Interview with Tina Kozak – Franco

We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Tina Kozak, President and Shareholder of Franco, an integrated communications agency based in Detroit.

As one of the region’s leading crisis communications strategists, Tina Kozak has earned the trust and respect of many Michigan business leaders by working alongside them to help prevent and manage a wide variety of reputation-impacting issues.

Over her nearly two decades in the public relations industry, Tina has coached, counseled and prepared organizations in the areas of reputation management, crisis communications and brand repair. In addition to crisis work, Tina provides counsel to a range of clients in the areas of communications strategy, brand development, corporate positioning and community relations.

Prior to joining Franco in 2007, Tina was corporate communications manager for auto supplier Metaldyne Corp., where she managed global programming that included public relations and events, marketing, government relations, employee communications and community relations.

Tina holds a Bachelor of Arts with a dual major in public relations and Spanish from Wayne State University. She is also a graduate of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Leadership Detroit XXXIII. Tina currently chairs the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s Foundation board.

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

Reputation management starts with knowing what people think and how they feel about your brand. It’s important not to confuse your own marketing (what you want people to think) with your reputation (what they actually think). Once you understand your reputation, there are ways to track and manage it with a strategic and integrated approach to communications.

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

One mistake companies make is when they operate in an echo chamber and only employ one-way marketing strategies with their audience. It’s important to listen and reflect on what stakeholders think and feel about your brand and engage them in authentic conversations.

Another mistake is using corporate jargon and not addressing the most important question to your audience – what does this mean to me?

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

Social media is key to listening and engaging with your audiences. A solid social media strategy, including a crisis response plan, is essential. Social media channels give companies the opportunity to build and nurture a brand over time, but it only takes a few minutes for your brand to be destroyed on social. Moral of the story – have a plan!

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

Engage your crisis communications plan. If your organization doesn’t already have a crisis plan, now is the time to create one. If you do have a plan, it’s the perfect time for reflection as we move through different stages of this global pandemic. Your plan should consider things like:

  • Do you have a crisis communications team in place? Have you appointed primary and back-up team members, including a chief strategist, spokesperson and media liaison?
  • Do you have a rapid response protocol? Have you identified a command center?
  • Do your front-line communicators know how to handle unexpected media calls/visits?
  • Do you maintain a contact list to ensure key stakeholders hear news from you before they see it online?

We’ve developed a great resource for building a crisis communications plan. You can find it here.

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

At Franco, we describe our own work as “driven by data and powered by people.” In a crisis, your people can be your greatest assets or your most challenging adversaries. I believe wholeheartedly that an informed workforce is an empowered workforce. Before drafting and sending media statements, your crisis protocol should consider your employees. How will they be engaged at the start? How do you avoid them reading about a company crisis in the news before you’ve addressed it directly?

Employees should understand their role in a crisis, and that includes whether they should speak on behalf of the organization (typically, they shouldn’t!). But armed with the right information, they can be great ambassadors for a brand in crisis or recovery mode.

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

Leadership can champion a crisis communications plan before it’s needed. Build a relationship with a trusted crisis advisor and be prepared to bring that person “in” when a crisis hits (or before!). No one wants to surrender strategy to a stranger. Build these relationships in advance so when a crisis hits, you already trust an expert to guide you through it.

Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?

Reputation management is more challenging today, with anyone and everyone able to hurl opposition online. Brands are under a microscope, and one bad decision can incite an attack on your business, or even on you personally. But in many ways, this scrutiny has resulted in more authentic brands because brands can’t hide behind one-way corporate marketing and traditional PR (presented without comments) to build and maintain their reputations. It’s much more complex and requires strategy and constant attention. But when done well, this integrated communications approach results in a more authentic relationship between brands and customers.

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

Goodness! There have been some tough ones, that’s for sure, and each crisis teaches you something new. I’ve experienced everything from labor strikes and manufacturing accidents to environmental issues that cause a stink (literally). But a few stand out in terms of lessons learned.

I had a CEO client who was being blackmailed by a former employee who threatened to release a distasteful video involving one of the CEO’s children. That’s a lot to process. The decision was whether to address it with his employees before the video was posted online. We weighed the pros and cons and prepared for the onslaught of questions from media, customers and other stakeholders upon the news starting to circulate. This wasn’t an easy decision, but ultimately the CEO agreed that his employees’ trust was important and being open and forthcoming was part of his values and the culture of the organization.

Another tough one was when I represented a school where a young student had been sexually assaulted. The circumstances were gut-wrenching, and the news weighed heavy on the school’s reputation, naturally. The challenge was presenting the facts while protecting the minor’s identity. The truth was the suspect had in fact worked at the school at one time but was also a relative of the child (a detail we couldn’t release to protect the child’s identity). All contact had been off school grounds. We worked closely with law enforcement to nuance some details to take the focus away from the school as a dangerous environment and help ease the fears of parents getting ready to send their children back to school. This was one was hard on so many levels, and I’ll always remember it.

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