Skills & Training

Protecting brand reputation – tips for success

By Ruari McCallion

March 2016

Reputations and brand names are valuable but they can become tarnished in a moment.

Ruari McCallion reports on how to put structures in place to build, manage and protect a business’ good name.

Brand reputation is a difficult asset to value. People know it is worth something – especially the salesforce! A good reputation makes it easier to do business. It will have a positive impact on share price, in the case of a public company, and on the ease with which finance can be raised, from banks, the stockmarket or other sources. Credit terms, supplier confidence and partner collaboration all run more smoothly when a business is viewed in a good light. So, how much is it worth? As no accountant has yet come up with a way of putting reputation on a balance sheet it could be the very definition of ‘priceless’. How do you build it and how do you look after it?

It is vitally important that any company puts in place a set of standards and procedures to ensure that its reputation is managed effectively and professionally, during good times and bad.

When things are going well, the head of the company (MD, CEO, Chairman, Senior Partner) will be available to journalists and eager to talk about good news. In good times, the company has time to consider and design a communications campaign and to deliver it in the right way, reaching out to the connections that are expected to be the most receptive. Maybe your communications team has spent time nurturing the contacts and building the relationships. A tried, trusted and established group of specialists may have been established, both inside and out, and they will all know their roles and responsibilities. This is regardless of the size of the organisation. Even a small company can and should employ public relations professionals, on a contracted or retainer basis. If a reputation is priceless, it is worth investing a little in nurturing and protecting it.

A good reputation can take years to build but it can be destroyed in a moment. Accidents happen – and so do design faults, supplier misperformance and product contamination. The trick in handling crises is to avoid turning dramas into disasters. One way of making things massively worse is denial or attempted cover-up.


Liz Cartwright, MD, Cartwright Communication

We are familiar with recalls from major auto manufacturers and, generally, no-one other than 24-hour news channels gets too excited – with the obvious exceptions of life-threatening incidents, which can include food scares, exploding devices and anything else that would look exciting on camera. Almost as good (as far as news media are concerned) are shots of senior personnel struggling to avoid questions or responding in a manner that makes clear that no-one is in control – because control is everything.

“No two crises are the same and so it’s difficult to give a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution but, in general, if you have got something wrong then it’s best to take responsibility in media channels,” said Liz Cartwright, MD of Cartwright Communications, a specialist PR agency that has been handling ‘hostile’ media enquiries for more than a decade. “Then say sorry, and look at ways of improving your product or services in the future. If your company is not in the wrong then more careful handling of the situation is required – sometimes involving a knowledge of media law, and confidence to deal with a journalist who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“No two crises are the same and so it’s difficult to give a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution but, in general, if you have got something wrong then it’s best to take responsibility in media channels.”

There seems to be an endless supply of examples of head-in-sand syndrome, where companies will try to pretend that nothing has happened, or it’s not as bad as it is being made out to be, and they don’t want to talk about it anyway. If the company doesn’t talk about it, that vacuum will be filled with speculation, rumour, gossip and increasingly wild accusations. An effective crisis management strategy will be a lot cheaper and will protect the company’s reputation far better than stonewalling.

“Following any crisis, the first thing to do is gather your facts. Ensure that you have all the information, with dates, before embarking on a strategy to deal with the situation,” Liz Cartwright continued. She strongly recommended meeting journalists’ deadlines, in order to avoid the ‘empty chair’ and ‘no-one was available for comment’ observations, which only serve to make things worse. If the company is in any way to blame and an apology is needed, issue one. By all means qualify it with some background on how the mistake was made, identify the lessons that can be learned for the future and what specific measures are being put in place. If your company was not at fault, then your communications team should talk to the journalist and explain why, and always expect to be ‘on the record’. Follow-up is important. Also, be aware of the importance of social media; careers can be destroyed in, literally, a matter of hours. Corporations take a little longer but they, too, can be brought to their knees by a Twitter or Facebook campaign.

Not all crises are easy to manage and that’s when you need experts to help you. Today’s crisis may not turn out to tomorrow’s fish wrapper – it could need management through recuperation and rehabilitation. When you think it’s all over, work on rebuilding and repairing the damage. Protecting a good reputation is worth the effort.


Effective strategies are planned, structured, put in place and practised.

Have a set of approved procedures in place AHEAD OF TIME. This is key to responding in a timely manner and protecting the company’s brand.

Promote your Crisis Plan within your business and ensure that staff are aware that reporting a problem will not attract punishment.

There will always be a core group of people that will bear the responsibility for making decisions and spearheading communication during any crisis, regardless of size and scope. Make sure they are trained, are aware of their roles and have their contact details listed somewhere centrally, which makes them easy to contact.

A crisis is no place to learn a new job. Such a situation should not be the first time a spokesperson speaks to the media. The person who will be the official ‘voice’ of the company should a crisis develop will depend on the situation, so invest in media training for a pool of people appropriate to your business’ needs.

In any business, there are dozens — if not more — of potential crisis situations that could ruin a brand, and poor communication makes the situation even worse. The planning process should anticipate key scenarios and formulate an outline plan to deal with them. This will save precious time.


RECOGNISE – the person at source recognises a crisis has occurred and reports to management.

MOBILISE – a Core Crisis Group. This can include HR, Legal, PR, CEO, COO, CFO etc.

REACT – implement a communications plan as quickly as possible.

REPORT – monitor traditional AND social media, and report back to all stakeholder groups appropriately. Resulting coverage may require adapting the communications plan.

EVALUATE – de-brief and measure the impact. Make operational changes where necessary.

With thanks to Charlotte Williams, Colliers International



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