Interview with Sherry Goldman – Goldman Communications Group

We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Sherry Goldman, founder and president of Goldman Communications Group, an award-winning public relations/marketing communications agency which just celebrated its 24th anniversary. Sherry started Goldman Communications Group after holding senior management positions at several public relations agencies including Ruder Finn and Rowland Worldwide, as well as editorial positions in print and broadcast media.

Throughout her career, Sherry has provided counsel and created and implemented strategic public relations/marketing communications programs for a wide range of companies and non-profit organizations, addressing issues including reputation management, crisis communications, community initiatives, and organizational/brand/service launches. Sherry’s counsel and programs have been praised and recognized by clients and the industry. She has won two prestigious Silver Anvil Awards from the Public Relations Society of America: for leading the communications and media outreach for the Writers Guild of America, East during the industry-wide strike of TV and film writers and for the launch of consumer environmental labeling program Green Seal. Her work for the Writers Guild of America, East is featured in Public Relations Cases (Ninth Edition).

Among the other programs Sherry created and led are the award-winning Glad Bag-A-Thon program, a partnership program of Glad Bags and Keep America Beautiful that earned the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Take Pride in America Award twice; the launches of residential bag-based recycling, anti-freeze recycling, and Orangina Soda in North America; and consumer marketing programs for top brands including STP, Prestone, Hawaiian Punch, and Nabisco. She has also served as strategic counsel and handled ongoing public relations and community relations programs for the New York Credit Union Association, New York’s Municipal Credit Union, LRC Properties, the Writers Guild Initiative, the New York Academy of Sciences, and Canon USA, as well as run red carpet events for the annual Writers Guild Awards in New York City, the Collaboration Awards, and Jules Feiffer: Funny Side Up.

In addition to heading Goldman Communications Group, Sherry is an Adjunct Professor in public relations at the City College of New York and Long Island University/Post. She also serves on Hofstra University’s (her alma mater) Herbert School of Communication Dean’s Advisory Board and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, where she served as board director of the New York Chapter and national chair of PRSA’s National Honors and Awards Committee.

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

Your brand is what you say about yourself. Your reputation is what other people/stakeholders think about you. Your brand should match your reputation. Reputation management is critical to a business’s success, internally and externally. A company must always be mindful to manage its reputation since it is based on others’ perceptions. Public relations are intertwined with reputation management as public relations is the discipline that tells your story and demonstrates your values to key audiences. Companies must continually control their message, tell their story, talk to all key audiences (internal and external), listen to those audiences to ensure they are being perceived as they want to be, and make adjustments as needed to effectively manage their reputation.

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

Companies make many mistakes online. While they believe online is the best and most direct way to talk to their consumers, without the filter of the media, most use online as a one-way channel instead of understanding it is very much a two-way communication channel. They think online is easy – their kids can do it – so they post content without a strategy or plan to understand how to engage their online audiences. They post what they want people to hear/know, but they often don’t practice what they preach online. They almost never listen to what is being said online. All of these are huge mistakes. A company’s followers can also use that platform to control the narrative and/or hurt a reputation in a blink of an eye. And remember, things live online forever, so it’s imperative that a company and its employees are always ‘on message, on strategy’ to ensure they are protecting and reinforcing a company’s reputation.

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

It’s a very important piece of the puzzle. It enables a company to be seen by and communicate with wide audiences in real time and cost effectively. But, it must be done strategically, effectively and thoughtfully. More importantly, social media should not be the only piece of the puzzle that a company implements; it should be one piece of a more comprehensive communications plan. It is most effective when integrated with other disciplines.

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

Move it offline immediately! The longer it stays online, the greater the damage it can inflict. Engage that person(s) and have them DM the issue and then make sure you respond to them/address it right away. People want to be heard – and if it’s not by the company, they will be happy being heard by others who are following them (or you). So the sooner you can move it offline, the more you will be protecting your reputation.

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

Employees are a company’s best brand ambassadors and messengers. They can help communicate what you do, why you are doing it, your company’s success in weathering the crisis, etc., with one caveat – they must understand it and be invested in it and in the company’s reputation and success. That means companies must put employees central in their communications plans (both regular ongoing communications and crisis communications plans). Share the information with them, explain to them first (not last) what you are planning/doing and why, tell them how they can help, listen to their concerns, and act upon them. Leaving employees out of the loop will disenfranchise this key audience and will ultimately harm a company’s reputation.

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

PLAN, PLAN, PLAN! It’s too late to start thinking of how to handle a crisis when the crisis has hit or is imminent. You must plan far in advance. We work with clients to identify every scenario that could trigger a crisis (interruption of ‘business as usual’) and then create a plan on how to handle it and communicate the facts about the crisis, how the company is addressing the situation now and to ensure it won’t happen again, and pre-writing all the communications for it. But, planning is not enough. We make them PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE it – how they will get the information verified, communicate it, what platforms they will use, who will speak and how, answering the tough questions, etc.  The most effective crisis communications communicates that the company is in control and has steady, smart, thoughtful leadership, and a solid plan.

Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?

Today everyone has a platform to be heard; everyone wants to be heard immediately and everyone is interconnected (we all know our six degrees of separation on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). Everyone has an opinion and it’s easier than ever for people to use that opinion for their own good/validation/attention-seeking above all else. We are also a very cynical society today, so we judge every statement made and look to find mistakes / inconsistencies / problems, so we can highlight them to harm the messenger and elevate our own status. Reputation management is much more challenging than ever before, but it is certainly doable and doable successfully.

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

So many.  As a general rule, the hardest challenge is always to get clients to understand they need to tell the truth and the whole truth immediately, not parcel out tidbits of information slowly which allows others to fill in the blanks and/or perceive the company is not telling the whole truth. Transparency, honesty, humility, compassion, and timeliness are key elements of successful crisis communications.

One situation that comes to mind was when I handled the communications during the Writers Guild strike. Thousands of TV and film writers were striking against the media companies that own the broadcast and print media we wanted to tell the writers’ story in. We developed a two-pronged approach – one was to use humor and the Writers Guild East was among the first to use YouTube and blogs/social channels to tell the story.  But, the second was to address head-on the perception that all writers were rich and successful and therefore greedy to be striking for more money.  I had to convince the Guild to be transparent and not be afraid to publicly say that at any given time half of all Guild writers were unemployed looking for their next gig and that the average writer made only a five-figure income.  Being about to share that truth and letting the media talk to any writer on a picket line (not just the cherry-picked high-profile ones) demonstrated the Guild was being honest and transparent, and their strike requests that writers get a reasonable percentage of revenue from the works they wrote was valid. Media responded favorably and did stories with balanced messaging, even media owned by the companies being struck.  We were able to turn public sentiment to the writers, even though the strike had taken their favorite TV shows and movies off their screens. It was the basis for the 100-day strike’s media strategy, for which I proudly won a Silver Anvil Award for Crisis Communications.

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