By Kieran O’Connell

Friday 23rd November

Following Sheryl Sandberg revising her account of her knowledge of Facebook’s relationship with Definers Public Affairs, Kieran O’Connell asks how so many senior executives can still claim to be so in the dark about who they’ve hired to manage their reputation.

One of the first pieces of advice offered to a client in any crisis is to be transparent. Be honest about the scale of the problem, when you discovered it, what you have done to mitigate it and what steps you will take to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But above all, avoid doing anything that you cannot justify in the first place.

Today’s admission by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that she was aware that the tech giant had hired a communications firm to smear its rivals highlights that the sector is still struggling to act on its own advice. Practitioners have watched with a mixture of shock and awe as the social network first blamed its public affairs agency for conducting an unsupervised smear campaign, before pointing the finger at its in-house team and, finally, accepting board-level responsibility.

The UK’s comms industry will certainly be watching with interest whether the appointment of Nick Clegg can bring such practices to an end.

This is not the first case of a company damaging its own reputation through irresponsible use of public relations or public affairs (and there are striking parallels between Facebook and recent events in the UK industry). But, sadly, it will probably not be the last. This itself highlights a wider issue for PR and PA practitioners.

Over the years, corporate reputation has secured a spot on the agenda for almost every boardroom meeting. And as communication professionals, we have rightly pointed to this as a sign that the sector has grown up. So why, when crisis hits, do we still hear the excuse that company leadership was unaware of what their communications advisers were doing? And how do we stop this from happening?

First, reputation and communications should stop being thought of as its own agenda item for discussion. It permeates every discussion and every decision taken by business leaders and should form part of the planning, implementation and review of all actions taken. This, in theory, should help avoid decisions being made that become a threat later.

Second, and as far as is possible, CEOs and board directors should be included in the communications planning process. Doing this means that announcements and activities accurately represent the intent of a company while also allowing communications professionals to directly advise where reputational risks lie and how they can be avoided.

Third, external advisers must be prepared to challenge effectively and consistently at all levels. This depends on integration between consultants, in-house teams and board members, while keeping enough of a distance to provide an objective view based on a thorough understanding of the client’s business, the personalities in it and their motivations.

It is surprising how many companies still this get this wrong despite how much can be gained from getting it right: An appreciation of the impact of communication activities across a whole business; a wider variety of senior spokespeople to turn to when needed; moving PR and PA from a tactical afterthought to a strategic necessity and a much broader understanding of the nature of reputational risk and what needs to be done – or not done in the first place – to ensure it never becomes an issue.

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