Tag Archives: Reputation Management

November 14, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , , ,

In Wake Of Blackfish Backlash, SeaWorld Takes A Plunge


BLACKFISH_Film_PosterThe verdict is out on the impact of “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary that put SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales in the line of fire: SeaWorld reported another disappointing quarter this week, with its profit falling 28 percent and its stock price down more than 50 percent from its 2013 April IPO following the news. We’ve been waiting to see how SeaWorld’s unconventional, public refutation would play out…and now we know. Customers and investors have spoken by closing their wallets.

While SeaWorld attempted to counter the flood of harsh criticism from animal rights activists, lawmakers, celebrities, and media, its response was not well received. The amount of coverage about SeaWorld’s reputational and financial fails only increased, and the entire counter-campaign has become a spectacle and learning lesson for corporations and communications counselors.

With a complaint to the Labor Department, an open letter to movie critics claiming that the film was misleading and false, and its “truth about Blackfish” website that frames the documentary as propaganda, SeaWorld has boldly played the defensive since the film’s debut at a time when companies would usually be holding their breaths. As I stated in another post, there’s a time to speak and there’s a time to remain silent. In this instance, staying under the radar would’ve been a better approach.

But SeaWorld is starting to acknowledge the reality of the controversy’s stifling ramifications:

1)      On August 13, following second quarter earnings, SeaWorld said in a statement, “Attendance in the quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California.” Referring to a June amendment in a farm appropriation bill that calls for updating federal regulations about keeping orcas and other cetaceans in captivity, the legislation is a direct outcome of the exposure Blackfish provided to the public.

2)      Two days later, the company announced the opening of Blue World Project, a new orca environment that will nearly double the size of the current facility when it’s completed in 2018, as well as over 10 million dollars in funding for research and conservation projects. Despite the company’s sizeable investment in improving the whales’ living environment, consumers, activists, investors, and even partnering companies aren’t buying it. Notably, Virgin America cut SeaWorld from its rewards program, Southwest Airlines terminated its 26-year-old promotional marketing partnership with SeaWorld, and Alaska Air stopped selling tickets to SeaWorld’s theme parks through its website.

3)      On this week’s third quarter earnings conference call, Chief Financial Officer James Heaney echoed an indicative sentiment when he discussed the factors that contributed to declining profits, recognizing negative media attention, and said the company is introducing numerous initiatives to address public perceptions and raise brand awareness. And while SeaWorld CEO James Atchison said the company has adjusted its attraction and marketing efforts to overcome current challenges, it’s doubtful that they’ll have the power to completely transform public opinion.

As pressures mount for updated regulations and SeaWorld opponents continue to hold adverse perceptions of the brand, SeaWorld will need to hum a different tune in order to prevent a colossal blow to its reputation and long-term growth.

My advice? Tread carefully before the growing criticisms put a plug in SeaWorld’s blowhole.

August 19, 2013 | cwinters | Tagged , , ,

Reputation Management Now Starts Early For Young Teens On LinkedIn

LinkedIn recently announced it will dissolve the age 18 minimum requirement for membership starting on Sept. 12th. This will effectively lower the age requirement to 14 for teens in the U.S., Canada, Spain and Germany. The change represents an inspired move by LinkedIn to scale their relevance earlier in the lives of its consumers, and most of the reporting has focused on this aspect by detailing new teen-centric features, and potential new revenue streams.

However, the biggest takeaway that is being missed is how the early access to a professional platform like LinkedIn may change the social networking patterns in young teens.

The access to a more professional social graph via LinkedIn may drive teens to earlier online reputation building with the aim to make themselves more presentable to universities and companies. Teens connecting with universities, companies and their peers around career and education oriented topics may sense an increased immediacy of their professional goals and future.

With this new lens, can we expect teens to change how they communicate on more colloquial platforms like Facebook and Twitter?

June 9, 2011 | cwinters | Tagged , , , , , ,

Reputation Begins At Home: Why Companies with “Top Reputations” Stay There, Despite Major Crises

MWW Group Building Blocks of Reputation

Using the MWW Group methodology and the critical elements of reputation,
organizations can build positive images methodically over time.

The Reputation Institute releases its Top 100 list for the Companies around the world with the best reputations. Google is No. 1 – despite the allegations of their heavy-handedness, litigation and other accusations of predatory behavior usually reserved for villains like the Big Bad Wolf. Also faring well were companies who have faced pretty significant reputational challenges this year, such as Sony & security, Johnson & Johnson’s steady stream of recalls, Nestle, a proverbial target for environmentalists and those opposed to infant formula and the mother of all crisis case studies – Toyota.

What does that mean?

First, when it comes to lists and rankings, perception lags reality – good or bad. It takes time for the lists to reflect recent events. It also suggests that there is merit to the schools of thought around goodwill banks, and my personal POV that how you respond to the crisis can have more significance than the crisis itself. But there are some other interesting learnings here:

1. Reputation begins at home. A key driver of Google’s performance on this reputation score was their workplace culture, governance and citizenship. Perhaps Google.org wasn’t a bust after all. To be considered for the list, companies had to rank high in their home market as a “table stakes” for consideration.

2. The Art of Storytelling – a quick breeze through the Top 10 suggests that the ability to tell a great story – to stand for something beyond just your products or services…whether it is innovation and design (Apple), family, fun and entertainment (Disney) or the Volkswagen lifestyle.

3. You’ve got to be relevant to consumers, even if you don’t sell directly to consumers – It is no surprise the big winners on this list are consumer brands, but it isn’t a requirement. Intel, No. 9 on the list, doesn’t sell anything to consumer directly. But they’ve done a great job making “Intel Inside” relevant to an audience far beyond the decision maker at Dell, for example.

The Reputation Institute also points out a key fact – the leaders on this list don’t treat Reputation as a brand imperative – they treat it as a business imperative – ingrained into their policies, business practices and operations.

April 26, 2011 | cwinters | Tagged , ,

Does the Term “Public Relations” Have a Reputation Problem? Three things that can change the reputation of PR for the better.

Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Can the same be true for the term public relations? If you follow the industry blogs at all, over the past few days there has been some interesting conversation about the term public relations v. the term communications – which one is narrower? Which one is broader? Which one better describes what we do? Most of the pundits seem to agree that public relations, when done well, is more than communications – communications is one just one facet of public relations. Others advocate for a different term entirely – like reputation management.

The fact that there is this much debate suggests that the term public relations – too often cast as “spin” and suggestive of manipulation or downright dishonesty – has a reputation problem. And that problem is usually based on a bad experience someone has had with a PR firm. Like every relationship, agency-client relationships begin with baggage – of the agencies that pulled a bait and switch, or failed to deliver – of the clients who put their team in a compromising position with a journalist or an industry association. This isn’t something that can be changed by changing our vernacular.

So what’s the solution?

1. Know your client’s baggage and their organizational attitudes about PR. If offering a communications strategy (vs. a PR Plan) is the path to building consensus, securing budget and getting the opportunity to demonstrate the value of PR, so be it.

2. Practice your profession with integrity. Provide your best advice. Be honest and transparent in all you do for your client, and on your client’s behalf.

3. Think holistically, broadly and strategically. Provide integrated programs that meet your client’s business needs. Sometimes that means partnering (and sharing your budget) with a third party.

Earn your clients’ trust, and the reputation of PR will surely follow – one client and one company at a time.

July 13, 2010 | cwinters | Tagged , , , ,

You need to tell your story…but do you need to tell the whole story?

For as long as I’ve been in the PR business, we’ve been counseling our clients to tell their story….and helping them craft the messaging, the platforms and the proof points to do so. I’ve done this for almost 20 years….and I’ve often found myself telling clients that we can’t tell their whole story….that certain items and issues are too inside baseball, too granular or simply not newsworthy or noteworthy enough.

However, it seems that those of us in the reputation business need to ask a new question…

Is this the whole story?

Today’s NYT has a front page story about SmithKline Beecham’s failure to disclose that a new drug for diabetes had a risk of cardiac problems.

It also has a story about BP’s relentless pursuit of growth at all costs prohibiting them from learning from their mistakes.

The Toyota crisis will go into the text books as a classic case of trying to minimize or cover up an issue, making it worse.

When I started in this business, no one talked about transparency…they just did it. Today, there is a lot of talk about transparency, and seemingly less of it than ever before.

There is a difference between putting your best foot forward and hiding material information that tells a completely different story…and counseling clients today is more about being their Jiminy Cricket than their “Spin Doctor.”

January 20, 2010 | cwinters | Tagged , , ,

The Importance of Context

The New York Post is reporting that Goldman Sachs is delaying its bonus announcement until after it reports earnings – and after the other big banks report theirs. The official party line is this:

“It’s important to have context of earnings before we start communicating compensation.”

Ahhhhh, the elusive but all important context.

In the area of reputation management, we talk about context, and things like benchmarking, a lot. In fact, we often counsel clients that when handling an important issue, context is king. Stakeholders need to understand what to think about your news, and how it stacks up to others, and where it fits into the bigger story of your reputation. The notion of context is pervasive and accepted — we see performance relative to peers reflected in share price valuation, teachers who grade on a curve, and even employee performance evaluations.

But in this case, the idea of waiting for context feels like a parlor trick designed to allow Goldman’s peers to take the lion’s share of public reaction to the fact that the banks are giving bonuses at all. This storm started brewing 2009 when the banks accepted TARP funds, and as coincidentally began repaying them as discussion of Wall Street bonuses in Washington heated up, in what some would describe as another parlor trick – repay the money to avoid government intervention and public backlash.

In a time when 10% of Americans are out of work, home foreclosures are at a record high and consumer fear about their economic futures is palpable, the banking industry takes great reputation risk in doling out checks to their executives.

No doubt the decision makers at Goldman are thinking that reporting good results will give them the permission – I mean context – to award those bonuses. But what they fail to recognize is that the perception by everyone except perhaps their shareholders (and presumably their bonus eligible employees) will be that those profits, in this environment, are hardly a badge of honor. Big healthcare companies will face the same dilemma and the correlating reputational risks.

Herein lies the dilemma. While our capitalistic society rewards initiative, success and profits are good (in theory) – there are certain industries that can be dinged for being too successful, and too profitable – particularly when it can be perceived as coming on the backs of the average working person on Main Street USA. So when those profits coincide with people losing their homes, foregoing their prescriptions or medical care, and an increasing number of unemployed and uninsured, the very things that can build reputation can also diminish it.

Just a generation ago, achieving home ownership was the American Dream….it is now an expectation. In America, healthcare is viewed as a right, not a privilege. When Americans find these things out of reach, it is easy to demonize the big corporate machines for “putting profits ahead of people” – regardless of the fact that the fundamental principles of our system that fuel that American Dream require it.

Noticeably absent from all of this discussion is the role that companies like Goldman Sachs and other large corporations play in creating good jobs, support community and philanthropic initiatives that would otherwise go unfunded, and improving lives. These things are true, and they are important. Just not in this context. After all, context is king.

Carreen Winters can be reached at cwinters@mww.com.

January 13, 2010 | msacks | Tagged ,

Does "We're Sorry" Cut It?

Corporate apologies after big screw-ups are a real raw nerve for me. This is because, though they rarely succeed in accomplishing what people think they should, namely engendering forgiveness and understanding and thus restoring credibility and trust, we somehow insist on them.

We insist on them, knowing we will get a heavily sanitized pseudo-apology, then declare them not good enough or too little too late. It’s a predictable pattern.

The New York Times takes on the subject in the context of today’s hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, with the chieftains of Wall Street appearing before it to endure another (richly deserved) public flogging and offer, as the article puts it, “the art of nuanced regret – admitting mistakes without accepting blame.”

Don’t get me wrong – these guys owe a lot of people genuine apologies to start, and some have tried, albeit they were the typically hollow, non-specific kind. It would be just one of the many right things they could do to show respect for the public that bailed them out.

But here is the key line, and communications challenge to weigh, in the story:

“Of course, corporate chieftains worry that apologies may be red meat for shareholder lawsuits.”

And they are right to worry. Winning in actual court is better than winning in public-opinion court.

In precarious times, being liked and winning favor shouldn’t be the communications short-term goal. Wall Street is never liked, even in the best of times, only tolerated. And it will return to tolerable after time and with the right moves. But facing such an overwhelming storm, the best they can hope for right now is to simply find shelter.

So the bottom line on corporate apologies? It, like most things, depends. I certainly wouldn’t say an apology is never appropriate. And I disagree with some experts who say that when people are unhappy, you should always apologize. But if you are going to apologize, do it with meaning.

In this instance, I wouldn’t recommend it as a communications counselor. But when circumstance preclude a proper apology – genuine, and light on corporate speak – you can substitute action. Do something to demonstrate your remorse, that you’ve learned and are trying to make it right, even if you can’t say so explicitly. What’s the phrase? Something about actions and words, and their respective volume. And corporate apologies are too often just words.

Mike Sacks can be reached at msacks@mww.com.

December 30, 2009 | admin | Tagged ,

AT&T in Need of a Reputation Repair App

Perhaps no company, even including the harangued money center banks, will be happier to see 2009 end than AT&T. In December, Consumer Reports ranked the company last in cellular customer satisfaction, capping a year where dropped call issues for the iPhone achieved folklore status among the online community and even generated an SNL skit. To further exacerbate things, AT&T’s executives and media representatives have repeatedly pointed to excessive data use by iPhone owners as a key to the problem. Yet this was just one of a host of AT&T miscues that showed a tin ear for public opinion with audiences from consumers to investors.

Early in December, AT&T dropped a lawsuit it had filed against Verizon over ads touting the coverage areas of the providers’ respective networks. AT&T took offense with Verizon’s snarky ‘There’s a Map for That’ commercials which purported to show that AT&T’s nationwide coverage paled in comparison to Verizon. AT&T’s response was to run to the courthouse and cry foul, beseeching a judge to have the Verizon ads pulled. The judge refused and AT&T retreated, dropping its lawsuit and engendering another round of scathing commentary from the online community and many traditional media. See the take of the Atlantic’s Dan Indivigilio: http://business.theatlantic.com/2009/12/att_drops_verizon_map_ad_lawsuit.php

The stunning cap to the ignoble year for AT&T came this past weekend when a number of blogs announced that the iPhone was unavailable for purchase by New Yorkers through the company’s website. According to the reports, users with a NYC zip code were told to choose another phone.

Customer service reps acknowledged the situation with scant explanation and AT&T issued a brief statement after the weekend saying that “we periodically modify our promotion and distribution channels” without further explanation of the NYC incident.

This flurry of negative stories about AT&T, many self-inflicted and others with the flames fanned by tepid, terse and generally off-note responses, has many from the tech community to Wall Street asking what AT&T is doing, what it was thinking and how it can repair the damage in 2010. The questions include the future of its relationship with Apple and, just as concerning, its long-term relationship with the consumers who use its wireless services. The New Year provides a fitting time for AT&T to start anew, to effectively address the missteps of 2009 and to put in place an effective program that helps it think and act more strategically as a company and a communicator. The company’s business and reputation may depend on it.

Richard Tauberman can be reached at rtauberman@mww.com.

December 29, 2009 | admin | Tagged , ,

Two Cents on 2010

It is the time of year again to celebrate with friends and family. It is also the time of year where innumerable communications experts posit bold predictions for 2010 that will likely be wrong but hey, no one will remember by this time next year.

It is in this spirit – often wrong, never in doubt – that I give some of my predictions for the reputation management world, in no particular order:

• A company will experience an explosive social media crisis it was totally ill-equipped to respond to, which will then make mainstream news headlines. Social media experts will deride said company for its incompetence and “not getting it” in a characteristically haughty tone.

• Corporate responsibility will play a bigger role in the way stakeholders think about corporate reputation. We are going to see less and less “green” and more and more focus on holistic sustainability. In fact, the smartest companies won’t use the word “green” at all.

• CEOs will communicate more openly, and more often, with employees, understanding that their support and belief in the mission is critical in what will still be a difficult year. It’s the right thing to do, of course, and will also translate into reputational benefits. Happy (relatively) and appreciated troops bolster strong reputation.

• We are going to see a lot of CEO burn out – lots of CEOs stepping down, no doubt exhausted and frustrated. Some of the transitions to successors will be, communications-wise, well-executed. Most will be bumpy, likely because the outgoing honcho is, well, exhausted and frustrated and might not be as willing to put the best face on things. A big name brand or two will get dinged for a poorly handled transition.

• Real, true measurement will be a differentiator for reputation managers. Those that know how to prove value and ROI beyond “impressions” will be sought after. Marketing budgets will still be tight – those that produce reputational evidence get a bigger slice of the pie.

• People will still hate Goldman Sachs. That’s not a solvable problem in 2010 for GS – that reputational rehab is more like a 2011 or 2012 possibility.

• A major national media outlet will find a successful formula for making money off its online content.

Maybe I’ll circle back to this at the end of next year and see how I did. I think I left them vague enough I can claim prescience somehow.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading Return on Reputation.

Mike Sacks can be reached at msacks@mww.com.

December 28, 2009 | admin | Tagged ,

When Advertising Dumbs Down a Reputation

The Cleveland Clinic is typically ranked number one on the US News and World Report’s rankings of hospitals for heart surgery. Its physicians are world renowned and, when its reputation was slightly tarnished in 2005-2006 for potential conflict of interest related to physicians on its roster accepting honoraria from industry, they were the first to disclose such relationships and argue for greater transparency. Its experts are consulted by Washington policymakers and its researchers are at the front lines of cutting edge science.

The Cleveland Clinic is, without a doubt, a sterling example of an organization that has taken great pains with its reputation and, as such, stands out from its peers as a model for excellence in reputation management – never mind, excellence in healthcare.

That’s why it was especially disappointing to see the incredibly “of the pack” and mundane reputation advertising the Cleveland Clinic chose to run in the “Lives They Lived” issue of the New York Times Magazine. Pastel backgrounds reveal simple statements that position the Cleveland Clinic as offering electronic health records ahead of their time, laparoscopic surgery with teeny incisions and statements about the fact that lots of other physicians refer patients to them.

So? The same could be said for many hospitals. In fact, I thought the Cleveland Clinic was above all that…the advertising felt more like what I would expect from my community hospital than from a world class research and teaching institution at the front lines of setting policy.

The advertising doesn’t do the institution justice. In fact, it diminishes what I know about the institution and its reputation. It almost feels as if the hospital doesn’t trust its own place in the world and as such, it tells us the same things we expect to hear from everyone else in their space.

It’s a tough time for hospitals – no question. But, if you have the academic excellence, experience, physician roster and yes…reputation of a Cleveland Clinic, you might be best off leaving well enough alone.

Ame Wadler can be reached at awadler@mww.com.