An organization's reputation is largely derived from senior management. They personify the company as much as they represent it, especially during times of corporate crisis like the thorn in every pet food manufacturer's side: recalls.
The actions of senior management set the tone for the entire company's handling of every situation. The PR department may provide counsel but must work with how senior management ultimately decides to proceed. It is then left to the PR professional to effectively communicate with the public, working around management's set limitations.
For example, most public relations handling during pet food recalls starts with a statement from upper management. They are most likely to dictate how the instance should be handled, with the objective of minimizing negative impact. Not long ago, that meant keeping it as quiet as possible while only meeting legal requirements. With news traveling at the speed of a click around the internet, there is no such thing as "keep it quiet" anymore. Pet parents demand open communication and full accountability, and they want it right now.
The focus is now on retaining and regaining the trust of pet parents, and the best way to do that is with prompt, open communication. This communication must be directly to the consumer through your website and social media accounts, as well as through traditional media. The media's twist on your recall can make or break you, and these days the media includes web-based outlets, such as blogs.
A repeatedly criticized part of the recent Bil-Jac recall, for example, was that the company recall notice was buried on the website with no links to it from the home page, product page, news releases, etc. Social media slammed the company for trying to hide the recall, and consequently more damage was done to the company's reputation than would have resulted from open communication. If anyone defended the company by suggesting an oversight may have occurred, they were quickly drowned out by the outraged. The public can be very unforgiving, even of perceived sins.
By contrast, you may recall a situation of product tampering that hit Johnson & Johnson's product, Tylenol, several years ago. In a dramatic move, the company pulled Tylenol from the shelves internationally, even though the incident was considered to be isolated in the Chicago area.Senior management's handling of that situation had the media applauding the company for its socially responsible actions and praising its cooperation with officials. When Tylenol was later outfitted with tamper-resistant packaging, the media gave Johnson & Johnson even more positive coverage.
Johnson & Johnson has since ranked among the most respected corporations, due at least in part to its being a leader in safe packaging. It made such an impression that it became a classic case study in crisis communication management and how crisis should initiate change. In fact, I found the case study in one of my PR textbooks. The agreement is universal - this is how it should be done, and it all starts with top management. Admitting the mistake and apologizing is a great start, but taking steps to fix a problem is how you'll mend fences.
For long-term success in public relations, senior management must do the following:
- Be involved in public relations
- Hire competent public relations counsel
- Incorporate public relations perspectives in policies
- Communicate both internally and with the public, remembering to listen as much as you speak
- Coordinate what is done with what is said
- Define goals and objectives
It is crucial that public relations executives form a supportive relationship with senior management based on mutual respect. A certain amount of chemistry has to exist to handle a crisis through to a positive end. The PR team is a tool, but senior management must first decide what to build and how to build it.
Johnson and Johnson's former public relations executive, Buck Downs, says, "If things are working as they should, the public relations person is given the unique opportunity to become the CEO's loyal opposition, the one who, behind closed doors, can say, if you do this, you are making a huge mistake."
Now more than ever, consumers expect to see senior management, especially when there are pet food recalls. Posting a cold press release expressing an obligatory apology is not communication, nor is it crisis management. Work with your PR & marketing personnel to develop a strategy that reaches all the way through your company, from upper management to customer support. Take immediate ownership of the situation so you have the power to make it right.