We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with Risa Hoag, founder of GMG Public Relations.
Risa has more than 30 years of experience in public relations and marketing. Prior to founding GMG Public Relations in 1991, she was a Director of Public Relations with Ernst & Young with responsibility for media placement, writing feature articles and press releases, developing and coordinating special events, market research, and the design and placement of advertising.
Risa has been active with numerous not-for-profit organizations. She is a co-founder and the current Vice President of the Greater Nanuet Chamber of Commerce. She serves as President for the Rockland Business Women’s Network (RBWN) and is a board member for Meals on Wheels in Rockland and created and co-chairs their annual gala titled Cornucopia. Risa was selected to be a mentor to female students through The Gerald P. Buccino Center for Leadership Development at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business. She has held numerous board positions with the Westchester Association of Women Business Owners (WAWBO) over a fifteen-year period including President and twice received the organization’s President’s Award. She has also served as Vice President for the WAWBO Education Fund and for the Partnership For A Better Westchester, an organization she helped launch in 1997. She is a past Public Relations Chairperson for the Advertising Club of Westchester as well as a past Vice President of the Tappan Zee International Trade Association. She has served on the board of the Orange & Rockland Community Investment Committee and the Hudson Valley Visiting Pet Program where she did animal-assisted therapy work with her dog Annie, visiting nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and schools where she worked with children helping them learn to read.
Risa is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a recognized seminar leader, presenting numerous public relations, marketing, and social media workshops. An accomplished business writer and source, Risa has appeared on several radio and television programs and has been quoted and featured in numerous national and local publications. She is the creator and co-host of a show titled The Bigger Picture which highlights Rockland’s hardworking entrepreneurs who find time to give back to the community. She is a member of the 2018 Class of Leadership Rockland and was the recipient of the RBWN Service Woman of the Year Award in 2017. She has also been honored with the 2019 Lillian Vernon Award for Community Service from the Women’s Enterprise Development Center and she received a 2019 Distinguished Service Award from the County of Rockland for her dedication and support of businesses and nonprofit organizations.
What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?
Jeff Bezos purportedly said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” I would suggest that you think of your brand and your reputation as one and the same.
Some people think of “branding” or your brand, as your logo, the colors of your website, your iconography, etc. But it is, and should be, way more than that. Your brand is also your reputation. And your reputation is based on everything you do as a company. It is something to be established, built, protected, maintained, and enhanced. And that process happens through public relations as well as everything you project to the public as a company, planned and unplanned.
Your reputation consists of the information you disseminate, the customer service you provide both in person, online, via phone, email, etc. and your company’s ability to react quickly and positively to requests for support. And it is judged on quality, swiftness, and professionalism, both verbally and visually.
Reputations aren’t built in a day, but they can be destroyed overnight. Therefore, a company’s reputation should be carefully maintained, protected, and strengthened. Most companies will go through a crisis of some sort at one time or another and the quality and the strength of your reputation could determine the swiftness with which the company recovers.
What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?
First, everyone must be on the same page. And I really mean everyone. From the person or people who answer the phone (and perhaps those people more than anyone) as well as everyone in between and all the way up the line to management, must adhere to the same messaging and principles that the company stands for. Any deviation or crack is a threat to the reputation of the company.
Some of the biggest online mistakes include being tone-deaf to what else is going on in the world or in an industry. If your responses are automated and your emails are pushed out without someone monitoring the process, you risk offending people. This was very true during the pandemic when companies (big and small) found themselves pushing out traditional sales messages at a time when people were suffering from illness and out of work. Someone needs to carefully oversee the automation process and take over if appropriate to say, “this is inappropriate right now, let’s pivot.”
Having someone in charge of your brand voice and therefore your reputation who didn’t get the memo which told them what words to use and what not to use, and having employees who aren’t informed about what not to say, are all a direct threat to the company’s reputation.
There must be a document or a guideline that explains to every employee and even to vendors, what your company stands for and how individuals should respond to anything they may see online. As we know, individual employee responses can now become global news in an instant, therefore be sure to:
- Carefully craft companywide guidelines and/or statements that are distributed to everyone
- Ensure that those guidelines are crafted by people directly involved with the public and directly involved with any issue at hand, not just attorneys or PR people
- Remember that straight-forward transparent communication is key to success
How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?
Social media is now a critical component of every company’s reputation management and should be built into the strategy.
Again, it should be communicated throughout the company what can and should be said online and what shouldn’t. What can be posted and what cannot. Social media gives us an extremely effective tool that we can use to build up our business or tear it down in an instant. It is a double edge sword to be carefully implemented. When preparing the previously mentioned company guidelines, be sure to include how each social media platform can and should (and shouldn’t be used).
What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?
A company crisis policy should be developed ahead of any actual crisis. That means convening a crisis task force before you need one. Who should be at that table? Attorneys, PR professionals, management team, front line employees, HR, IT, consumers, customers, vendors, industry experts/consultants…. There should be a deep and thorough thought process that has gone on ahead of a crisis. While we can’t plan for every challenge, we can have a plan in place that at least acts as a blueprint should one arise and can be enacted when needed. Waiting until after there’s a crisis could make for hastier decisions not always in the best interest of the company.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
Wait for guidelines to be issued from management and for a company’s statement to be released, then share that statement if appropriate. While it might seem obvious, employees should be instructed not to comment to the media. Depending upon the severity of the crisis and the nature of it, the media could station themselves outside of a work location in the hopes of speaking with someone as they leave or enter a building. Be sure that everyone knows that it is inappropriate to comment. That includes texting, speaking with media over the phone, and especially commenting online. The task force or appropriate individual should release guidelines within 24 hours so that everyone is on the same page.
What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?
As mentioned, convening a crisis task force and meeting ahead of time, perhaps monthly or quarterly, and discussing potential issues, is one way to address in advance any issues that might arise and have your team better prepared should an issue arise that you didn’t anticipate. Have a preliminary plan in place that addresses steps to take in the event of a crisis and make sure everyone has read it and discussed it and that you have answered any outstanding questions. Fill it in as you go with any new or updated information, and at the very least, update it every six months. Don’t forget to acclimate new employees to the company messaging and guidelines.
Another great strategy is to read and research other companies in your industry; what issues did they face; what did they get right? What did they get wrong? Learn from their mistakes and from their wins.
Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?
In some ways it is easier. Companies of all sizes have the ability to quickly respond to basic questions and complicated issues in a broader way and have others share that messaging both inside and outside the company. They also have the ability to reinforce that messaging on a daily basis and to many different audiences. The trick is ensuring that your messaging is consistent across platforms and that everyone is on the same page regardless of the interaction they have with the public. Don’t underestimate the significance of speaking with your entire staff, even if it is only one other person, to make sure that everyone understands the company’s priorities and messaging. Of course, reputation management can be very difficult if you have people bent on bringing you down as they also have access to a wider audience to share their negative information, true or not. Therefore, ensuring that your foundation is strong can help you weather a storm whether it was created by the company or by outside influences.
What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?
The biggest PR crisis we have dealt with was when one of our clients was put in a difficult position that ended up offending parents of children with a specific illness. As with most situations, there were two sides to the story, but as you know, it is all about perception. And in this case, the perception was that they did the wrong thing and it was nearly disastrous for them. The parents quickly rallied, hired an attorney, and turned to social media to share their bad experience. Overnight the company, which took great pride in not only providing a wonderful experience for kids and families, but also supporting numerous nonprofit organizations over the years, found itself at the center of difficulty controversy. We worked with one of our partners to gather the parties together, talk it out, find common ground, and come to a good conclusion where everyone benefited, but without question, it would have closed a business with lesser resources. Their reputation went from being the most fun place for kids in the area to a place that was labeled as ‘anti special needs’ – disastrous. All parties learned a great deal from the situation, not the least of which was that regardless of what you stand for, what you have built, and what your company ‘norms’ are, your reputation can be negatively impacted, temporarily or permanently, by one incident. So, planning ahead, communicating to all, and quickly responding to negative circumstances, can save that precious reputation that has taken years to build. Guard it carefully.
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