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Review: Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management

11 Feb

Crisis, Issues and Reputation ManagementThe CIPR defines public relations as being ‘about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.’

So it’s surprising that the very first book in the 15-strong CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice series to even mention reputation in its title was published only last year. It’s been worth the wait.

Andrew Griffin, chief executive of Regester Larkin has built on Mike Regester and Judy Larkin’s classic crisis management text and refocused it on reputation – or more specifically risk to reputation.

To Griffin, ‘what identifies a crisis is not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the licence to operate and the future of the organization – and the immediacy of the threat.’

He views risks as either issue-led or incident-led. But he several times distinguishes between crisis management, a strategic matter that demands the attention of senior executives, and emergency response to incidents, a more operational process. Clearly he has fought this battle many times and has learnt the need to talk up the strategic nature of reputation risk.

He discusses the scenario of product development or a joint venture. At what point should the proposed development be subjected to (reputation) risk assessment: early on or at the point of announcement? The idea that a corporate affairs team could have this power within an organisation is an intriguing counter to the literature that presents marketing as an all-encompassing function and public relations a tactical promotional activity.

So this is a grown-up book, born out of experience, that reads like a management consultant’s text – complete with many two-by-two grids.

In an aside, Griffin mounts a powerful critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. Subscribing to this concept is to accept the framing of business as instinctively self-interested, even irresponsible. Yet he argues that ‘the best way to prevent issue-driven reputation risks is to have exemplary financial, corporate, environmental and social performance.’

Much better, he argues, is the more neutral concept of corporate citizenship.

Classic crisis management cases are supplemented by more recent examples, notably BP Deepwater Horizon which has already cost the once-admired business over $42 billion (a rare occasion where reputation damage can be calculated in monetary terms).

Each situation is distinctive, though the risks and patterns may be predictable. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, BP’s Britishness  became a spur for the White House and US public opinion to escalate the war of words. Corporate manslaughter, massive environmental destruction in America blamed on a Hollywood British baddie.

The book is full of models and practical approaches, though it avoids simple checklists and formulaic approaches. The author completely ignores the academic literature on issues and crisis management – whether because he’s never consulted them or because he feels they add no value, I’m not sure.

Students and less experienced practitioners can benefit from Griffin’s evident expertise, but could also have been helped even more if there had been a further reading section. But this is a challenging and sophisticated addition to the PR in Practice series, so I can hardly fault it for not being an academic textbook.

What’s wrong with CSR?

15 Feb

Please note: this is not a principled attack on corporate social responsibility. Who would argue in favour of corporate irresponsibility? Certainly not Milton Friedman, whose famous attack on CSR remains a very potent one.

My objections come from two perspectives: the name is wrong, and the history is wrong.

Let's start with history.

Cadbury CSR is often presented as a towering achievement of late twentieth century stakeholder capitalism, and therefore as a grown-up strategic justification for public relations.

This narrative fails adequately to respond to the fate of such cynical cheerleaders for CSR as Enron.

It also airbrushes out the pioneering achievements of nineteenth century capitalists such as Sir Titus Salt, whose Saltaire near Bradford, begun in the 1850s, is now a World Heritage Site. Or Bournville in Birmingham or New Earswick in York – housing developments by two Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury's and Rowntree's, for their factory workers.

Sure, there was something paternalistic about these Christian capitalists who encouraged improving activities (institutes, schools, church, chapel or meeting house) over perceived bad practices (public houses).

But the advocates of CSR do not deny the rights of donors to pick their causes for maximum and sustained social impact.

What's wrong with the name?

People have been moving away from 'social' responsibility because of the rise of the environmental agenda – preferring instead the broader 'corporate responsibility' to refect the triple-bottom-line of 'people, planet, profits'.

The Stockholm Accords have thrown out the whole idea and replaced it with one word – sustainability. The Accords allow for both interpretations of this word: sustainable organisational success within a sustainable environment.

Then there's the question of sustained legacies. Companies and organisations decline; people die; but a Peabody, a Rowntree or a Carnegie lives on through their legacies. Where are the great philanthropists from the twentieth century? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet head the list, but their achievements will belong to this present century.

Time for some perspective, please.

Corporate reputation management: Nestle

8 Nov

Here are some links for a case study we'll be exploring in class on Monday.

What is Nestle best known for? Confectionery (KitKat) and coffee (Nescafe) are the most recognisable of its many brands.

What about the company's strategic direction? Nestle says it is 'the world's leading nutrition, health and wellness company' and that it is committed to increasing the nutritional value of its products while improving the taste. The UK site is more explicit, claiming it's 'putting health and wellness at the heart of our business'.

As The Economist explores this week, this is a bold claim for a chocolate company ('The unrepentant chocolatier'). What are the risks and challenges arising from this focus?

We'll be analysing whether this corporate strategy is consistent with what we can know of the organisation's culture and values. How should this strategy influence corporate communications?

And then there's the long-running saga of the promotion of infant formula in the developing world. Nestle defends its actions as responsible and agrees in most cases that 'breast is best'. Yet the campaign isn't going away, and has become a defining issue for anti-globalisation activists. What can and should the company do about this? What effect could this have on its reputation, particularly in light of the focus on health and wellness?

Arise, Sir CSR

29 Dec

Congratulations to Sir Stuart Rose, chief executive of Marks and Spencer – knighted for ‘services to the retail industry and corporate social responsibility.’

Responsibility Monday

15 Jan

This morning, retailer Marks & Spencer announced ambitious plans to become carbon neutral by 2012 (see BBC story).

This afternoon, the Conservatives moved the discussion of the responsibilities of business back to individual responsibility. How much should business do? How much can we do? And how much is the responsibility of government?