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‘Those unprepared for crisis management pay a high price’

By Tobi Awodipe
23 October 2021   |   2:08 am
Bukola Shobowale is the head of business for Quadrant MSL with over 10 years experience across several industries, including advertising, public relations and strategic communications.

Bukola Shobowale

Bukola Shobowale is the head of business for Quadrant MSL with over 10 years experience across several industries, including advertising, public relations and strategic communications. With focus on leveraging data and insights for strategic decision-making, her work continues to deliver brand influence for improved perception and desired impact. She has worked on a range of brands across different sectors, including manufacturing, FMCG, financial services, tobacco, hospitality, technology, travel and government. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about protecting reputation and managing expectations in risk-burdened industries, on influencers being great for a brand or not, and how a single misstep can taint years of hardwork amongst other issues.

Attention to brand reputation has grown over the years and is now the number one risk concern for executives. How important is a company’s reputation for its success?
A company’s reputation is its most valuable asset. It is the deciding factor for all credibility and an invaluable currency that generates leads, improves customer loyalty, and generally boosts company revenues. It is how an organisation is perceived and remembered by its stakeholders.   According to a 2019 study by the World Economic Forum, on average, more than 25 per cent of a company’s revenue and brand value is directly attributable to its reputation. That is why corporate reputation is very delicate. It takes time to build, but can be destroyed in a matter of seconds. This has been further amplified by the digital age of information immediacy, as brand reputation is constantly under threat, especially for high-risk FMCG, pharmaceutical and aviation industries, where transparency and accountability are non-negotiable.

   
Take the FMCG industry for example, some key risks to business and product success rest within supply chain and distribution, product quality, consumer health and product advertisement. If managed properly, these can make a business succeed. However, if mismanaged without the proper strategies, these can mar the business, especially if the necessary systems are not put in place, thus negatively affecting reputation immediately and in the long run.

What happens when a crisis occurs and how would you advise leaders and communications experts to avoid organisational crisis or effectively manage one?
A crisis is a significant threat to a company’s operations that may have negative consequences on reputation if not managed properly. Any internal or external factor that can damage the reputation of your organisation cause a loss of trust and pose a risk to health, lives and safety of your stakeholders can result in a crisis. They say the best managed crisis is one that never happens. The truth, however, is that crisis happens. But I also like to say that a well prepared and trained organisation with established relationships, is better equipped to protect itself, regardless of the issue. 
   
The easier way to avert a crisis is by simply planning ahead for one, by including crisis communications in your risk management process. In the corporate world, the unprepared pay a high price. Crisis events are what risk analysts term ‘highly likely to occur.’ So, the real question is not whether a crisis will occur, but how promptly your organisation responds. As a result, when corporations try to mitigate, but a crisis still occurs, they are judged on speed, transparency and the relatability of their responses. That is why a go-to crisis management framework is necessary.

Is there a place for expectation management? What role does it play in corporate reputation and crisis management?
Expectation management plays a critical role in building corporate reputation. When your organisation has a clear idea of its stakeholders’ expectations, it can gain a strategic advantage over competitors by deploying nuanced communication techniques and dialogue that is aligned with current trends and the desires of its audiences. This helps foster a positive relationship between an organisation and its stakeholders. Organisations are no longer at the center of the stakeholder map; rather, they are parts of an interconnected network that demands increased sensitivity to developing events and the expectations of stakeholders.

Who in an organisation is responsible for crisis management?
Every member of an organisation is involved in crisis management, because every internal stakeholder has a role to play in determining the escalation or not, of an issue, into a crisis. However, we usually advise that a crisis response team is set up while developing a crisis management framework. For example, for us, when we design a crisis management framework for clients, we create a section specifically for the crisis management team (CMT) in what we call the Brand Protect Toolkit. In this section, we list the crisis team composition and designate roles, depending on the specific tasks of the function, while also ensuring that the place of the PR agency is clearly stated. For the sake of clarity, the CMT is responsible for guiding an organisation through the process, from issues management to preparation and response, with a clear indication of who the spokesperson is. 
   
Each role has its duties spelt out and the approach to take in engaging the media. Internal stakeholders are also informed about the official response team and where to direct any media enquiries. This proactive step already saves the organisation unnecessary commentary by unofficial company representatives or further aggravation of issues.

In the last few years, the use of influencers as a means to promote positive perception is on the rise, what do you think of this?
Like reviews, influencers have become central to brand building and reputation management in helping organisations put their brand in a better light should it become tarnished. This concept is called social proofing, and it is crucial to gather social proof for your brand, in order to build trust and credibility in the marketplace. Word-of-mouth advertising can be quite persuasive, and the best part? It’s usually free. To make the most of this opportunity, organisations should build relationships with, and engage opinion leaders, or influencers to be their mouth-piece when necessary. People trust people.

 
However, to ensure the negative associations are not transferred to the corporate brand, it is important to find those that are central to the industry, or work with an agency that understands the ropes, while establishing the right policies for proper management.

Another area of debate is enrolling the service of agencies to handle crisis for an organisation. Is an organisation not capable of handling crises on its own?
A simple but recommended advice I always give is, leave it to the experts. Regardless of how skilled an organisation’s communications department might be, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by negative publicity and having to monitor conversations about your brand across multiple channels, on an ongoing basis. This can leave your in-house team stretched, slow to react and inefficient. A wrongly worded tweet could be all it takes to tarnish years of reputation building. An expert(s) however, deploying well-established operating procedures, can help your organisation engage stakeholders proactively and effectively, thus enhancing the perception.

What is your advice to corporate leaders on reputation protection or management?
We’re in an era of increased corporate accountability. It only takes one bad interaction to taint your brand’s reputation. Organizations have to work harder than ever to enhance corporate image and marketplace perception. You can make this job easier by understanding stakeholder expectations, proactively engaging, including crisis communications in risk management and hiring experts to deliver on your blindspots.

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