We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Patricia Bernstein, president and principal of Bernstein & Associates, Inc.
A native Texan, Patricia Bernstein was born in El Paso and raised in Dallas. She attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and graduated with a Degree of Distinction in American Studies. She was named to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. Following her graduation, she taught English at Smith for four years.
Ms. Bernstein founded Bernstein & Associates, Inc., in 1983. She is also a writer and historian who has published numerous articles in newspapers and magazines as varied as Texas Monthly, The Smithsonian, and Cosmopolitan. She has published three books. The first, with Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, was Having a Baby: Mothers Tell Their Stories, a collection of first-person accounts of childbirth from the 1890s to the 1990s.
Her second book was The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, with Texas A & M University Press. The most recent book is Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan, also published with Texas A & M. This is the story of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, and the young Texas district attorney who became the first prosecutor in the country to convict Klansmen for a brutal assault and get them serious prison time.
Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan was named a 2017 finalist for the Scholarly Book Category award of the Texas Institute of Letters. Ten Dollars to Hate was also recently included in the Austin American Statesman’s list of the best books about Texas. Texas Independence Week: 53 of the best books about Texas. “This Houston writer’s main subject is Gov. Dan Moody, who won the first punitive cases as a prosecutor against the KKK in the 1920s, but it reminds us also of the recurring cycles of hate in this country.”
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
Reputation management has to do with managing the way you are perceived—in large part, the way you are perceived online. It differs from public relations, which is the proactive effort to convey a positive view of a company or individual to the public, current, and potential customers and other important groups. Reputation management involves trying to manage and shape the image of a company or individual that develops apart from deliberate pr efforts. But effective pr builds “immunity” against potential damage to reputation.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
The biggest mistakes usually are:
- Failing to monitor the view of you or your company that is evolving online.
- Failing to analyze and engage with negative criticism quickly and appropriately.
- Overreacting to criticism and negative attacks by unimportant actors who aren’t influencing anyone. In our world today there are too many people who are motivated by free-floating anger that randomly attaches itself to various objects. Often they undo themselves by the irrational, over-the-top nature of their attacks. You see this phenomenon frequently, for instance, in restaurant and hotel reviews. Everyone recognizes and discounts the congenital gripers.
- Failing to take all factors into consideration in planning a response.
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
Social media is the primary platform these days for reputation management.
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
The first thing to do is analyze the situation quickly to determine if an immediate response needs to be made and, if so, to make it as soon as possible, even if it’s only to say, “We are aware of the problem and are putting everyone’s safety/well-being/economic security/customer satisfaction first, as we always do. As soon as we have more information, we will provide updates…” And then do so!
The worst thing a company can do is to minimize, fail to show empathy and/or try to cover up the problem and hide it from the relevant public.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Messaging about the crisis should be united, consistent, reasonable, and rational. The “one voice” message should be shared with employees so they can adopt it or at least refer inquiries to designated spokespeople. Employees must realize that they now represent the company more than ever before, and the company will be judged by their behavior. Spreading rumors internally or externally can be fatal.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
Anyone who may ever serve as spokesperson for the company should have media training and should be put in the spotlight from time to time to gain experience speaking for the company. Part of holding a position of responsibility in a company of any size is engaging in advance planning for unpleasant eventualities. What do we do if a hurricane looms? How do we ensure that no employee who has been dismissed has continued access to the facility or to the material on the company computers? How do we deal with faulty products—or products mistakenly perceived to be faulty? What do we do if one of our products or the actions of one of our employees harms someone? How do we assess a threat made against the company or one of its employees? The buck still stops at the top, and it’s hard and usually counter-productive to attempt to evade responsibility or to hide in a bunker. Honesty, transparency, empathy and responsibility are the watchwords for any response.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
In some ways it is getting easier because there are good tools available, such as Google alerts, to help monitor social media and news reports. In other ways, it is getting harder because, as mentioned before, social media has become such a convenient repository for all kinds of gripes, complaints, rants, tirades, and general incivility. It is instant, long-lasting, and available 24/7.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
A longtime client produced a series of products that were a danger to the public and exposed longstanding problems in manufacturing that had never been acknowledged or addressed. Our strong advice to the client was to tell the truth to the public and apologize, but by the time we found out about the crisis, the company had already opted to go in another direction. Recovery from that point was very difficult—requiring a change in management, enormous expenditures, and a dramatic retreat from the public view. The company did not go bankrupt or disappear, but it is much diminished and will never again be the powerhouse it once was. We ourselves were sadly disillusioned by the actions of a company we had promoted with much affection for many years.
Recently we advised the owners of a company that had suffered damage because an angry former employee had hacked into their computers and sent outrageously bigoted and sexist answers to prospective employees impersonating the company’s owners. One job applicant, whom the owners had been unable to reach, was scheduled to be interviewed on a local television show to “unmask” the “racism” of the owners. We advised the owners to explain the situation to the producers and offer to be interviewed live to counter the fake nasty emails. The company had an excellent track record, which they could demonstrate, of having hired employees from all races and backgrounds. Once the TV producers fully understood the situation, they canceled the interview with the applicant and the crisis subsided.
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