A Humble Guide to the Importance of PR Crisis and Corporate Reputation

There’s a joke about a comedians’ convention in Las Vegas. These joke-tellers know the standard one-liners so well they don’t bother reciting them. Instead of providing a set-up and punchline, the comedians simply refer to a particular joke with a number. 

So, the keynote speaker/comedian goes on stage to do her set as the convention’s first lunch speaker. She leans into the microphone and says, “61.” The comics roar. “23.” Another chorus of laughter. 31 has her fellow comics doubled over. 

A younger comedian takes the stage next. It’s his first time at the convention. With energy he says, “19.” Nothing. A bit shaken, he next calls out, “37.” Again, crickets. Dejected, he leaves the stage.

When he reaches his table, he turns to his right and asks a veteran comic, “What happened? Why did I bomb?” The older entertainer responds, “You didn’t tell ‘em right.” 

Similarly, for experienced crisis practitioners, the basics of PR crisis communication could have numbers. For example, for no particular reason let’s agree that ‘Preparation before a crisis is your best defense…’ is #2. ‘It’s not if a crisis will occur, but when…’ is what, #3? Is #4 ‘Avoid saying “No comment,” they’ll think you have something to hide…’? ‘Own your mistakes…’ surely deserves a numeral. How about 7? 

Number 1, arguably, is Warren Buffett’s: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” 

Have you attended a PR trade event where that adage wasn’t mentioned? For most crisis pros, it’s sufficient to utter only, “As Warren Buffett says….” Nearly everyone in the room knows the rest.

For authors of books about the basics of  PR crises, the challenge isn’t finding new material. It’s conveying foundational ideas, which haven’t changed much, in new and compelling ways.

 Fortunately, veteran communicator T.J. Winick does this in “Reputation Capital: How to Navigate Crises and Protect Your Greatest Asset,” 206 pp. Berrett-Koehler. $33.95. 

And, yes, he knows “how to tell ‘em right.”     

 It’s not that crisis communication and protecting reputation remain static. On the contrary, though most basics have changed little, the nuances of good crisis practice evolve constantly. 

In addition, owing to digital technology and social media, the pace of crisis and reputation work (and pretty much everything else in PR) is much faster than just a few years ago. 

Indeed, Buffett admits the above-mentioned five-minute ruination is closer to five seconds now. 

Cyber’s New Material

And cyber has injected a slew of new best practices into crisis communication’s canon.

For instance, it’s important for communicators to know that media who regularly cover cyber are unlikely to be the industry reporters who create content about your company and sector.

Wisely, Winick offers useful insight about cyber. And his book’s theme, the importance of guarding reputation, is particularly apt at this moment as companies, customers and investors increasingly emphasize ESG, trust and other reputation-related elements. 

Something that sets this book apart from others is the author’s motivation. It seems clear his goal is imparting knowledge. Each chapter includes a review of main themes and several real-world examples, drawn from Winick’s days as in PR and as a journalist.

Moreover, there’s a humility in Winick’s pages missing in other books, where PR pros/authors seem most interested in telling war stories promoting themselves and their firms. 

And more humility. Winick admits early on that cherishing the public’s trust will not always make a company successful. In fact, some that ignore reputation may thrive.

On the other hand, once he’s presented these caveats Winick raises the example of Facebook (Meta), a juggernaut despite fumbling PR crises and seemingly ignoring anything but profits.

In February, Facebook set a record for the largest one-day value drop in stock market history. The takeaway is obvious.