Communications

Here's why you should toss the old PR handbook out the window 

Many public relations professionals have developed a set of unwritten rules that guide how work is carried out. Some of them are trite, and need to be tossed aside.

Megyn Kelly’s very bad week

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Another week, another high-profile news personality down in flames. This time it’s not #MeToo claiming another career; it’s actually a onetime #MeToo accuser herself, broadcaster Megyn Kelly.

While at Fox News, Kelly famously accused Roger Ailes of sexually harassing her early in her career at the network. In January 2017, she left Fox for NBC, where she was given a prime morning slot on the Today Show.

Now her show’s been cancelled at NBC, days after defending the practice of dressing up in blackface on Halloween during an on-air panel segment. Her comments resulted in a social media uproar and were greeted with dismay by her colleagues at Today, several of them African-American.

In her tearful apology the next day, the onetime lawyer said she was unaware of the shameful history of blackface and how it was used for decades to demean, degrade and dehumanize black people.

Is her formal exit from the network, expected this week and just half-way through an eye-popping $69 million contract, political correctness run amok? Did NBC act too harshly given her public apology? Or, as some have suggested, is the network simply using the incident as an excuse to fire Kelly in the face of declining viewership for Today since her arrival?

And, most importantly for us here at Provident and our clients, what lessons can we glean from what’s happened to Kelly? What would we have advised NBC and Kelly?

First and foremost, our message to NBC officials would be to know your audience. What viewers have they lost since Kelly’s hiring, and who do they want to bring back? Would firing Kelly send a powerful message that NBC values their patronage? And what about the customers, or viewers in this case, who might be lost if a company takes the drastic step to fire someone who might be considered by some as a brand ambassador?

A good communications advisory firm can help you answer those pressing questions, and quickly. By gauging public reaction and drilling deep to figure out what your customers care about -- including where they reside ideologically, financially and politically -- a savvy crisis management team can move with speed to assess what needs to be done. We suspect NBC already had internal marketing information that showed them Kelly was unpopular among the growing American demographics they and their advertisers are trying to build upon, like young people of colour.

As for Kelly? Her apology, unfortunately, couldn’t undo her history of making equally inappropriate statements on race over the course of her career at Fox. We suspect she may find herself back at Fox given her ideology seems more at home there, and Ailes has left the building, although Fox has initially suggested they don’t want her back. But for Fox News, it could prove to be a big get, given their viewers would likely sympathize with her plight, view her as a martyr and cheer her return.

But if Kelly wants to rebuild her reputation post-NBC in order to land on her feet at another mainstream broadcaster, our advice would be to dramatically rebuild her image.

A start would be to genuinely educate herself on the sensitive, simmering race issues that are nearly at full boil in the United States right now, and to try to make amends to those she’s offended over the years.

Would you rather quit, or be forced to “pursue other opportunities?”

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When companies need to quietly get rid of executives, they often get creative in how they go about it in order to save face. Whether it’s early retirement, or announcing someone has “left to pursue other opportunities,” framing an exit is incredibly important as it impacts the firm, its employees and its brand -- not to mention the executive leaving his or her post.

So when Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations unexpectedly resigned earlier this week in a move that shocked many beyond the diplomatic circles of Washington and New York, many were wondering: was she pushed out, or did she make this decision all on her own?

While there is plenty of speculation about why she abruptly jumped ship, the way the former South Carolina governor handled the situation is something we can learn from when faced with either a self-imposed exit, or one that is ultimately imposed on us.

For starters, Haley announced she would remain in her post until the end of the year. Any time an executive resigns “effective immediately” it’s sure to arouse suspicion and spark rumours. By providing lots of runway until she officially vacates her position, the situation looks like it was coordinated by both the employer and executive. A smooth transition of this sort, viewed through a communications lens, can be a win-win. The long list of senior officials that have left the West Wing in less than ideal circumstances is proof that President Trump has no problem letting the door hit them on the way out. Not so with Ambassador Haley.

What makes her departure different than others (and yes, there have been many resignations), is she leaves with her reputation intact, despite working for one of the most polarizing presidents in American history. This is partly due to Haley not always toeing the party line. For example, she once shot back at Trump who accused her of being ‘confused’ over new Russian sanctions. She’s also defended women accusing the president of sexual assault, saying they deserved to be heard.

While this is purely speculation, the timing of her exit could be strategic. With the newscycle gripped by the now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings, there’s been significant backlash to how both political parties handled the confirmation process, especially pertaining to the #MeToo movement that was very much front and centre. Even though Haley stresses she’s leaving because she needs a break, as one of the few senior women in the administration, some could interpret her departure as being influenced by these recent, turbulent events.

As we discussed a few weeks back, employees sometimes work for a boss or organization with such a toxic reputation that it can begin to impact their own. Although Haley is adamant she has no plans to run in 2020, some have speculated that if she stayed on longer, she’d be forced to follow policy directives she’s not comfortable with, which could negatively impact her image if she were to run again.

Our best guess would be that Haley’s departure was a decision she brought forward. In doing so, she has had much more control in shaping the narrative surrounding her exit. While this is much more important for executives in high-profile positions, it also serves as a lesson for junior and mid-level employees who want to ensure they are seen favourably by future employers. Just as is the case with making a great first impression, you only get one chance to depart well - don’t waste it!

How (not) to drive your reputation into the ground: lessons from Elon Musk

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Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire behind Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal, has seen his reputation take a few significant lumps recently, following a series of big communications blunders that cost him much embarrassment and tens of millions of dollars.

To say it’s been a tough year so far for the South African would be a bit of an understatement. He accused a diver who helped rescue a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave a pedophile. He smoked weed and drank whiskey with podcast host Joe Rogan.

And then, there was his abortive bid to take Tesla private, via a Twitter announcement.

The incident resulted in the Securities Exchange Commission bringing forward fraud charges against Musk and ordering him and Tesla to pay $20 million in fines each. The SEC stated his tweet was misleading, and caused “significant market disruption.” The admittedly exhausted founder was also forced to step down as chairman, but will remain as Tesla’s chief executive officer.

Musk’s reputation from tech-visionary-billionaire to someone who seems on the brink of having a complete breakdown offers a cautionary tale for executives who have, or want to have, a high-profile public presence.

For starters, what you say has a material impact on the company’s finances. Musk’s decision to openly speak his mind and even vent his frustrations on Twitter has caused the company’s stock to roller coaster in recent months. The day he announced his intentions to take Tesla private, the stock shot up 11%, but later sank -- before rising again a few weeks later after admitting that keeping the company public was the best option. But the ride wasn’t over just yet. The stock then dropped 9% after video of him smoking marijuana on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast went viral.

Most shareholders prefer the price of their publicly traded Tesla shares to be influenced by sales of cars and overall company performance, rather than the social media musings of its CEO. I’d be willing to bet these sort of swings irritated more than a few investors, even though for day traders who quickly jump in and out of a stock, it could have been a great opportunity to make some money.

But back to Musk. His erratic behaviour has done more than just upset the share price. It has also been attributed to senior leadership leaving Tesla. Some 41 executives have left the company this year alone, including the firm’s chief accounting officer after only a month on the job. As we wrote a few weeks ago, sometimes employees have no choice but to leave after a leader of an organization acts out of line, and it seems as though Musk’s actions have contributed to some heading for the exits.

How executives interact with the media is also incredibly important, not just to the individual’s reputation, but that of the company he or she leads. Musk has had a testy relationship with reporters, and has found himself in hot water over the past year. He lashed out at Reuters and other outlets, accusing them of publishing false, defamatory stories designed to hurt Tesla. Picking fights with the media is rarely a good idea, and the proverbial honey almost always triumphs over vinegar.

Having good relations with the press is invaluable, especially for high-profile executives. It’s also important for leaders to know the rules and guidelines for interacting with reporters. As we always stress to our clients in our media training programs, it’s a best practice to assume that all conversations with a reporter should be considered “on-the-record,” meaning the journalist is free to use the comments made in any story he or she writes. Speaking “off-the-record” or on “background” is only appropriate when it’s mutually agreed upon by both parties. Simply prefacing an email to a reporter with the words “off-the-record” doesn’t make it so. Musk learned this lesson the hard way, when he wrote one such an email to BuzzFeed. Of course, his comments were published, this time on the subject of a British rescue diver allegedly being a pedophile. That diver is now suing Musk.

Even though Musk is probably one of the world’s most famous billionaires and whatever he says is bound to generate headlines, the fact is that what happens to him can happen to anyone in a position of influence. With social media ready to massively amplify any blunder, what leaders of organizations say has a bigger impact on the bottom line than ever before.

So, how to proceed? Think before you speak. Think before you tweet. Have an issues and crisis communications plan in place if necessary. And whenever you can, be nice to the press.

Jumping off the corporate diving board and into the deep pool of entrepreneurship

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Imagine you’ve got a plush corporate job with a cushy salary, weeks of vacation time and all the benefits and perks you could think of. After all, you’ve worked hard climbing the coporate ladder to get to where you are now. But something just feels off. You’ve had a burning desire to do things differently, or to design that product you’ve always obsessed about. The thought of starting your own company keeps you up at night, and you’ve finally come to the conclusion that now is the time to risk it all and chase your dream. So what should you be thinking about as you prepare to take that leap of faith?

You have to truly believe in what you’re building

If you’re not feeling fire-in-the-belly passionate about what you’re about to embark on, don’t do it. Entrepreneurship, whether you’re employee number one or joining a small team, requires an incredible amount of devotion and energy. To begin with, there is no guarantee that your startup company will be around in the next few months, or even weeks. A lack of passion is a guaranteed way to shorten its lifespan even further. Remember, you’ll be asked to sell, work late, and you’ll face lots of rejection. Without a burning belief in what you’re building, you’ll fail.

Forget the prestige

If working for a prestigious company with name recognition is important to you, the startup life may not be the right fit. If you’ve been in a company for a long time, your reputation can often be tied to that of the firm you work at, so don’t be surprised if things change when you decide to leave the giant ACME Financial Services Corporation to build a better coffee maker at your startup. While some will commend you for taking the risk and putting all your chips into a company that could take off, others may look at your differently. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what others think. Follow your heart (and a healthy dose of your brain, too!) and do what feels right.

You still need top talent

It’s safe to say that the majority of today’s workforce does not have a high risk tolerance. More often than not, the security of a large scale corporation that can provide benefits and an almost guaranteed paycheque is just as important as how much one’s salary is. Startups aren’t for everyone, and that can make attracting top talent tough. Young companies rarely have large amounts of capital on hand for competitive salaries and benefits. Remember, you likely took a pay cut yourself by leaving the corporate world for the chance at building something amazing. So when you do find the right people who share your vision, the results speak for themselves and the synergy that comes from that can intoxicating.

Never settle

Your new company is exactly that: your company. That means you get to decide who you work with, how you work, and what you do for a living. You should never feel like you’re compromising your vision simply for the sake of a piece of business, or your morals for the sake of profit. Pivoting your business to meet the needs the market is telling you it has is one thing. But to settle for what someone else thinks you should be doing is entirely another. The former will make you successful, while the latter will erode your confidence, make you sour on the concept of entrepreneurship and make you feel like you’re working to chase someone else’s dream rather than your own.

Bad company: when your organization’s reputation starts to hurt your own

Earlier this summer, there were a number of stories about current and former White House staffers complaining about not being able to date in DC thanks to their boss, President Donald Trump.

Many vented their frustration, saying they’re on a social blacklist because of their boss and his controversial (to put it extremely mildly) public profile. While the vast majority of these individuals probably never met Trump himself, or even supported all his policies, their association with such a divisive person negatively impacted their reputation.

Not being able to land a date is one thing. But what happens when staying on with your employer means tarnishing your professional reputation, perhaps permanently?

There are instances when public figures cross a line that is just too far, and require immediate action. Wanda Sykes, who was a consulting producer on hit show Roseanne, quit before ABC Entertainment had a chance to publicly comment on the racially-charged tweets sent by Roseanne Barr, which ultimately caused the sitcom to get cancelled.

The same can be said for top staffers in former Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown’s office. When news broke of allegations of sexual misconduct against him, many of his closest advisors took to Twitter announcing their immediate resignation before Brown even held his press conference. They full well knew that in the court of public opinion, especially in politics, they needed to distance themselves from Brown’s now tarnished reputation.

Since quitting one’s job on a whim is not a choice many can afford, there are options for employees who find themselves being tarred with the same brush as the C-suite, or even the organization’s brand.

We spoke with Evangeline Berube at Robert Half Management Resources, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm, to gather some insights on what to do when your organization’s negative brand threatens your own.

Provident: At what point does a company's or a senior executive’s negative reputation begin to affect that of their employees?

Evangeline Berube: That really is dependent on the individual ideals of an employee. On one hand, they may not consider their leader’s reputation as having much of an influence on their day-to-day; on the other hand, a professional may feel their leaders’ reputations are representative of the work they do, and a reflect on their own.

More often than not, people want to support and work for companies that serve a larger purpose and help their communities. They want leaders who demonstrate a commitment to something bigger than themselves and may get disenchanted or disengaged with their own work when they feel that their manager doesn’t live up to their own vision of the organization. They may not feel proud of the work they do and start looking for an organization that better represents their professional and personal principles.

Successful businesses make goodwill, philanthropy and engaging corporate involvement part of their culture. This includes giving employees time and resources to dedicate to charitable and community activities and aligning leadership goals with individual goals.

P: Do employees have any options to help protect their personal reputation other than quitting?

EB: Everyone influences culture, whether they proactively try to or not. The best way for employees to protect their reputation is by entrenching a positive reputation for themselves among colleagues and within their network.

Lead by example, and embody the type of corporate culture you seek for your company. For instance, you can foster a culture of recognition by acknowledging colleagues’ work and celebrating their successes. Additionally, you can:

  • Talk to your manager about the culture you think is right for the company. If you’re looking for changes, don’t gripe. Talk about how the company can benefit and ways you can help.

  • Thank colleagues for their help.

  • Build rapport with coworkers, and take an interest in their well-being and that of the people network.

  • Be a resource for your colleagues and peers, including by offering to help when possible.

P: Does working for a company with a bad reputation impact future employment opportunities?

EB: In our experience, it has more of an impact on the business itself rather than the employees who work for them. It makes it more difficult to recruit top talent, and keep top talent.

When employees or job seekers feel that their leaders aren’t living up to the ideals of the business, or misrepresenting the values of their teams, they run the risk of their workers becoming disengaged, unmotivated, resentful and ultimately ready to leave.

When looking for future employment, how workers handle the way they left a company or leader they no longer related to may actually say a lot about them to future employers. Leaving on a positive note while maintaining their individual ideals, shows a strength of character and a commitment to professionalism.

P: Should employees speak out publicly against their employer to distance themselves?

EB: Sometimes silence speaks volumes. Ultimately, leading by example and living the ideals you want your leadership to embody says more about what you represent as an individual and as a professional.

As the famous saying from Warren Buffett goes “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” At Provident, we couldn’t agree more and have seen first hand just how fast things can change. That why it’s important to have a plan in place to not only respond to potential crisis, but also recover and rebuild any reputational damage sustained. We’d also like to thank Evangeline for taking the time to share her insights on this issue, and we hope you found it as beneficial as we did.