-line and media inquiries regarding how were handling the situation, whether we were rescheduling the physical show, questions about the virtual show, etc. This example was very unique and challenging because nobody actually did anything wrong, no one person was ultimately responsible for the cancellation happening as there were state, county, and city restrictions happening and many still insisting that the show should still happen regardless of the restrictions. Everyone was negatively affected and looking desperately for someone to blame, and our client was the target for the blame.

Public relations and reputation management have so much to do with company culture. To really stay above the fray, commit to investing heavily in the company culture. The company will then do a better job keeping the brand out of crisis in the first place.

At Dragon Horse Agency, being both a business strategy and advertising agency, we have an intimate knowledge of our client’s business practices, weaknesses, and company culture while also handling all of the outward-facing communication. This means we have been able to proactively avoid potential crises from the inside before they get out of hand. We are able to learn of whispers of issues (from HR to software) and get them addressed immediately before they have the possibility of becoming a crisis communication issue.

Public relation issues and crises are becoming more frequent and regular occurrences and they aren’t going away. Now is the time to initiate putting the necessary elements and a  plan in place so they are available to access when the time comes… because it’s not a matter of if, but when.

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