In today’s podcast, we’re joined by Bill Coletti – a highly experienced and sought-after reputation management strategist and speaker. Get ready for a deep dive session into the world of corporate crisis management.
About Bill Coletti
Bill Coletti is a reputation management, crisis communications, and professional development expert. Additionally, he is a keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments, The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.
Bill has provided senior counsel in crisis management, corporate communications, and reputation defense to numerous clients including AT&T, Target Corporation, American Airlines, The Home Depot, Xerox, Nuclear Energy Institute, Cargill, as well as major universities and global NGOs. Previously, Bill served in the Republic of Bulgaria as Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister, Council of Ministers, and the Labor Minister. He was the first Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria.
Bill founded Kith Academy, an online training center to help corporate communicators show up and be present in a crisis.
Read the Transcript
Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and executive coach, Allison Dunn. When relationships are critical to your business, your reputation is one of the most important assets you manage. in today’s podcast, we’re joined by Bill Coletti, who is the author of Critical Moments and a highly experienced reputation management strategist and speaker. So get ready for a deep dive discussion in the world of corporate crisis management. Bill, thank you so much for joining us here today.
Bill: Allison, I’m excited to have a great conversation with you, so it should be a good time.
Allison: Me too. Thank you. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. So my question for you is what would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners?
Bill: I’m a big believer in direct feedback. I think that it’s a little bit old and dated, but that notion of one-minute manager of giving really clear feedback really sort of demonstrates our leadership. I’ve got a little model that I use to try to do that, that I find is really valuable is you sort of reference here’s what I observed, here’s the impact that it has on me and here’s a recommendation. And so really giving clear and deliberate feedback I find to be a valuable leadership tool.
Allison: Thank you for sharing the model. That was going to be my next question. I feel like when we start a conversation with here’s what I’ve observed is it’s not a blame and then to get an understanding if there’s an awareness there. So, awesome tip. Thank you very much, Bill.
Allison: Critical Moments is focused around reputation management and so my question is how does a corporate crisis impact a company’s reputation?
Bill: As you know, it really depends on a lot of different factors, but fundamentally, I believe that companies own their brand, but the public owns their reputation. And so when we think about a company and their brand, they can control what we would consider to be “classic” marketing. They can control their price; they can control the features and benefits of the product. If they’re retail, they can impact the experience that someone has, whether you use content marketing. So there’s all kinds of things you can do to sort of control purchasers, primarily people that are going to buy or you’re trying to attract to buy. Those are related to your brand. And so a company owns its brand and have all those levers that they can control. But it’s the public that controls your reputation. And so when we think about BP – British Petroleum – and the accident in the Gulf of Mexico, I don’t shop at BP simply because it’s just not convenient. It’s not on my way home. There’s a Shell station and a Valero down here in Texas that’s just more convenient, and so I’m not a customer of theirs. I don’t have an economic relationship with them, but I have a strong opinion about their reputation and what they do.
So having a strong reputation, whether you are big business, small business, an individual – it also is directly related to individual leaders – it gives you a handful of different things. One is that you maintain your license to operate. All of us, whether we’re small business owners, freelancers, large business owners, we want to be able to grow and run and do the things we want to do in our business with a license to operate. BP had their license to operate brought into check, and as they decided to add new offshore oil facilities, more people turned a little bit of a cocked eye and asked a question and said, are we sure we want to do that with those guys?
So having a strong reputation and crises impact reputations allows you to have a license to operate. In a B2B context, I believe companies with stronger reputation, they break ties and we’re learning now from an employment standpoint is that our new emerging workforce in a very constrained labor pool is that people are wanting to work with high reputation firms. People, not just that they’ve got a great business relationship with, financial relationship, but people that they just like the way they operate in society. So those are three benefits that companies get from having a strong reputation.
Allison: I agree. Very much so. I’m curious if you’re willing to share some ideas as how can companies, if we don’t own our reputation, but it is an incredible asset that makes a difference in employment and the permission to operate side of things. What is it that we can do to impact that best? How do you demonstrate that?
Bill: There’s a lot of different ways to look at it. You can look at it in a sort of bumper sticker, simple kind of way. Just be good. Just be good, do good. There’s a whole lot embedded in that little bumper sticker, but just be good. I think companies need to just act like humans, act like neighbors. If you and I were neighbors and I asked to borrow your chainsaw and I never returned it, I’m shaping my reputation with you. Or I was dishonest about damage to a lawn mower that I borrowed as a neighbor. Companies need to act that same way with their stakeholders, people that matter to them in their marketplace. So that’s one simple way.
I think what we’re seeing is that reputation, while generally regarded as a soft asset, in mergers and acquisitions it’s actually represented by goodwill, so there is actually a financial articulation about the value of reputation represented by goodwill. But there’s also an aspect of what a really strong reputation, the way you can work on it. It used to be we used to think about our employees as a cost center. Now we all think about our employees as key critical assets, and we have departments, HR departments, employee retention departments, people worried about employee engagement in our companies. That’s because they took a management paradigm the same way that you would manage inventory. They brought some of those practices to working with humans.
I see the emerging future for corporate communications in corporations is for them to create models and systems, and that’s one of the things I tried to talk out in the book is that how can you instill a model and a system to manage reputation, which is generally perceived as soft. I think that if you go a little bit deeper than the bumper sticker of just do good, there’s actually a way that it can be managed and rationalized, and it’s not just a big black hole where you have to do good things for everybody in society. You can actually be a little bit thoughtful and strategic about it.
Allison: Is there a particular tool or process that you use or recommend for people to measure their reputation?
Bill: Well, all of us have struggled with social media, social media monitoring to really get sentiment right. It’s really difficult to understand. That was the bomb and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, and so sometimes sentiment is difficult. The first way you could do it is by just keeping your eyes and ears open, and in the book, that’s one of the As that I talk about – this notion of awareness. Just open your eyes and be engaged in your community. Be engaged and just say what are people saying about me, and what’s there?
The more classic way to do it is an assessment. Actually go do surveys, do survey research, different than what we would traditionally do around customer satisfaction. Did you like your experience? Did you find favor in it? You’ve gotten those surveys all the time, I’m sure from credit card companies and places you visited and what not. But to go a little bit deeper from a non-financial engagement, how can you sort of assess where you stand? So you can do it anecdotally just by popping your head up and saying wonder what folks are saying to me, talking to your people. That’s a great way to do it, your ambassadors, your employees, but you can also then buy it, pay for it and actually do some research to determine your reputation.
Allison: I appreciate that. What would you say are the mindsets and behaviors that separate leaders that perform the best in crisis situations?
Bill: So having done this for a really long time, I’ve determined the difference between good and great crisis response is speed. Being fast. You need to fill the marketplace. So if you are in crisis and you find your organization’s reputation in jeopardy, being fast to meet the expectations of the public and fill that void of information. You can’t just be fast for fast sake. I believe that it’s an equation and what I think the equation is speed equals your mission and values plus your chain of command. So it’s speed equals the sum of what you stand for, what you believe in and how you make decisions. And so the mindset and behavior, I think of great leaders is one, they recognize that speed is of the premium and they have to operate sometimes with imperfect information. And that is a little bit different than a lot of us try to run our businesses as we try to gather as much information as we can and make perfect decisions.
In crisis and in reputation-threatening situations, being perfect is really difficult, because things are moving very, very fast. Mission and values, and Allison, I’m sure you’ve done this with clients and folks, you get the collective eye roll around let’s do a mission and values that sort of work on what we stand for, what do we believe in, it’s really critical. It’s really important because it makes you faster. If I know this matters to me, these are the crown jewels. This is the DNA level of my organization. It lets me make faster decisions because I understand what really matters.
And then how do we make decisions? Chain of command. Crisis – legal is often involved in this. Subject matter experts are often involved in this. Outside advisors like me, your Board of Directors, the CEO’s partner. There’s lots of different dynamics in the way we make these decisions and so let’s understand that. The mindset and behaviors that really distinguish great leaders is one, they know how to be fast, two, they know what they stand for, and three, they’ve got a very clear sense of who they can trust and who their chain of command is? How do they make decisions?
Allison: Okay, great. I don’t know if this sounds like an odd question, but how do you know whether you’re in a crisis or not, or whether it’s just a critical moment and how to tell the difference?
Bill: Oh, Allison, that’s not an odd question. It’s a great question. I think this definition and defining “smoke versus fire”, that’s kind of the way that I would sort of articulate it. Determining smoke versus fire is really just a refined skill at the meta level of experience. I’ve done it for so long now that you’ve got pattern recognition. I have a sense of if I see a circle and a square and a triangle, and then I see a circle and a square, I’m pretty confident I’m going to see a triangle next. And so your pattern recognition is one way. But without having to go through a myriad of corporate issues and the failings of different entities, some of the best ways that organizations can do it is a simple tactic to pull out the newspaper or a trade publication – Wall Street Journal, New York Times -, and say if this had happened to us, how would we respond and dialogue around it in your industry.
Now, an airline, customer facing airline, a hotel chain, because you’ve got lots of people coming in and out, those very relatively similar industries, they have lots of things that are crises. People die in hotels all the time, but if we were a lumber manufacturer and someone died on our yard, that’s kind of a big deal, different context. It’s just a natural event. If you’ve got a bunch of hotel rooms, people die, and that’s obviously a tragedy.
The second way to do it is really get clear about your industry, your business, and that helps you determine smoke versus fire. I’ve been at cocktail parties or at church gatherings and people ask, what do you do professionally? And I tell them what I do. And they said, oh my gosh, we were having a conference and the printer failed to deliver our programs on Sunday afternoon before the event started. I know exactly what you mean. That’s a crisis. And I’m like, okay, that’s not a crisis. That is a business problem and you need to find a better printer. That’s not a crisis, but in that moment, that’s their crisis. That’s their thing.
So the tools for defining it are one, practice and just awareness. Feeling and experiencing your sensitivities to it, thinking about your industry. A law firm versus an airline company have different thresholds of risk. They have different experiences. And so that will really help you determine smoke versus fire. And then lastly, back to social media. It’s a good tool; it’s not a great tool. You get a lot of false positives, a lot of trolls, and a lot of haters are going to hate, but that goes back to training and thinking about how do we evaluate this situation and look at the tragedy of someone else, unfortunately, but say, if this had happened to us. That’s a great practice.
Allison: I appreciate your suggesting that a good way to actually form as a team is to talk about how you do address what has happened to other people, and what you would do differently. That’s awesome. Good tip.
Allison: So let’s say a crisis has actually happened. What are the keys to a crisis success?
Bill: Well, clearly speed. You have to have your foot on the gas, and so you have to think about that. How are we going to be fast? How are we going to make ourselves faster? Three things that we think are critically important and what you want when a crisis happens, you want to be crisis confident. The phrase I love is that the crucible of crisis doesn’t develop your skillset; it reveals it so you will see how you do in that situation and that’ll either make you fast or slow, or you really will get confused about your mission and values because you don’t really live it and any number of other things. We think that it’s speed, it’s clarity and it’s trust.
And so if you can focus on those three things: speed, how fast can we move information? How fast can we find out smoke versus fire? Your excellent question. How can we figure out, how can we be fast about that? Clarity, who matters? Who are we going to respond to? What do we stand for? And then trust, do I trust that my systems are in place? Do I have a plan? Have we written some initial planning documents? Have we thought about this?
Most risks are knowable. You can know most risks. CoVid, while it seems sort of like this existential risk that immediately showed up for all of us, there were a lot of people thinking about pandemics for a long time, before you and I had to deal with of it over the past couple of years. And so most risks are knowable and that fits into trust and fits in that understanding. So if you can get speed, if you can get clarity and you can get trust and unpack those, I think that’s how organizations respond better.
A more practical, less theoretical tip is that it is okay to say we don’t know yet at this point, but we will get back to you in an hour, in a day, in a week, or whatever is relative to context. It’s okay to operationalize partial information. You don’t have to be perfect. None of us typically are trained to do that or trained to sort of perfect information and then share it. That’s a keynote speech. We perfect information and we share it, but sometimes you have to go with what you got and live to fight another day.
Allison: I think that hopefully our listeners are taking that as a sincere tip. It is okay not to know what to do in certain situations and to say that.
Allison: And not shoot from the hip, because that can get you into a ton of trouble.
Bill: Absolutely, and more self-inflicted wounds that I get forced to solve. It’s rarely the primary incident that gets folks in trouble. It’s the way they respond, like sort of the classic Watergate. It wasn’t the break in that was a big deal. It was the cover up that got everybody in trouble, and that’s usually pretty consistent for some of these larger issues we deal with.
Allison: Thank you for that. What can our Deliberate Leader listeners learn from large companies about crisis management?
Bill: I think the thing that deliberate leaders and that’s what’s so exciting is being deliberate about it is to actually plan and to actually prepare and simulate. What if this had happened to us is a basic form of simulation. That’s a training exercise. And so to gather a leadership team and say what if is a great exercise? The other exercises we can do; you can work with someone who can help you do a simulation where you can actually model a simulation. You can actually think about your personal take on smoke versus fire. What do I think is a big deal? What would really impact my reputation? What’s my sensitivity to trolls or haters on the internet, and how am I going to respond to them or not respond to them?
But I think what you can learn from big companies is that a) they plan and prepare. They write things down because they’re thinking about these things. Two is, they dedicate of resources – primarily human resources, people – to try to solve these problems. And three, they do some sort of training, planning exercise, or thinking while the sun is out. Not just thinking while they’re in the moment. Those are three practical things that most of our bigger clients are really focused on.
Allison: Fantastic. Great tips. Bill, I want to make sure that I haven’t left anything open that you were hoping to discuss today. Am I missing any good elements of …? I mean, you actually shared, so let’s talk about your pyramid, which is on your book., You did share awareness and assessment as two of the key ways to be able to identify your reputation. Can you walk us through the last two steps of that?
Bill: Yeah, sure. Then there’s authority. It begins with this notion of awareness popping your head up, looking around. Assessment, asking questions. Authority is that once you find out that the public wants this or our people, our team wants this, can we really deliver it? And that’s authority. Can we check in with our leadership team? Can we walk this walk or do we just simply want to write a check to United Way and that’s really all we want to do? When we get asked do Black Lives matter, that’s not something we want to respond to. That’s not something that’s not important for us or LGBTQ issues. Pick the social issue that’s going to impact reputation. That’s authority. So checking in with your leadership team.
You’ll notice there’s a feature on the pyramid there. There’s an intentional blue line between the third cell and the fourth cell, and then moving actually into action. That blue line or that membrane there is actually a feature. That’s a membrane to protect people from agency. People like me that says you immediately need to jump into action and do these 5 things or do these 10 things. I don’t think that’s the way you should manage your reputation. It’s not how you would manage your people. It’s not how you would manage your inventory. It’s not how you would manage your business. Immediately jumping to action. There would be a thoughtful process.
So the blue line there is intentionally to force you to think and process what you’ve learned, what you’ve assessed and what you can actually get away with vis-a-vis your authority, then begin to go on a journey of what we call leadership marketing. Begin to go on a journey of how do you actually manifest the action and actually grow your reputation. It’s a four step process with kind of a hidden feature in there. Don’t just go write a bigger check to the United Way if you’re worried about your reputation. Now there’s nothing wrong with the United Way, but there’s probably more specific and more focused things that organizations can do as opposed to just writing bigger checks.
Allison: Thank you. Bill, what is the best way for people to get in touch with you or connect with you?
Bill: Sure. So we are remarkably old fashioned and fun. We’ve just got a good old fashioned website, which is kith.co. You can find a lot of the things that I’ve shared here, a lot of the resources that we have. Pretty active on Twitter. It’s just @bcoletti on Twitter and then LinkedIn. I post a lot on LinkedIn under my personal name of Bill Coletti. And one of the things Allison we’re going to do is we’ll have a landing page if you want to share it in the show notes of just kith.co\deliberate leader so people can actually find some of the things that we’ve talked about and resources that might be valuable.
Allison: Fantastic. Thank you very much for creating that landing page for our listeners, and it will be in the show notes, as well as on our social media channel. Thank you so much for that, Bill. It has been a pleasure speaking with you today.
Bill: Absolutely, Allison. Thank you very much for what you do. You have a great podcast. Thank you.
Allison: Thank you.