How to Shift from Defense to Offense When Managing Your Reputation

October 6, 2023
David Vossbrink, APR, Fellow PRSA
How to Shift from Defense to Offense When Managing Your Reputation

This Elizabeth Holmes photo taken at a Stanford event is from Wikimedia Commons. Holmes is serving prison time for illegal activities related to Theranos.

I recently was asked by a long-time communications colleague, “How do you convince leaders to shift away from defensive communications and toward common values and empathy? AND how do you persuade leaders to do this early and often, rather than waiting until it’s much too late?”

Unfortunately, we see headlines almost daily about scandals and bad behavior in the workplace, such as fraud, sexual assault, bogus products, and breach of trust. Just think of Theranos, or FTX, to name recent prominent examples.

It's up to PR professionals to help turn things around and encourage senior management to do the right thing. But it can be a challenge to nudge the boss away from hunkering down and hoping the problem will go away. Hope is not a plan.

Since policy challenges often appear first as communications issues, here are some approaches I’ve learned to help my bosses deal with difficult situations.

1. Understand your boss. We have to understand how our bosses like to get their information and advice. Give them options, work with their other trusted advisors, and find ways to let them think it’s their idea. Aesop’s fable of the wager between the North Wind and the Sun comes to mind: you can’t just huff and puff to blow off a stubborn overcoat of resistance. 

2. Clarify organizational values and priorities ahead of time. In order to do the right thing, you need consensus and support for what that is. A good rule of thumb, for any organization and for any situation: people come first. Take care of people, listen to their stories, aid the affected, say you’re sorry, fix the problem, and answer questions truthfully and completely.

3. Ask questions. We can always play Socrates with our bosses by asking them leading questions, rather than trying to change them with argument. For example:

  • What are we trying to accomplish—what are our short-term and long-term goals?
  • What will this look like or sound like to our employees, customers, neighbors, investors, etc.?
  • What will the headline be? What do you want it to be? How will we get there?
  • What are our competitors saying and doing?
  • How does this align with our values, policies, and past practice?
  • How can I explain this to my mother?

4. Build a working relationship with your attorneys. Bosses often will listen to the attorneys more than their communicators. However, your legal experts often see the world through the lens of short-term legal risk avoidance, rather than the competing long-term values of relationships and trust. 

A senior executive told me early in my career, “Our lawyers don’t make policy—they only give us advice.” A wise lesson that has served me well, since most policy and communications choices are not between “legal” and “illegal,” but rather in the gray zone involving people and reputation.

Remember this: In a tough situation, you’re probably going to get sued no matter what you say or don’t say. Therefore, just do the right thing and focus on the welfare of your stakeholders.

5. Bring in outside experts. I’ve found that it helps to bring in professional media trainers for executives and subject matter experts long before you run into bad news. Trainers bring wider experience and can provide an outsider’s perspective and expertise. They can break through an organization’s internal resistance to owning bad news as early as possible and genuinely committing to fix the problem.

Effective media training also is useful for dealing with more than reporters; the same skills apply to public meetings, employee town halls, and anyplace where you might be recorded (which is everywhere).

6. Help build an organizational culture that supports ethics and transparency. PR pros serve both as stewards of organizational reputation and as an ethical conscience. Within an ethical culture, it’s easier for you to make your case to the boss.

Share good and bad examples with your executives and your team from other organizations. Ask your team: “How would we have handled that kind of problem?” Build these lessons into your plans and responses.

7. Timeliness is critical. Your good words and actions will be wasted if they’re too late. But if your values are clear, your bosses are receptive, and the lawyers are on board, then you can get your statements out the door quickly. And if you don’t have enough info yet, say so and commit to a process and timeline for when you’ll get it.

We have both a great responsibility and opportunity to represent the outside world to our internal clients. As custodians of reputation, we occasionally have to speak truth to power, which can be uncomfortable. But this is where we earn our paychecks, and it’s where we can provide deep value to our organization and the people we serve.

The author of this story, David Vossbrink, APR, was named a Fellow this year. A Fellow of the PRSA, or Fellow of the Public Relations Society of America, is an honorary designation granted to individuals by the PRSA.

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