Interview with Justin Meise – Buttonwood Communications Group

Justin Meise

We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Justin Meise, founder and President of Buttonwood Communications Group.

A seasoned and versatile public relations consultant, Justin has provided strategic communications counsel to a diverse range of financial organizations from niche players to household names such as Citibank, Merrill Lynch, Prudential Securities, iShares, BNY Mellon’s Pershing division, and FTSE Russell.

Over his 20-year career, Justin has established an impressive track record for designing and managing successful programs to promote products, services, and transform brands for many B2C and B2B companies.

Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts, English Literature from Marist College and taught English while earning his Master of Arts, Liberal Studies at Fordham University. He regularly lectures at Marist College, working with the advanced communications classes on the evaluation of best practices in public relations. An avid, instrument-rated pilot, Justin is a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and Angel Flight Northeast.

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

Since we specialize in the financial industry, generally we focus on organizations rather than individuals, but the concept applies equally. We view reputation management as a continuous process of monitoring and managing the perception of a brand in line with an established set of attributes.

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

Without a doubt: Being the passenger, not the pilot. So frequently and for a variety of reasons, companies simply neglect their online presence. As a result, consumers and media are left to conceive their own narrative for a company – or worse, embrace one that a company’s antagonist (competitor, plaintiff, etc.) has cast.

It is absolutely vital that a company clearly defines its mission, vision and values and then communicates consistently and effectively across all forms of communications. Quick, simple example: a small banking client was being called predatory and disreputable. It was an easy narrative to foist on them since their website had no mission statement, no mention of their values and little information about the company’s founding and operations. They didn’t even identify their management team. They were not in command of telling their story to their detriment.

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

It’s a little different in financial services from some other industries because this is a highly regulated space. Many financial firms prefer to reduce the compliance risk and have strict guidelines limiting the use of social media. As a result, a lot of social media usage in financial services would be appalling to a consumer brand because most content has to be written in advance and then approved before it can be posted/Tweeted. There’s little authenticity, and in many ways it’s just another form of distribution, not genuine engagement. That’s a white paper in itself. All that said, social media is a really important channel and certainly some executives understand that and use it effectively.

One of the key points we make to socially averse financial firms is that while their immediate audience (e.g., pension funds or ultra-high net worth investors) are likely not using Twitter to find or engage with an investment manager or other service provider, many journalists are avid users. So, we view building relationships with reporters via social as integral with a PR strategy.

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

After taking a breath, start monitoring and try to assess all of the issues. Gather as much information as possible on the drivers of the crisis, its magnitude, the antagonists, the media reaction, and so on.

Ideally, the company has a crisis plan that includes protocols for convening decision-makers and at least a basic playbook for an initial response. Reporters’ deadlines are short, especially on breaking stories, so you can’t expect to take 24-48 hours to develop a comprehensive plan. You need to have foundational messaging and basic holding statements ready to go.

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

First, don’t share any information outside the organization – even if it’s well-intentioned. Second, communicate to the team that’s managing the process – they need information so they can see the full scope of the crisis and all the players.

Employees can also help by assisting with monitoring such as customer, vendor/counterparty, or employee reactions.  Eventually – hopefully quickly – there will be a Letter from the CEO or a script with a tough Q&A for use with clients and prospects – stick to it and be consistent.

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

If any have never dealt with a real PR crisis before, it’s a good idea to have a communications pro do a session on crisis management with the team to help them understand their vulnerabilities and blind spots. If the company doesn’t have a crisis communications plan in place, it’s also a good idea to get the fundamentals in place.

Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?

Definitely harder because there are so many more forms of communication. As a result, there is more to monitor and manage and far more platforms from which a disgruntled customer or employee or other antagonist can strike.

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

I’ve been involved in many from being outside communications counsel to one of the five banks in the National Mortgage Settlement after the financial crisis to handling a 5-6 year run of lawsuits against a hedge fund client. The most entertaining story to tell (now, not at the time) involved a small hedge fund client who came under attack from an employee that was fired from a company in their portfolio. The fired employee blamed the hedge fund for the loss of his job and set out to ruin their reputation by employing some inspired tactics. He created a parallel website to hijack the official company website which he populated with false and derogatory information as well as redirected links to porn sites. He created fake Wikipedia pages on the company and most of the management team describing them as criminals.

Every crisis is unique, but you apply the same tools, techniques, and playbook – you just have to adapt the situation. Critically, for every crisis, you must gather information, pinpoint the core issues and antagonists, develop response messaging, and then determine the best tactics for communicating with your target audiences. Sometimes, a crisis lasts a week, other times you battle it for years. However, the fundamentals and discipline of crisis communications remains.

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