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If you don’t have a crisis, just simply create one … 15/09/2011

Posted by Corneel Maes in Uncategorized.
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At least, it looks like that is what Didier Bellens, the CEO of Belgacom, thought over the weekend. And he succeeded all right. Admittedly, the man has built a reputation of seeking confrontation with his Board of Directors. But he’s gone over the top as he maneuvered himself into a deadly collision course – even with his political friends who always supported him to date. Belgacom’s week started in a very tense atmosphere as Concetta Fagard, Didier Bellens’ ‘protégée’ and self declared executive advisor was re-appointed against the veto of the Board. It’s been interesting to watch how far Belgacom’s CEO could stretch it this time with his Board of Directors. Is it courage or arrogance that drives him up this alley? Maybe revenge? One thing is for sure: Didier Bellens has not been showing great leadership here by putting his personal vendetta front and center. He’s quite a character all right. But what does he want to prove by overruling the Board of Directors and re-installing a manager who was dismissed for putting psychological terror on Belgacom’s employees. The company is facing many challenges ahead and its employees are working like hell to get there. The last thing they need is to be distracted by an unnecessary internal crisis, consciously invoked by their CEO. In a statement Didier Bellens said that Belgacom needs good people. Well, I challenge him to lead by example and start showing some respect – for his employees to start with. Tomorrow the Board of Directors of Belgacom will make a final decision about the Bellens case. Their position is decisively clear. If Bellens doesn’t draw back, the full Board will resign. Nobody needed this to be escalated to a point where it’s getting really absurd. But then again it shows how mixing up corporate and personal interests can lead straight into a crisis situation.

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Your crisis manual – dead or alive? 15/09/2011

Posted by Corneel Maes in Uncategorized.
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These days, most international companies have a crisis manual – or are at least aware that they need one. In a global market, where social media can build or kill your reputation, crisis preparedness planning has become a must-have. But then again, too many executives still feel confident that the crisis manual – readily stowed away in their top drawer – is their insurance for handling a crisis successfully.
I’ll tell you what happens “if the shit hits the fan”. The precious booklet will be outdated, contact persons and process owners have moved to different positions, procedures have changed, that updated checklist was not included yet. And when was the equipment in the crisis room tested again? Don’t even remember … Conclusion: the crisis manual is dead. No issue really in keeping it buried in that top drawer, it’s useless anyway.
Here are 5 basic rules that will help you keep your crisis manual alive and kicking:
1. Appoint an owner for the crisis manual and make that person accountable for its accuracy.
2. Do a sanity check of the crisis manual at least once every quarter. Check names, contact details, templates – and don’t forget to update the key figures in the boiler plate after your quarterly results publication.
3. Update your stakeholder databases and make sure they are accessible even when the whole ICT network has collapsed.
4. Review the decision trees, roles & responsibilities of the crisis team members and escalation guidelines after any major strategic development in your company.
5. Last but not least, talk about the existence of the crisis manual within your organization. Make sure it is included in the welcome package for new hires and integrate it into your management development training program.

Reputation management doesn’t stop when the crisis is over 05/01/2011

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Real time reputation management has substantially increased corporate risk awareness and crisis preparedness, however it can never be an insurance premium against Murphy’s Law. Accidents will happen, as they say. Unfortunately. A lot has been said and written about crisis communications, but there is an element to good crisis management that is often overlooked. And yet, it is as important as managing the crisis in the first place: what about post-crisis evaluation & learnings?

I’m a big fan of not immediately dropping the pen and sitting back as soon as the crisis situation is under control. Post-crisis evaluation is becoming even more important as we manage reputations on-line and in real time. Two intertwined aspects are important to assess, with the crisis management experience still fresh in the heads.

First of all internal processes: How did the crisis management team interact? Was initial fact finding effective and quick enough? Were initial data reliable? Did internal procedures work? Was the crisis room equipment fit for the job? What about stress resistance within the crisis team? Does the crisis communications plan need an overhaul? I could go on with more questions in the checklist.Learning from mistakes AND from things that went well will strengthen the team and the processes for a next (hopefully never occurring) event.

And then there is the outside world. How did the media do? Did our messages resonate with audiences on-line and off-line? Did we come across valuable advocates on twitter and facebook? How can we do damage repair with influential bloggers who have been voicing criticism for the past 2 weeks or 2 months? Doing that exercise – combined with on-line measuring – enhances crisis preparedness yet another nudge.

Real-time Reputation Specialty Offers Integrated Platform for Corporate Affairs 29/06/2010

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Porter Novelli today announced a new specialty created to help clients manage crises and competitive threats in the era of social media.  The agency’s Real-time Reputation Specialty is an end-to-end solution that includes everything from achieving crisis preparedness to corporate reputation repair after an incident.

The new reputation management group provides for fully integrated reputation management and is led by an integrated team of specialists in corporate communications and social media.  The group will work with Porter Novelli’s senior corporate communicators and their clients to anticipate adverse events and move rapidly – within minutes – to manage emergencies, using an integrated approach of both on-line and off-line channels and employing both conventional and digital means to mitigate possible damage to corporate reputations.

“Recent news events have demonstrated something we have seen for some time,” said Gary Stockman, CEO of Porter Novelli.  “A world where social media can damage hard-won reputations in mere minutes requires a fundamentally different way to practice crisis communications, one that pairs the speed and reach of social media itself with the insights and judgment of seasoned crisis communications specialists.”

“Consumers have become more demanding in their opinion about companies and their products and less tolerant when something goes wrong.” says Corneel Maes, Crisis Communication Expert at Porter Novelli. “Therefore companies need to manage their reputation more actively and, in case of an incident, be prepared to respond in the traditional and the social media within a very short time frame.”

Porter Novelli Real-time Reputation Specialty Offers Integrated Platform for Corporate Affairs 29/06/2010

Posted by Corneel Maes in Uncategorized.
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Porter Novelli today announced a new specialty created to help clients manage crises and competitive threats in the era of social media.  The agency’s Real-time Reputation Specialty is an end-to-end solution that includes everything from achieving crisis preparedness to corporate reputation repair after an incident.

 The new reputation management group provides for fully integrated reputation management and is led by an integrated team of specialists in corporate communications and social media.  The group will work with Porter Novelli’s senior corporate communicators and their clients to anticipate adverse events and move rapidly – within minutes – to manage emergencies, using an integrated approach of both on-line and off-line channels and employing both conventional and digital means to mitigate possible damage to corporate reputations.

“Recent news events have demonstrated something we have seen for some time,” said Gary Stockman, CEO of Porter Novelli.  “A world where social media can damage hard-won reputations in mere minutes requires a fundamentally different way to practice crisis communications, one that pairs the speed and reach of social media itself with the insights and judgment of seasoned crisis communications specialists.”

“Consumers have become more demanding in their opinion about companies and their products and less tolerant when something goes wrong.” says Corneel Maes, Crisis Communication Expert at Porter Novelli. “Therefore companies need to manage their reputation more actively and, in case of an incident, be prepared to respond in the traditional and the social media within a very short time frame.”

http://pnintelligentdialogue.be/?p=726

High time BP reviews the basic rules of crisis communications 10/06/2010

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BP keeps working its way through its worst nightmare, no doubt about that. I wonder whether they – or any of their competitors for all that matters – have ever been serious about preparing for the impossible, for the unconceivable. It may sound silly, but isn’t that what crisis preparedness is all about?  Never mess around with Murphy’s Law… And yet, it seems that the ultimate crisis scenario (a leaking well, completely out of control) was not in the crisis preparedness books at BP. Definitely not at the engineering level, let alone in the communications department.

 What we’ve seen over the past 50 days is a crippled organization, as winged as the poor pelicans and seabirds they are accountable for. While struggling to close the leaking well in a tragic trial and error engineering process, properly communicating about it seems an even bigger challenge for BP.

The company’s inability to communicate transparently about the three key questions – What happened? What are you doing about it? How will you contain the impact? – has become the story in the digital media. Twitter took over and BP has completely lost grips on its reputation and credibility by starting crisis communications off the wrong foot. It will take their so carefully built market value and brand value to an unprecedented low for a long time.

The fake BP announcement in Dutch newspapers saying “SORRY” (with an asterisk referring to a footnote reading : “but you wanted to get cheaper oil”), shows that the brand has now been completely hacked.  The world is at war against BP – as a company, as a brand, as a member of the community.   

 To me, these are the top 3 management behaviors that should never be overruled in a crisis:
1)      Be reassuring but only promise what you are sure you can deliver
2)      Say what you do and do what you say
3)      Be perceived as part of the solution, not the problem

To date, my score for BP on each of these behaviors is below average, to say the least. It’s high time BP reviews the basic rules of crisis communications and lives up to them.

The clash of the titans 23/02/2010

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Carrefour is hitting the front page of all Belgian newspapers like mad today: local Management is set to announce quite a hefty restructuring to the Works Council, probably carving out some 20 supermarkets and causing job losses for up to 1 out of 3 people. The Unions had already seen the dark cloud hanging over the company and pre-empted today’s announcement by … blocking one of Carrefour’s main distribution centers. They’re playing hard ball – following the example of AB InBev’s unions who succeeded in referring another major restructuring plan straight to the shredder machine only a couple of weeks ago. Carrefour Unions must have thought: “What a great victory that was! We can do it too!” A very worrying evolution. Especially in a country that has historically been thriving on stable, constructive social relationships for building shareholder value, customer loyalty and employee engagement. In today’s economic reality, employer/union relationships have completely diluted from what they used to be, say just one decade ago. The “constructive collaboration” has been swapped for “angry confrontation”. How come? The economic crisis has increased and emphasized the pace of an evolution that was kicked off when the decision centers in most Belgian companies moved abroad. Belgo-belgian Works Councils need to sit around the table now with senior managers that look at the business with a broader view, an open mind and an international background and experience. They talk a different kind of language. Unfortunately the Belgian Unions have missed out on that evolution as they kept holding on to their arguments “for old times’ sake”. It’s worrying, as it pollutes the whole socio-economic climate in our country , and our chances to move out of the crisis by rebuilding a strong entrepreneurial environment. Constructive dialogue is turning into the clash of the titans. Belgian Unions urgently need to rethink their license to operate. If not, more Opel Antwerp, AB InBev and Carrefour cases are bound to follow. And who will be the winners then, you think?

Boycott AB InBev 22/01/2010

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Never thought that, as former communications specialist of AB InBev, I would ever join a Facebook group that calls for a boycott on AB InBev. And yet, I did. Simply because I cannot agree with the communications strategy of the country’s largest brewer. The Brazilian management hasn’t learned a single thing from the communications issues of 2005, when they announced the closure of the Hoegaarden brewery. Already then, financial ratios were at the edge of their argumentation, as if AB InBev was being run by bankers, and not brewers. But the brewer eventually had to give in. In 2010, nothing has changed. They are making exactly the same mistake: they only think about their investors, and completely overlook the emotional aspect of their product. Beer is culture, beer is tradition, beer is all about pride, honor and loyalty. Beer is, unlike other sectors of industry, almost cultural legacy, and you simply keep your hands off it. A reorganization always has a financial aspect, but in my opinion it’s high time that AB InBev showed more empathy towards their employees. What they do now is look straight over their employees’ heads to please their investors. To Carlos Brito I would say: allow your employees their dignity. And show the rich Belgian brewing tradition the respect it deserves.  After two weeks of social unrest, AB InBev has just given in and is calling the reorganization off. But beware, history always repeats itself …

Corporate behavior: a new dimension to corporate compliance 16/10/2009

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As some careful signs of recovery from the economic crisis start to surface, the corporate world is diligently shaping up for revival and getting back to “business as usual”. Having said that, the question is whether business will ever get back to what it used to be before the Lehman collapse. Most probably not. As bankers are being accused and pursued for taking risks they didn’t even fully understand themselves while pocketing extravagant bonuses, the virus that spread through the financial sector has highlighted the interdependencies that ultimately undermined the whole global economic system. Commentators call it systemic risk: a new buzz word, these days often used and sometimes abused.

What did we learn, if anything? Do we understand what really caused the economic tsunami? How can we prevent this from happening again? Lots of theories have been developed, lots of measures proposed, discussed, adopted or rejected. Almost everybody seems to agree on three main conclusions. First and foremost: careless risk taking in banking should be made impossible. Second, good corporate governance and ethics should be the only drivers in business. And last but not least: it looks like the word “bonus” needs to be erased from corporate vocabulary. But how will we achieve that and turn around almost overnight? The remedy looks as obvious and straightforward as the analysis of the cause: we need more and better regulation, stronger control mechanisms, less loopholes – in other words: close the gap on systemic risk. Shareholders and clients need to have more transparency on what they get in return for their money. And we need to ban disproportionate remuneration packages for senior leadership.

Whilst all these ideas and objectives are very legitimate, I think we should not underestimate the risk in overregulation of the business and undervaluation of leadership capabilities. Rules and regulations are the foundation of every democratic and well functioning community, whether it’s social or business. But too many rules and too stringent regulations, as an overreaction to the financial industry meltdown and as an attempt to close each and every loophole, may well turn out to become an adverse effect. At the end of the day, what’s important now is to learn from experience, turn around and prepare for the post-crisis momentum. Business is bound to pick up sooner or later and smart companies are the ones that look ahead and take their own sustainability at hand.

In the post-crisis game, financial institutions – and by extension corporate companies in general – will need to work hard to regain and earn respect and credibility. That’s not an easy task. Especially in finance but in other sectors too, a lot of reputational damage has occurred and it will require years of hard work to get some brands back to where they stood 15 months ago. It’s a challenge, one that cannot be achieved by merely complying with the newly enforced regulation, not even if compliance were 200%.

The roadmap to earning confidence in the post-crisis world is walking the talk. By actually evidencing the “R” of responsibly taking  in CSR, by demonstrating ethical behavior in business dealings, by being transparent on corporate governance and decision making processes, by maintaining an intelligent dialogue with shareholders, customers and employees. Believe me, those companies that comply with the new rules and regulations will be good in class. Those who act upon them and live and breathe the substance of these rules will become best in class. Corporate behavior, as a new dimension to corporate compliance. Nice word play, I agree – but to me it’s the benchmark against which corporate brands and their leadership will be perceived, valued and rewarded in the post-crisis economic environment. Compliance is a  non negotiable, corporate behavior is what creates trust and differentiates companies that move ahead of the pack, in any given industry.

Easier said than done? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on how effectively companies and their leadership communicate with their audiences – directly and indirectly, in speech and in behavior. In the current social media explosion, stakeholders – friends and foes – increasingly serve as multipliers of their own perception – good or bad – about the company. And perception is reality. The recent “hype” around Fortisgate is a good example of the damage that horizontal influencing can do to a company.

As we move out of the crisis, we need to make sure that the current regulatory groundwork serves as the solid foundation for reconstruction, but also as the fertile soil in which responsible behavior can grow and be cultivated. If you look at the financial services industry, the focus is very much on going “back to basics”. Retail banking – and savings banks – are bound to revive, whilst for decades they were considered second tier as compared to the “real”, more sophisticated banking practices. I just hope that back to basics doesn’t mean “back to the past”.  In itself there is nothing wrong with sophisticated bank products and financial services – what matters is how bankers deal with them: there lies a world of corporate responsibility between “over the counter hard selling” and “empathic face-to-face advisory”.

Coming back to remuneration packages – and bonuses – they have become such a sensitive topic lately, but shouldn’t we at least have the courage to reconsider going back to basics too? I just wonder. At the end of the day, what’s the harm in rewarding a handful of truly visionary leaders who think long term, act long term and inspire thrust and confidence through their responsible behavior? The share price (or perceived brand equity) of a company is the present price tag for its future (financial) value creation potential. Everybody will agree to that. I leave it as food for thought, but wouldn’t it be great if the post-crisis “management bonus” would be the price tag for transparency, ethics, sustainability, talent management and forward thinking?

Shareholders are getting a stronger voice 07/07/2009

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As the traditional high season of shareholders’ meetings has concluded, it looks like the season was a lot more animated that in previous years. A new trend has kicked off and communications professionals at listed companies better learn and pick up. Nowadays, shareholders want to be heard, they take the floor, as a matter of speech but also quite literally. The obviously respectful consent that until recently marked so many shareholders’ meetings has now turned into critical questioning, deliberate no-voting and in some cases it even escalated into physical violence.  Admittedly, what happened at Fortis in Brussels remains the exception to the rule, but it typically evidences how easily shareholder frustration and disappointment can ecalate into violence. Whether this is entirely attributable to the sophisticated schemes of business lawyers such as Mr. Modrikamen is very much questionable. Fact is that, in the wake of the crisis, there is a lot of underlying negative energy. It all boils down to the broken confidence in companies that until recently were considered as the most secure investments. But confidence has gone.

KBC Bank and Shell are just two examples of companies that recently experienced the impact of lacking confidence from their investor base. Shell Directors were denied their bonus as the company had not reached its 2008 target. Who would have ever thought that just 2 years ago, shareholders would vote against a bonus? They wouldn’t even dare… KBC learned a hard lesson when they missed warning their shareholders’ meeting about upcoming bad news. Two weeks after the shareholders’ meeting the news came out and Euronext saw the most spectacular share price drop in its history.

The big challenge for corporate communications and investor relations professionals is to restore confidence and that is easier said than done. The world has changed and investors have grown to be more explicit, more outspoken, more conscious and concerned about the risks of their investment. Even if the audience is very fragmented, they all have one common concern: learn how to trust again. It will take time, lots of time and efforts as serious damage has been done.

I tell you, the communications profession has to learn from experience and face up to the new reality. I see three major objectives for any senior PR and IR professional:
1) earn confidence again
2) be capable of meeting with the audiences, including institutional investors, where they meet and communicate amongst eachother: at blogs, in media article comments, on Facebook and Twitter
3) succeed in driving senior leadership into the world of social media with its  new, different communication techniques

In many perspectives, the third challenge will by far prove to be the most diffricult one. Coaching of senior management will become a major “asset” for today’s PR and IR people. Investors and other stakeholders have found their way into the new channels and the corporate world will have to follow. If we, communciations professionals, fail to lead our Senior Leadership into the new world of social media, we may eventually face a disconnect with our audiences.  Using the new media or at the very least being aware of them, is what we owe our shareholders, our customers, our employees.

Have you tweeted your company’s financial results? Do you have a web place that aggregates all relevant news about your company in one single screen? Do you have an on-line facility that allows investors to ask questions in real time? Can you easily track what is being said and written about your company, about your brands, about your performance out there on the internet? Do you really want to know? Well, I can show you how.