We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Lee McEnany Caraher, President & CEO, Double Forte. Double Forte PR & Digital Marketing is a national agency headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in New York and Eau Claire, WI. An acclaimed communication strategist, Lee is known for her practical solutions to big problems. Her company works with some of the top consumer lifestyle, digital life, wine brands, and professional services companies in the country. Lee serves on the board of directors for the Public Relations Council, the national association for public relations agencies.
Lee is the author of Millennials & Management based on her experience with epically failing and then succeeding at retaining Millennials in her business. Her second book, The Boomerang Principle: Inspiring Lifetime Loyalty From Employees provides a practical guide to building positive, high performing workplaces.
Lee has a reputation for building cohesive, high producing teams who get a lot done well and have fun at the same time. She is a straight talker who doesn’t hold too many punches, although she does her best to be pleasant about it. Her big laugh and sense of humor have gotten her out of a lot of trouble.
She started her career in communications in Boston and then moved to California, working with high profile and groundbreaking companies along the way. She moved to the Bay Area in 1995 to serve as the Vice President of Corporate and Consumer Communications at the $1.6 Billion SEGA of America. She then served as Executive Vice President of The Weber Group and Founder and President of Red Whistle Communications, both Interpublic companies.
Lee is active in the community and currently serves on the Executive Committee for Farm Technology Days 2020, and on the Public Advocates Board of Governors. Previously Lee served as vice chair of the Board of KQED Public Media, Executive Committee for the Grace Cathedral Board of Trustees, Chair of the Board for Community Gatepath, Menlo College’s Board of Trustees, and was the founding Chair of the Board for the St. Paul’s Choir School. She consults with other non-profits on effective board organization and practices.
A graduate of Carleton College, with a degree in Medieval History, which she finds useful every day, Lee lives in Western Wisconsin with her husband, two sons, a blind cat and an energetic dog. She splits her time between San Francisco, New York and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
Reputation Management used to mean “make sure everything people say about us is positive.” Today, Reputation Management is the practice of ensuring that a person or a brand is known for what they/it stands for and does. It is a holistic view of the business – from its mission to its values and standards and communication and relationships with its stakeholders. Public Relations is the HOW the stakeholders know what a company or person stands for and does – one does not exist without the other.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
The biggest mistakes any company can make is pretending to be something that it is not, and not admitting when it’s made a mistake. How to avoid? Don’t do that! It’s ok not to be perfect – no one is. It’s not ok to pretend that you are.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
HUGELY! However, it depends on the company or person. There are many examples of companies and people who have excellent, authentic reputations but do not have their own social media channels. However, their reputations are carried by the media, influencers, competitors, and people who do share their thoughts, articles, newsletters, memes, etc. on social channels.
The important thing to remember about social media is that you can’t control it! So first, whatever you own should be the ultimate resource for information – your website. Then how to leverage your own social media channels to distribute, defend (not allowing someone else to operate them) and amplify what you want to share (news, sentiment, support, etc.) KNOWING that you don’t control the social media companies, all of which have their own goals and manipulate their platforms for their advantage, not yours.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
It depends (my favorite answer as there are no absolutes).
1. First figure out the facts. Don’t do anything until you understand the facts. Having said that, you may need to acknowledge the situation while saying that you’re looking into it and will respond when you have the facts.
2. What are the risks? Has someone died? Could someone die? That’s a real crisis and requires a whole different level of response than finding a bug in your drink.
3. Keep track of the crisis – where it is? What channels? Who’s amplifying? How is it traveling? What bots are involved if any?
4. Once you know the facts create the situation/message document that everyone in the company will use to respond to inquiry.
5. Execute appropriately.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Please don’t assume that you can help by getting involved in a social media war about an issue big or small. Mostly likely you don’t know all the facts. Wait until the Comms team or the CEO has informed you on the situation and given permission to act.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
Plan, Plan, and Plan some more. And then practice.
Every time I get a call to help in a crisis (with a company we don’t already work with) I’m shocked that there is no blueprint for what to do – even just the who needs to be involved list of people.
Every company – however large – needs a crisis plan that at least identifies a Modus Operandi, who will be involved, who takes the lead, what’s the approval process. “Call Lee” is not a crisis plan – well it could be but it’s an expensive crisis plan because you’ve lost time and authority by the time someone figures out to make a phone call.
The best crisis plans lay out the different scenarios that could derail a company.
- Product-related death
- Employee misconduct
- Natural disasters (fire, hurricane, earthquake, pandemic, etc.)
- Data breach
Then when an actual situation happens, you have the starting point and aren’t trying to create a workflow and action plan while you’re responding. No plan will be perfect – but every plan should give you a running start.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
Easier for companies who are transparent and don’t say they’re something they’re not. Much hard for companies trying to hide behind a fake visage.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
Oh my gosh – I’ve had to handle some doozies in my career. A few stand out:
- A person trained to kill someone on a videogame,
- A huge product recall because of salmonella that caused 11 deaths (thankfully not our product, but we weren’t sure about it for about 10 days)
- A competitor that announced a directly competitive product at a substantially lower cost that we did on the same day which tanked our stock
- A massive earthquake that took out a manufacturing plant and then a predatory competitor launched a huge FUD campaign to dislodge the company from its premium shelf space and contracts
- And at least a dozen I can’t talk about.
In each case, I focused on what’s the truth, what’s the motive, who’s at risk and how can we mitigate that and then charted a best and worst-case scenario using the plans we’d created as my guides and then managed as much as I could to move us to the best-case scenario outcome.
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