The rise of written press statements is the fall of your reputation

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Long gone are the days of actual media interviews, where reporters contact an organization and the organization responds with a designated spokesperson by telephone or a pre-taped/live in-person interview to provide perspective. If interviews, particularly on the more challenging issues aren’t extinct, they certainly are endangered. Emailed statements or social media posts are in vogue, and this is the new normal.

Why is this you might ask? In some cases, it’s expediency and managing a high volume of media inquiries, but 99% of the time it’s about managing risks – in this case legal risks, or to a lesser extent financial risks.

As a communications professional, and spokesperson, I’ve been there myself. On a high-profile issues management file, a media outlet actually referenced that “Leadbetter being unavailable for comment will be etched on his tombstone.” Not a flattering depiction, you might think. I’d agree. It didn’t benefit me or the organization to be seen as unavailable for comment. The implication being that you have something to hide. This is where reputational risks can be very damaging, with the unfortunate by-product being you lose the opportunity to balance out a story.

While in many of these cases you will mitigate the legal or financial risk to your organization by not being available for comment, you will exponentially increase the reputational risks. This is particularly more acute in the age of COVID-19. It’s a minefield of potential risks if you don’t prioritize your reputation first and foremost.

The trifecta of risks

While I’ve alluded to types of risks above, they can be generally categorized into three areas — financial, legal or reputational risks. In the age of COVID-19, health and safety risks are becoming more topical and prevalent as well.

The challenge for most organizations is that they see these types of risks as mutually exclusive. They zero in on the financial or legal implications of a decision or action and see reputation as secondary, or an abstract concept they needn’t worry about. I’m here to say that you couldn’t be more wrong if you follow this approach.

1. Framing financial risks

We know that the financial impacts of COVID-19 are far-reaching for all of us. Government stimulus spending and deficits are through the roof, companies (both big and small) are seeing significant declines in revenue, and temporary layoffs or permanent staff downsizing has become the norm. With the rise of these significant financial impacts has also been a corresponding increase in organizations attempting to minimize these financial risks – by not talking about them in any depth.

You’ve likely seen written press statements splash across television screens, or company memos shared on social media channels when workforce reduction announcements are made. What you haven’t seen with a lot of these announcements is an actual human speaking to the rationale of these decisions. This is known as ‘duck, cover and wait’ and while it does mitigate your immediate financial exposure, it exponentially amplifies your reputation risk and how people (aka the general public and consumers) view your organization. It comes across that a) you lack empathy, or b) that you have something to hide. Or even worse c) both.

An alternative and risk-managed approach in this instance would be to target select media outlets with broad regional or national syndication and reach across print, radio, television and digital platforms and do limited media outreach. It’s targeted and low risk, and it also serves a broader commitment to transparency, while showing empathy to those impacted by your decisions. This approach will also likely have positive long-term financial implications, as we know negative hits to your reputation will adversely impact your bottom line.

2. All risks are not legal

It’s an unfortunate reality, but COVID-19 has given public and private sector organizations both opportunity and license to frame all risks as legal risks. This is bad for transparency. Let me explain.

Most large organizations operate in a default mode that is afraid of lawsuits or the possibility or some type of legal action. This has increased significantly in the era of COVID-19. From liability waivers for university students to class action lawsuits launched against long-term care homes, the rise of legal risks inevitably means a further decline of transparency. That will impact your reputation.

When legal risks are flagged by an organization, you will see an exponential increase in ‘no comment’ or ‘we do not comment on matters before the courts or those that could be before the courts.’ And, if they do comment it will be by email statement. What you won’t see is a spokesperson or c-suite executive for the organization. My view is that this is a lost opportunity to speak to your organizational values and what matters to you. The reputational risk outweighs the legal risk. Your lawyers will argue the reverse.

3. All risks are reputational

I suspect my bias is clear by this point, and that it doesn’t come as a shock that reputation (and reputational risk) is the lens through which organizations should evaluate challenging issues and their corresponding communications approach.

I’m not attempting to minimize financial or legal risks; what I am suggesting is that reputational considerations must be factored in and elevated as equal in your risk assessment. Risk averse organizations tend to heavily favor financial and legal expertise, and that comes with a corresponding blind spot around reputation and how your organization is viewed by stakeholders. That’s where communications or senior public relations counsel is critical.

The demise of the media interview is collateral damage in this less is more, risk-averse, duck, dive, and dodge approach. When you flip this dynamic to focus more on transparency and doing what is seen as right or reasonable, you focus less on risk and more on positive reputation traits (those things you want to be known for). What you don’t want is being unavailable for comment to be etched on your tombstone.

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