FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

September 2, 2014

Spin Sucks-Communications Tips for the Compliance Professional

Spin SucksOne of my favorite social media acquaintances is Gini Dietrich, the founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Arment Dietrich Inc. Not only does she bring one of the freshest voices to what might arguably be called ‘one of the world’s oldest professions’, that being Public Relations (PR) (she identified a 1800 BCE PR campaign), she is a top notch cyclist and an über Chicago Bears fan. Earlier this year she released her book Spin Sucks. While the book is obviously aimed at the PR, it provides a wealth of information, which the compliance professional can also use.

As you might guess from the title of the book, Gini believes that if you “Lie or spin the truth you will be found out,” and that folks will “take you to task” for doing so. More than just your reputation will suffer; you will lose the ability to have credibility going forward. Her thesis is that today, “while media strategy is an important part of a communications program, there are many other tactics used in a cohesive strategy: content, email marketing, social media, crisis and reputation management, events, social advertising, investor relations, lobbying, regulatory work, and more.” That sounds like a good prescription for a compliance practitioner to consider in the communication function of a best practices compliance program.

The book is broken down into 10 chapters and for the compliance professional, I want to focus on Chapter 7 – Your Customers Control the Brand. Here Dietrich focuses on a company’s customers because they, in many ways, hold or control the brand. And, as a company, your brand is really all you have. I think this is very true for the compliance practitioner and is not something which is discussed or recognized enough of the time. Dietrich provides seven points that she believes can help shape the perception of your brand. I have adapted them for the compliance professional.

  1. Be Vigilant. Dietrich says this issue warrants “Not just repeating your brand message over and over again, but in monitoring and listening to conversations happening online about you.” While a company may not have as many employees communicating about the compliance function online, the point is nonetheless well taken. You should listen to concerns about your compliance program. Listen through the hotline, at training sessions and any other time you get the chance. I like the way Gini puts it, “Harness that information [and] be vigilant about paying attention”.
  2. Be Honest. Yes your mother, and Gini’s mother, was right, Honesty is the Best Policy. Dietrich says, “Keep people updated. Communicate the ups and downs. When you’re honest about the issues, challenges, or concerns, there isn’t a story to tell. It might be painful at first, but the pain won’t last as long as it would if you lie or attempt to sweep the problem under the rug.” Think about General Motors and its attempts to hide the ignition switch problems, where would the company be if it had been honest about the problem?
  3. Be Open. Dietrich nails the issue on this point when she start off, “This one is so hard. It’s difficult for human beings to keep open minds about many things.” As a lawyer, I would say that can be exponentially true for my juris docum But at the end of the day, the compliance program is not the legal department; it is a function designed to prevent, detect and remediate problems, not just to say NO. Paraphrasing Dietrich, if you show a willingness to talk about issues, and even change your policies based on feedback, you’ll create the most loyal employees.
  4. Be Active. Here Dietrich focuses not on the busy work of being on all types of social media but using such mechanisms to engage your customer base. For the compliance professional first and foremost is to get out of the corporate office and into the field. Let people meet you, get to know you and listen to their concerns. Incorporate their ideas and feedback into your compliance program going forward.
  5. Be Consistent. Gini talks about consistency in messaging because “if you aren’t consistent, how can you expect your customers to know who you are?” For the compliance professional, I would submit that this prong anticipates issues broader than simply communications. I often discuss the Fair Process Doctrine and how that is so important in administering your compliance program. One of the keys to this doctrine is consistency. The consistency of your actions should follow the consistency of your message.
  6. Be Creative. I often say that lawyers and compliance professionals are only limited by their imaginations. This is certainly true in the field of media relations. Here Dietrich suggests tackling a problem head on. In the compliance arena it might mean using a compliance misstep as a lesson learned. For instance, after the Walmart corruption scandal was broken in the New York Times, many companies incorporated the examples that arose of what is and, more importantly, what is not a facilitation payment into their training.
  7. Be Proud. Dietrich states, “Once you figure out your vision-what you want to achieve, who you want to be when you grow up-post it everywhere.” She suggests several mechanisms to make employees proud of your brand and I would submit that you could also do this in the compliance arena. You can create plaques or recognition awards for employees who shine through in compliance. She ends this section with the following, “Be proud of what you are doing and don’t be afraid to tell the world about it.” This is another message that I do not think gets enough play by compliance professionals. We bring real value to our companies and our work is something to be proud of. It should be celebrated.

Dietrich writes in a conversational style that is easy to read and digest. I found her book had some great pointers about communication, which could be very helpful to the compliance practitioner, in addition to the media relation specialist. You can purchase a copy by clicking here.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

April 22, 2013

Da Bears and 10 Steps to Managing a Front Page Crisis

Filed under: Arment Dietrich,Gini Dietrich,PR in a Crisis — tfoxlaw @ 1:01 am

Ed. Note-just to demonstrate that I do not lose all the wagers that I make on the Houston Texans, to the left you see Gini Dietrich, CEO of  founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich. Gini lost a wager to me when the Texans beat the Bears in Chicago last season and for losing her wager she had to wear a Texans shirt and write a guest post. We are all better off for the Bears loss. This is her guest point on what to do if your company faces a front-page crisis. 

In 2006, Wal-Mart was caught redhanded cheating its way through the Internet to receive attention.

Their PR firm hired actors to pretend they were traveling the country in an RV, visiting Wal-Mart locations as they drove, and blogging about their experience.

This was before anyone really realized how the social web works and many organizations were taking some risk to figure it out.

But in 2013? In 2013, there are many experts out there in the world who know what happens when you give a customer, an employee, or a journalist or a blogger a megaphone.

And yet.

Companies Embroiled in Scandal

Wal-Mart was once again embroiled in a scandal: This time with bribing Mexican authorities to receive permits and to do business in the country. And then again when their PR firm (a different one from 2006) posed as journalists at a news conference to try to persuade union workers to allow them to open a store in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Wal-Mart that deals with crisis and scandals that put them on the front page of the New York Times and every mainstream blog on the web.

Other examples abound: Applebee’sSusan G. KomenPenn StateCarnival Cruise Lines, and – most recently – Rutgers University.

If it seems like more and more of this is happening, it’s because it is. The web provides a way for stories like this to spread like grassfire. And it’s not good.

It used to be you’d hire a PR firm and have them write a crisis plan that was then put in the drawer and revisited only once a year.

Now? Now a crisis can erupt in mere seconds if someone has a bad experience with your organization.

Ten Steps for Managing a Crisis

So what happens if you end up on the front page of the newspaper?

  1. Act Swiftly. Perhaps you sell capital equipment or professional services or product packaging. Surely your organization doesn’t have any issues. In today’s digital world an employee could say something racist online. A customer could have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in whisper campaigns against you. The only way to win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or have one on speed dial), and act swiftly. Not in a week, not in a month, not in three months. In the same day.
  2. Address the problem. It’s not fun having to come out and say you screwed up or something bad has happened or you made a mistake. In fact, it kind of sucks having to do that. But it’s the only way to prevent a crisis. It’s amazing how two little words in the English language work as well as they do: I’m sorry. Not I’m sorry, but…just, I’m sorry.
  3. Communicate the story. When a story gets out of control is when you haven’t told your side and people begin to speculate. Like with Tiger Woods and the tabloids speculating he was going in and out of a sex addict clinic (he wasn’t), he hadn’t told his side of the story so they began to make things up based on what little information they had.
  4. Communicate where it happens. If an issue or crisis is exploding on YouTube, that is where you take to the waves to tell your story. When employees were caught sneezing and spitting in food on video, the Domino’s CEO recorded a video and his team posted it to YouTube. He apologized in the same spot people were looking for the employee video.
  5. Hire a communications expert. I’m not talking about someone who knows how to use social media. I’m not talking about someone who works for a company that has experienced an issue or crisis. I’m talking about someone who has deep and intense experience in managing an issue or crisis. Typically these people work in PR firms and specialize in crisis communication or reputation management. It’s unlikely a company will go through enough issues or crises in its lifetime to give someone the expertise you’ll need if something happens. If you can’t afford a communications expert, become BFFs with someone who can help you think through issues when they arise. Put them on your advisory board. If you have a paid board, add them to that. Have that person on speed dial.
  6. Think before you act. Yes, things happen in real-time. Yes, we live in a 24/7/365 world. Yes, it’s fast-paced and you have to act quickly. But that does not excuse you from thinking. When we were kids, my dad used to tell us all the time, “Don’t ever put anything in writing you don’t want used against you later.” That’s very sage advice in today’s digital world.
  7. Empower your team. Let your team help. Set the expectations and boundaries, give them the tools and resources they need to be successful, and let them at it!
  8. Say I’m sorry. I know we covered this already, but it’s worth repeating. Of course, you have to mean it and it can’t be accompanied with the word “but.” When you practice saying “I’m sorry” in your every day communications, it becomes easier to say it – and mean it – when an issue develops.
  9. Back down when you’re wrong. If you hold a position on something and someone points out there is a double standard or you’re being hypocritical, reassess your policy.
  10. Have a communications expert on speed dial. Oh I already said this, didn’t I? Whenever I repeat this to friends, colleagues, or peers, someone will text me with some smarty pants remark such as, “How quickly do you respond to communication crises?” Have someone on speed dial who has lots and lots and lots of experience with issues and crisis management. You might think you’ll never need it – and maybe you won’t – but Murphy’s Law dictates the second you don’t, something will happen. It’s like having insurance: If you have it, you won’t need it.

Because most of you do work with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and compliance and ethics, it’s highly likely you’ll have a situation like this you’ll need to manage. The next step, of course, is what to do after the fallout.

Perhaps I’ll cover that on Spin Sucks in the next few weeks…or maybe Tom will invite me back sans the Texans shirt.

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communication firm. She is the lead blogger at PR and marketing blog, Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR, a weekly podcast about  communications and social media. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is due out in November 2013. Connect with her on Google+TwitterFacebookPinterestInstagram, or LinkedIn.

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