[Editor’s Note: We jumped at the chance to interview Ambassador Francisco Santos Calderón, who has done enough for several lifetimes. In addition to his most recent position as Colombia’s Ambassador to the US (2018-2021), Ambassador Santos served two terms as vice president of Colombia (2002-2010).
In addition, he spent 25 years as an editor at El Tiempo, a leading Colombian newspaper. He also wrote for El País, Spain’s top paper. He also was a 1992 Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
In 1990, the Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel kidnapped him, holding Santos captive for eight months. After gaining his freedom, he founded Fundación País Libre, an organization that assists family members of kidnapping victims. Later, he lived in exile after learning a guerrilla unit planned his murder.
Earlier this year, Ambassador Santos joined the Global Situation Room in Washington, D.C., as EVP, where he’ll counsel companies and countries about reputation.
Though he admits some companies make mistakes, he believes “most” are a net positive for society. As such, they need to broadcast their good work en route to bolstering corporate reputation.
Moreover, he’s a firm believer that Ukraine has closed the debate on whether or not companies should take public stances on politics and social issues. "It's a new world for companies [on political issues particularly]," he says. Ukraine, Santos adds, is a "game changer."
Getting insight on political and social issues and preparing for various scenarios is the best insurance policy companies can have against PR crises and political and economic instability, he adds.
We spoke with the Ambassador on March 8, 2022, in Miami Beach. His remarks were lightly edited.]
PRNEWS: How will your varied background help as you work on improving reputation with companies, countries and organizations?
Ambassador Santos: During my eight years (2002-2010) working on human rights, I dealt with so many companies that were being manhandled in terms of reputation.
My surprise was they would not defend themselves. And I said, ‘Geez. You have a story to tell. You’ve got to do it.’ So, I ended up doing a lot of that work for them.
PRNEWS: Such as?
Ambassador Santos: The Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Colombia. And the coal companies in Colombia.
PRNEWS: And what did you learn from all this?
Ambassador Santos: Companies have to push back. It’s their main problem. They’re letting others create their narrative.
The world has changed a lot since 2010. But in the area of companies talking about themselves, it hasn’t changed enough. Companies are great at making and selling products, but most companies don’t like to talk about the all the good things they do. They seem ashamed.
PRNEWS: For example?
Ambassador Santos: They create jobs and wealth. Most companies do good things for society. Let employees tell your story.
PRNEWS: But do the good work first on social issues before you talk about it, right?
Ambassador Santos: Oh, absolutely. Honesty is essential. If you’re not, they’ll find out about it and you’ll be in a big mess.
PRNEWS: What else do you advise companies?
Ambassador Santos: Narratives can be so damaging to companies. So, you need to anticipate events and plan for the future. A scenario, B scenario, C scenario. But companies don’t do that.
The more they understand this world has changed and the more they understand what happens in Ukraine will impact your business here in the US…you’ll have to respond to the political climate.
PRN: More and more it’s becoming common sense that companies must take a stand.
Ambassador Santos: Yes. What’s happening in Ukraine is amazing. We’ve never seen so many companies leave a country [like Russia] with such a profitable market.
But, the question ahead is, 'OK, you left Russia. Will you leave China?' I’m not saying this because companies [that left Russia] are doing the wrong thing. They’re doing the right thing. I’m just saying they must prepare for new scenarios. Why did you do this [in Russia] and you’re not doing this [in China]?
What you’re seeing is something Democrats believed for a long time, that companies should have values, like people. 10 years ago, money didn’t have values. Now, it’s starting to have values. So, it’s a globalization of values. It’s no longer what it was. Companies are going to have to plan for a different world.
PRNEWS: A theoretical question. If the Beijing Olympics were held six months from today and with all we’ve seen with companies leaving Russia, would, for instance, Coca-Cola participate in the Olympics?
Ambassador Santos: Probably not. [Ukraine] has been a game changer. China sees what’s happening. If something [very bad] happens in China and companies pull out, they’ll have 200 million unemployed people in a week. That’s a huge social mess. So, for the first time in history, business is driving values, not the other way around.
PRNEWS: Why is this happening now? Is it social media? Is it the personality of Zelenskyy? Is it because Russia looks so wrong?
Ambassador Santos: I have no doubt it’s social media. 20 years ago [a country] could massacre 100,000 civilians and nobody would know. Today, you’d see the pictures. Marshall McLuhan’s theory is becoming reality. You are seeing your world right in front of your nose. Companies need to prepare for this, from many angles.
For example, companies will have to understand that what happened to Russia could happen to them if they don’t understand the world they live in. In addition, they must prepare for crisis.
PRNEWS: I own a company that makes agricultural products, let’s say. What should I prepare for?
Ambassador Santos: Monitor [the global situation, your industry and the competition], so you can prevent [a potential issue]. You should have a team in-house or contractor team to help you handle a crisis that is brewing. The earlier you anticipate a crisis, the less it will cost you. And, obviously, you have to prepare for crises that you can’t anticipate. Look at Ukraine and COVID; they were unanticipated.
PRNEWS: Will the example of Ukraine prompt businesses to prepare for crisis?
Ambassador Santos: I certainly hope so, though money has a short memory. Still, companies that don’t learn from this example are running a very risky operation. I wouldn’t invest in them. You must anticipate, anticipate, anticipate and plan for many scenarios. Even a very strong company can go away very quickly.
PRNEWS: Another scenario. My company has limited funds. What should I do first to prepare for the next five years?
Ambassador Santos: Make sure the leaders of your company understand how the world’s changed. Your company may be great at selling products to people, but not so good at understanding how the political environment might change your business. So, get the best experts you can afford to give your leaders a one-day seminar in the new world you’re living in.
PRNEWS: There are a slew of issues in the world. If I’m a communicator at a company, what issue should I recommend leadership address first?
Ambassador Santos: Wow, that’s a big question. The first thing I’d look into is the political environment in every country you work and those of your suppliers. How could that change your business? How could it change your values?
And by the political environment I mean everything, Russia, China, Ukraine, defund the police. For example, look at the U.S.; it’s so polarized that anything could happen. You have to prepare for it.
PRNEWS: Some companies are doing this, though.
Ambassador Santos: Yes, they are, but not with the depth or help they need.
PRNEWS: Your remit involves corporate reputation. Why is reputation so important?
Ambassador Santos: Because you can have a great company, but. So, you have a great company like Facebook, but… or a great company like Google, but… You have to manage those buts. Your goal in reputation management is to have no buts. And you can measure that.
Buts provide the fuel for future problems. Yet many of those companies don’t want to address the buts because it’s part of the core business and it’s where they make their profits. Yet, look what’s happening in Congress with those companies.
PRNEWS: As a former politician, what are you bringing to your work in PR and reputation management?
Ambassador Santos: My background in journalism helped me in politics. I had 25 years in journalism. And when I was in a policy discussion in politics, I was able to detect the BS. That was very helpful. That’s still a tool that helps in everything I do.
So, when I’m advising a company to get experts to help them, I would be able to dig deep into the backgrounds of experts. Being a critical journalist helps. It’s a mindset.
In addition, not every journalist can do this. But, really good ones can look at something and immediately know where he problem is. They don’t have solutions generally, but they know where the problem is, because that’s part of our training.