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The Case for a Reputation Protection Model
Crisis case studies from Tylenol to BP to sports superstars.
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 by Andrew Gilman
CommCore Consulting Group

Andrew GilmanThe sports world is a long way from the romantic view espoused by the late
Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger: "The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page usually records nothing but man's failures."

Of course, the sports pages record more accomplishments than failures. But from Tiger Woods, to Title IX law suits, to scholar/athlete kleptomaniacs and coaches with their peccadilloes, the sports world has had its share of crises in the past few years. 

Back to the front pages: 2010 will go down as a bumper crop year for crisis communications. As each crisis unfolded, there were multiple references to other crises that were handled poorly or well. 

Johnson and Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol poisonings in 1982 is considered the best-in-class response of modern crisis management, and then BP, Tiger Woods and Toyota in 2009-10 provide perhaps better lessons for three decades of crisis preparation and response.

Tylenol stands for best-in-class company values, decision making, brand management and recovery. BP, Tiger and Toyota represent examples of the gravest risk of brand implosion, failure to anticipate calamities, and the media piling-on effect. 

The “big ones” are “teaching moments” for any professional sports team, athletic department or even local high school sports organization to understand reputation management, crisis anticipation, response and recovery.

To learn from current crises, and avoid or respond better to the next one, we need to explore:

• The Three Stages of a Crisis
• The Power of Checklists, and
• How the Internet changes everything

Crisis preparation and management requires a broader perspective than just a set of tips and tactics. Every organization should proactively develop a Reputation Protection Model — RPM©.  RPM is a methodology that goes beyond preparation and response; it adds a lens that views crisis preparation as an investment in an organization’s long term reputation in the eyes of its most important stakeholders. 

Reputation management won’t necessarily prevent an incident, and it can’t stop a law suit, but reputation investments and management can shorten the duration of a crisis and may change the eventual outcomes and perceptions of an organization.    


First, let’s establish: What is a crisis? How does it differ from the day-to-day emergencies we face in our business, government or organizations, and have learned how to handle?

Crises generally fall into two categories: those in which life and property are at immediate risk from disasters such as accidents, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, or explosions; and those in which a business, university, organization or individual has its brand or public standing at stake from criminal or civil charges, allegations of negligence or wrong doing, product defects, or social media rumors and innuendo.

A crisis is an event that is a game changer. It’s the emergency that escalates to a business disruption, a fatal or serious injury from a product, employee deception or fraud, a factory that explodes. Most often an emergency becomes a crisis through public exposure via the traditional media and/or social media.

And here’s an important difference between Tylenol and almost all other crises — it’s the issue of contributory negligence. Tylenol, (SARS and 9/11 may be included as well) is one of the precious few crises in which the organization involved had virtually no responsibility for the unfortunate events. 

In the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol case, the company was just minding its business when someone put poison into the bottles. No sports team wants an athlete to get in trouble. No stadium wants to disappoint its fans. But there is always some responsibility for what went wrong.     

So given the fact that human beings will make big mistakes, it’s important to know the three stages of crises:

• BSH —  Before the Crisis, aka Before Stuff Happens
• HBL —  During the Crisis, aka Hell Breaks Loose
• RRR —  After the Crisis, aka Repair Reassess Reputation

The BSH time is the time to prepare: Appoint the crisis team, monitor your potential issues, set aside resources and physical assets for a war room to guide crisis response, develop phone and email contact lists, ask questions about possible doomsday events, run simulations and repeat the process, on an as needed basis. 

There’s a reason why athletic teams have training and the same reason applies in crisis preparation. Crisis simulations are not just fire drills, or stress testing also requires a level of candor and openness to discuss the worst case scenarios. Whether we call it preventive medicine or anticipation, BSH can occasionally help prevent a crisis. The upfront BSH can help bad news from becoming worse.

HBL is the crux of the crisis maelstrom — and is driven by what appear to be mutually contradictory concepts — calm and speed. HBL works best with a tested crisis plan in place, strong antennae to gather information, rapid response capabilities and effective teamwork. 

A crisis is no longer a linear event with sequential deadlines over a 12 or 24-hour traditional news cycle. In today’s 24/7 Internet world, a crisis spreads across multiple time zones and communications platforms before you know about it.

During the first 1 to 2 hours of a crisis, the team needs to assemble and gain an initial read of facts, causes and possible responses. Medical Emergency Response personnel use the term, “the golden hour,” for the period of rapid response in a trauma situation. 

The Golden Hour doesn’t mean that success or failure in treating a patient will be determined only in the first five minutes. Until one gets a sense of the vital signs — whether it’s pulse, temperature and blood pressure, or extent of damage to people or operations in a business or organization — it’s difficult to decide on the most effective response.

Of course, the crisis can be heightened by immediate media involvement with either camera crews broadcasting or tweeters and bloggers posting.
During HBL, it’s essential to have a War Room — a central place for the crisis team. 

Nowadays it doesn’t matter whether it’s a physical location or a virtual room, or a hybrid. The important aspect is that the location is for information sharing and critical discussions either on white boards, flip charts or computer screens. 

All parties involved should have access to the information in real time. The sharing aspect often helps people see patterns and connect threads of data to make informed decisions, and create messages and communications plans.

During a really big crisis, such as Toyota, BP or GM bankruptcy, organizations might set up parallel operations and communications war rooms. A good war room runs 24/7. It has all the necessary monitoring and communicating devices.  And communicators must be in close proximity to executive leadership and operations and security personnel.

Even if experts are scattered in different locations, we advocate at least one physical room, where key crisis team members and senior executives can come in, get a quick snapshot of the information that is known, and talk face-to-face while gauging the temperature of the situation and the effectiveness of the response. 

A word of warning: don’t allow access to too many people; much of the information during a crisis is sensitive and can easily spread or be misinterpreted, and unnecessary voices can lead to a lack of decisiveness.
Transition from HBL to RRR can be as short as a few hours or several weeks. 

This year’s BP spill is an unfortunate example of inordinate time from inception of the crisis to transition to RRR.

RRR — Repair, Reassess, Reputation — is the most overlooked step and perhaps the most important part of the RPM. It’s human nature that once the immediate danger has passed, to revert to business as usual. 

Yet, a focused period of time to fix the problems that caused the crisis and developing systems and procedures to prevent a future occurrence is a value investment. 

If a faulty process caused cross contamination of foods on an assembly line, it’s worth the time to correct the problem permanently, and not put on a temporary band aid. If the crisis caused damage to a firm’s reputation, then it’s time to figure out the next steps to recover. 

Is it public and overt acts to let key stakeholders know your corrections? Is it the time to develop new drills or procedures? Is it meetings with legislators and regulators that demonstrate a fix and commitment to do better?

The Reputation Protection Model RPM © is the lens that impacts all aspects of crisis preparation and response. Besides tactical preparation, RPM involves all the day-to-day goodwill that an organization develops.  

In the old days, companies and organizations just concerned themselves with running efficiently. Now it means proactively building and maintaining key relationships — letting others know about your plans, your community service programs, safety record, charitable efforts, awards for Best Places to Work. 

All of these efforts build credibility among media, customers and stakeholders.
RPM during the crisis may take a back seat to the tactical measures of getting a situation under control. The BP ads featuring local Gulf Coast claims adjusters, however, is an example of RPM actions that the company hopes will outlast the actual fix of the leak.

RPM following a crisis is about restoring faith and trust in the organization. It can be a long and lengthy process and requires investment of people and capital.


The Checklist Manifesto, the recent book by Atul Gawande, a Harvard surgeon and a writer for The New Yorker, adds a blocking and tackling component to crisis planning and response. 

Gawande is foremost concerned with medicine and how checklists help doctors and other healthcare workers to pay attention to details, commit fewer errors and improve outcomes. 

To convince the medical community, Gawande cites examples from the construction industry and aircraft design, as well as flying to prove that checklists work. Although surgeons dislike the thought of something as basic as a checklist, when implemented and followed, the proof is in the results. 

Checklists also empower more members of a surgical team to raise issues
In preparing, start with an industry checklist for the most frequent types of crises. Is it a leak or spill, an explosion, unionization issues, supplier problems, regulatory or IT issues? On the checklist, leave room in each category for Other. (See the Mirror Principle below.)


The Internet changes everything, from how a crisis starts, to Internet-only crises, to how to manage through the Internet, and the perils and upsides of Twitter, blogs and whatever comes next. The internet basically means that we’re forever globally wired 24/7, 365.

There is no hiding, no escaping; everything is instant, searchable and scalable.  In addition, the Internet creates whole new types of crises — viral rumor mills, hacking, IT breakdowns. Suffice it to say, much like we recommend an RPM lens on crisis planning and response, all organizations should have a Web lens for planning, response and recovery.


Finally, utilize the Mirror Principle. Toyota, Tiger and BP and other recent crises all have a unique set of facts and circumstances. What happens at one university will never be exactly the same at another institution.

The Mirror Principle states that an organization must hold up the looking glass to its own issues and culture. For example, at one consumer goods company with a low-profile CEO and few operations in high risk countries, kidnap insurance is not a big issue; at a competitor with a high profile CEO and a global footprint, this type of policy is definitely a priority.

Bottom Line: Learn lessons from others, use the current bumper crop of unfortunate events to look at risks, review or create crisis plans and consider the reputation aspects of any short or long term public crisis.

Andrew D. Gilman is president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group based in Washington, DC. A reporter and lawyer, Gilman has advised on some of the critical crises of our time from Tylenol, to assisting the government of Canada during SARS, to working with law firms and clients during litigation.

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