The Best Form of Defence
By Scott Wilson & Will Spratt, Cohn & Wolfe
Transparency is the new kid on the block when it comes to corporate issues management.
You don't build a reputation on what you're going to do, said US industrialist Henry Ford, laying the foundations for a generation of issues management practitioners to preach the virtues of crisis preparedness.
But while preparedness remains a cornerstone of any crisis tool kit, a new kid on the block is threatening to rewrite the rule book when it comes to corporate reputation management.
Recent events, including the MPs' expenses scandal, the hacking inquiry/Leveson, and to a lesser extent, the tarnishing of the financial services industry, have ushered in a new era of transparency, creating both opportunities and challenges for any business or organisation.
In his book Who Cares Wins, David Jones, CEO of Havas, says: 'If I had to pick one word to use as the guideline for running a business in this new era, it would be "transparency".'
While the concept of transparency is not new in itself, its fundamental definition - 'free from guile' - makes it both a powerful weapon and explosive threat for comms practitioners and crisis management counsellors. Seen positively, it provides a powerful opportunity for businesses operating in the 'always on', fully engaged digital era to turn the magnifying glass on themselves, and in turn, generate a new comms currency that will build trust and equity with customers, regulators and other stakeholders.
What's more, while some of the benefits are clear to see when times are good, transparency could be at its most valuable and effective when things go wrong.
One business that realised this is Asda, whose motivation to embrace transparency was born partly out of a negative and damaging threat to its reputation.
When an employee was filmed doing unsavoury things to products, the retailer began to look at ways of becoming more open and transparent.
The response included installing webcams in different parts of the business, allowing customers to trace the origin of products more easily.
Social media and the convergence of customer service and traditional public relations mean that businesses are increasingly being compelled, or are naturally evolving, towards a more transparent approach.
Being challenged and questioned in a public forum, indeed welcoming and inviting scrutiny and interest, means that businesses are having to become highly adept at managing their comms and operations.
The next natural step is for businesses and organisations to open up and embrace transparency so that this becomes the norm.
To do this, every business or organisation needs to treat transparency carefully. You cannot just throw open the doors and expect stakeholders to be delighted with everything they see.
In the context of crisis preparedness and issues management, it will mean that every employee, CEO or professional communicator needs to be better prepared and aware of who they are talking to and what they are saying.
This might not be something for every business and there will always be businesses that operate in an unethical way or an industry that is too sensitive to allow complete transparency.
But for a lot of businesses, the benefits that could come from transparency are manifest.
As well as burnishing loyalty and building trust, it could ultimately allow businesses to respond to crises more easily and with less suspicion.
Scott Wilson is UK CEO and EMEA managing director and Will Spratt is associate director at Cohn & Wolfe.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
Corporate activists have occupied the reception of one of your biggest clients. Who do you call first?
We would call the client. Even the best reputation management programmes will only ever mitigate the risks of an issue arising and speed of response, clear thinking, smart strategy and well-drilled procedures come into their own.
What is the best way to keep employees informed during a crisis?
Where a culture of openness and mutual trust exist, crisis communication simply becomes an issue of appropriate channel selection and deployment, not strategy. Just as it should be.
This article originally appeared in PRWeek (June 2012)