We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Marc Ehrhardt, President of The Ehrhardt Group.
Through his public relations career spanning more than two decades, Marc Ehrhardt has developed and implemented award-winning public affairs, corporate image, national media relations, issues management and crisis management programs in the economic development, retail, entertainment, energy, financial and manufacturing industries.
As president of The Ehrhardt Group, Marc guides the firm’s strategic direction and new business development efforts, while also providing high-level counsel to clients throughout the Gulf South and nationwide. Specifically, Marc has placed stories on behalf of his clients on NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, CNN Headline News and in The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Dow Jones News Service, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Marc is active in the Louisiana chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization and is an alumnus of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program and Louisiana Economic Development’s CEO Roundtable. He has served on the board of the Press Club of New Orleans, Ursuline Academy and the Young Leadership Council in New Orleans, where he led the inaugural “One Book, One New Orleans” citywide reading and literacy awareness initiative.
Marc earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and joined the family business after a stint at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide in Chicago.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
Reputation management at its heart is about trust. How does a company or organization build, grow and develop trust with the people that are most important to that institution?
Companies can ask a great deal of their stakeholders. They ask their team to lend the company its best thinking, time and best effort every day. They ask their customers to engage with the company and receive something in return. They ask their shareholders to invest and share the company’s vision for the future.
In exchange, these most important stakeholders trust companies and organizations to operate safely and ethically, make sound financial decisions and deliver products and services that have some positive impact on the lives of their customers, whether it’s the experience of an outdoor concert or a live-saving medical treatment.
How successful a company is in this exchange of trust results in a reputation to be managed.
Building trust partially relies on an understanding of how people make decisions and take action. The role of public relations is to create, maintain, enhance and protect a company’s reputation and point of view, as if it was our own. Our work touches the people and communities most important to our clients, colleagues and fellow citizens.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
Companies can move too quickly to engage with online communities, especially in times of crisis or uncertainty. Is it better to be first or correct? The media deals with this dilemma by the hour.
We must move quickly, but we must be deliberate what we say. Many times, being deliberate, authentic and genuine requires taking a breath and looking for the best path forward, not the most traveled.
Moving quickly online just to get something “out there” is trying to be first, when companies should be looking to be correct, genuine and authentic in their message.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
Especially now, when the intensity around social justice and public health is only increasing, I believe the public’s expectations of companies are becoming more intense. Companies and professionals like me need to be more aware of how issues evolve in real time and what the public expects from us.
We see these passions, debates and protests play out right in front of us through social media.
Right now, a customer or stakeholder has a much more vocal expectation of a company’s agenda for change. What will this company that I have a connection to – customer, employee, investor – do to bring about long-lasting, constructive change? As important, how will we communicate that agenda for change, listen for feedback, adjust and improve and ultimately be accountable for the change we bring about? Social media is a primary venue for this discussion to unfold.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
Assess first and move deliberately. I believe it is best to be correct than to be first. It’s better to me that a company says it is gathering answers at first, rather than speculating and increasing the chances of misinformation and confusion due to time pressure from the outside.
A company has to deal with what it says. I’d rather deal from a position of accuracy and advocacy than a position of defend and unraveling the confusion.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
The level of trust between a company and its most important stakeholders shows itself during a crisis. In strong relationships between companies and employees, the team becomes the first line of communicators on the company’s behalf. They are in the community. Their friends and family identify an employee with the company.
Sometimes the public turns on a company so quickly. In those cases, employees have to remind their friends and family about the standards that the employee holds themselves to and how that projects onto the entire corporate culture.
The best advice for an employee working for a company in crisis is do not speculate…ever. During the most intense parts of a crisis or after the crisis waters have calmed, do not speculate. It only creates confusion and greater chances for complications that extend the crisis, which no one wants.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
I was reading an article recently from the Farnam Street/Knowledge Project that talked about the folly of preparing for the last crisis. Too often, we are thinking more about what happened and how to prevent it again. Most of the time in most industries, we are dealing with events that occur outside of our control, such as a global pandemic. Senior executive and companies can control their responses to those events.
As we plan for the things we can control and how we respond to the things we can’t, we should also work daily to maintain, enhance and protect our reputation and points of view. The exchange of trust that a company has with its most important audiences is needed most when a crisis hits.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
Harder. Definitely harder. Our attention span on average is less than 15 seconds now. We make snap decisions and judgments based on the information we compile in less than 15 seconds. There are more venues than ever to share our opinions whenever we want. The media is splintering to focus on their own niche audiences.
Reputation is enhanced and protected in smaller, quicker steps. Taking those steps needs to happen constantly. There is no end to the reputation journey, because the trust and good will that a company may gain over decades of work and accountability can be lost so quickly in today’s information consumption environment.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
For better or worse, I have been involved in more than 200 various crisis situations during my career from natural disasters and environmental crises to high-profile legal challenges and the literal rebuilding of an American city.
We offer clients our time and ideas, two things that are intensely personal. As I have grown in experience and hopefully as a person and professional, I go into crisis situations with an eye on what’s right in that situation, more so than what is expedient.
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