INTA Bulletin

February 1, 2018 Vol. 73 No. 2 Back to Bulletin Main Page

Barrett Golden: Don’t Get Caught by Crisis

INTA’s 2018 Brands and Innovation Conference will provide a forum for leading business and legal experts to discuss the impact of innovation on brands and brand strategies. Nowhere has the brand conversation changed more than online, where today companies must be present and constantly engaging with consumers. This especially extends to engagement during major scandals or crises, and requires careful planning, according to Barrett Golden, a partner at the award-winning strategic communications firm of Joele Frank Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher (USA).

Ms. Golden will be speaking at INTA’s Brands and Innovation conference as part of a panel titled, “Crisis Communications: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!” She shared with the INTA Bulletin some of the key points she will discuss at the conference.

How did you come to work in the area of strategic communications?

Before being introduced to the founder of Joele Frank [Joele Frank], I wasn’t aware that this kind of profession existed. I had been working as a paralegal at a plaintiff’s securities litigation firm and was contemplating going to law school. That experience left me with two key realizations: first, that practicing law was not for me; and second, I was intrigued by how much communications can influence outcomes. The managing partner at the law firm was a good mentor and graciously introduced me to a number of people, including, ultimately, the firm where I met Joele. In the end, the move was sort of ironic. I moved from a firm that sues companies to one that represents them, and in each case, their communications make the difference.

Joele Frank Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher was founded in 2000. It began with 11 employees and today has grown to 125 people in New York City, New York, and San Francisco, California, including 22 partners. In addition to crisis work, the firm’s practice areas include mergers and acquisitions; shareholder activism and proxy contests; bankruptcies and restructurings; ongoing investor and financial public relations; litigation support; and private equity. The firm has been named Financial Agency of the Year for two years running by the Holmes Report and has been number one in the U.S. M&A League Tables for five years straight. 

One main area of concentration for you is crisis communications. What is your perspective on how that realm has changed in recent years?
More than anything, the speed at which news travels has changed. News is not a daily event that lands on doorsteps in the morning. News cycles, particularly for a crisis, can be ongoing and evolve into new angles quickly. Communications strategies need to understand this cadence, anticipate issues before they get reported, and ideally get ahead of the news and shape messages directly with key stakeholders.

What are some of the missteps that companies make in crisis situations, and what are some ways for companies to avoid these missteps?
There are others, but I’ll outline four mistakes in a crisis situation that can greatly impact reputation and outcomes:

First is not taking responsibility when you should. There have been a number of recent, high-profile instances where problems were widespread across an organization. Rather than admit there was a problem, companies have asserted defenses, not fixes. I believe those companies could have mitigated their reputational damage by owning up to their problems and working on solutions earlier. Even if the situation is limited in scope and strong policies and procedures already exist, we encourage our clients to still examine whether this is an opportunity for improvement and make those changes.

Second is communicating too quickly and before the facts are known. We represent a lot of publicly traded companies. Some have had a significant earnings miss and needed to pre-announce their results. We encourage those clients to get a full story together. It’s important to not just communicate the miss, but be able to explain why and what you are doing to right the ship. Conveying a sense of control is important in any crisis.

Third is relying on “no comment.” We certainly appreciate that there are legal implications, particularly in a crisis, that must be considered when deciding how, when, and what to communicate, but by and large, we believe “no comment” is a mistake. We try to work closely with our clients and their legal counsel to move beyond “no comment” and develop a communications plan and message that addresses stakeholder concerns without compromising the legal strategy.

Fourth is assuming that what worked in one situation will work in another. Every crisis is unique, and while there may be best practices, the strategies, messages, spokespeople, and materials should be tailored accordingly.

In this day and age, data breaches seem to be inevitable—what should a company do to be prepared for this eventuality? And once it happens, what is the first thing they should do?
You are right; it’s not “if” your company will be breached, but “when.” And, as we’ve seen, some companies are being hacked again and again. Cybersecurity issues are increasingly common. No industry is immune. Still, we have found that there are several advance planning actions that can make a difference.

We recommend that our clients hire experts who can audit their cybersecurity protocols and make recommendations for improvements. Companies are judged on the relative security measures they had in place prior to a breach, as well as their communication and remediation efforts after a breach. Knowing that you have best-in-class protocols and being able to communicate that fact is a much stronger position than having to admit and explain why you didn’t previously address apparent flaws in your systems.

Developing contingency plans is also important. While the specifics will change, some data breach scenarios can be anticipated and scenario plans developed. These won’t dictate actual communications in the event of a breach, but they can give companies a running start.

Last, identifying a core team before you need them is essential. In fact, making a call to this team is the first action companies should take. IT forensic experts, cybersecurity investigators, attorneys, and crisis communications teams all have a role to play. In the heat of the moment, I’d rather have these folks on speed dial rather than need to look up credentials, references, and numbers.

How do you work with brand teams (legal and marketing)?
In short, closely. Everyone has an opinion on communications and considering each opinion helps to ensure that we get to the right place. I wear glasses, so an analogy that comes to mind is a visit to the optometrist. The crisis clouds your environment. But, as the lens of each discipline is added, the right solution and the right strategy become clear.

How can companies best maintain brand integrity during a crisis?
Keep in mind, a company is judged not only on the crisis itself, but also by how they prepared, managed, and communicated during the crisis. Each phase must be addressed. With regard to brand integrity in particular, crisis communications strategies may examine if there is a way to credibly distance the problem from the brand. For example, would using a technology expert as the spokesperson rather than a C-suite executive be appropriate? Can a distinction be drawn between one division versus the company as a whole? To navigate these areas successfully, find a team that is experienced and willing to give it to you straight, and then be open to those observations.

What attracted you to participate in the Brands and Innovation conference?
I respect members of the project team, including Paul Brown at UL, who have helped to organize the conference. I look forward to the opportunity to both share and learn.

INTA’s Brands and Innovation Conference will be held March 19‒20, 2018, in New York City. Register here.

Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of items in the INTA Bulletin, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.

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