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The Strategy Room

AmCham Germany Convenes Panel to Suggest: Don’t let a Virus Infect Your Reputation

By: Peter V. Stanton

As Covid-19 upends the normal order of corporate communication, businesses and organizations around the world face new challenges in how, when and in what manner to communicate with vital stakeholders.  That challenge and its unique dimensions for companies in Germany and the United States was the focus of a panel discussion convened by the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany and featuring panelists from both sides of the Atlantic including members of the Stanton team.

Central to the discussion was the reality that while most organizations and businesses have some sort of crisis communication plans in place, few, if any, were adequately prepared for a circumstance of this complexity and magnitude.  The result for some very well-respected brands has been a need to rebuild the luster their reputations formerly enjoyed as a result of ill-conceived actions or statements.

Panelists described how in Germany, sportswear giant Adidas announced record profits then almost immediately acted to withhold rent payments for its retail outlets.  The corporation seized upon the opportunity to take advantage of a German emergency measure to protect small retailers who could not pay rent as a result of lost business and forced closures from being evicted from their stores.   The ensuing outcry from customers and others pushed Adidas to make an unprecedented apology on its web site and in the media following a bruising attack on the brand.

By comparison, companies adopting a more transparent and open approach to communication receive praise and support on social platforms and in the press.

AmCham panelists included Donna Leinwand, former Managing Editor of USA Today and current Chair of the National Press Foundation and Sabrina Fritz of Leiterin Wirtschaftsredaktion, SWR.  Both commented on how journalists in this crisis seek out the human dimension, the impact on average workers and communities, and evidence of a company’s empathy toward those most affected.

Each made the point that this is not a time for companies to refrain from media outreach, but to ensure their stories are reflective of the company’s efforts to address society’s needs during this crisis.  If companies adopt even modest measures to help others, the media are interested in knowing about it.

Other panelists including Stanton’s own Lori Russo and partners Meike Grisson and Christian Josephi offered key ideas all communicators need to consider:

Prevent Paralysis

Even in some of the largest corporations and organizations, the communication team can be fairly small – and they often serve as the coordinators of regional and even global communications professionals and consultants.  If everyone is speaking, the system locks up and paralysis sets in.  Establish systems for outreach.  Begin where you communicate most – with employees.  Tell them what you know, what you are working on and how you will continue to provide updates and more as developments unfold.  Use these communications as the basis for expanded outreach to customers, communities, regulators and others.

Leverage Your Culture

You may not have a crisis plan specifically designed for this emergency, but you do have corporate values. Let those values frame your development of Guiding Principles for Communication.  Too often, crisis teams assemble and argue over the answer to “Now what?”  If you know you will communicate in accordance with a set of standards and ethics that have been debated before trouble strikes, you at least have a framework for how you will speak both internally and externally.  If those principles are, for example:

– We will deliver messages promptly and accurately;

– We always will express empathy for those affected;

– We will strive to maintain consistency;

– We will demonstrate socially responsible action.

Then any debates are not about “how” you will conduct our communications, which too often is where companies make mistakes that injure reputations.

Connect With Communities AND Local Media

The locations where you operate are as important as any other constituencies a company may have.  Your community may see you as a good corporate citizen, important local employer, and a valued contributor to the larger economy.  Speak to the community about your local actions, your support for employees, or even just your awareness that local suppliers, retailers and citizens are important to you. Likewise, engage with your local press.  They can be a valued channel to people who make decisions about your business.  Despite all the political controversy about “Fake News” the media prove their incredible value especially during a crisis when the public turns first to local radio, television and newspapers for essential information

Be Ready to Communicate

Templates, tools and lists should never be overlooked.  Communication teams beginning with a blank sheet of paper inevitably struggle.  A standby statement prepared in advance may need significant revision, but better that than drafting from scratch under pressure.

AmCham Germany convened its program as an E Business After Hours web conference for Chamber members from around the country.  This demonstrated the importance of the topic to enterprises large and small.  It surely will not be the last in the group’s focus on highly effective communication during this and future crises.




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