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Jim Bianchi Discusses Crisis Communications with Reputation Rhino

Jim Bianchi, president of Bianchi Public Relations, was recently interviewed by online reputation management firm Reputation Rhino for its public relations and crisis communications expert series. You can find the complete interview below. The post originally appeared here

With more than 35 years of experience on both the corporate and agency sides, Jim is a hands-on PR professional directing Bianchi Public Relations, a Detroit area firm recognized nationally for its expertise in working with automotive and mobility technology suppliers.

Over the past 27 years, Jim and his team of senior PR professionals have worked with a wide range of clients, from start-ups to global corporations – including some of the world’s largest automotive suppliers such as Adient, Cooper Standard, Freudenberg, Johnson Controls, Valeo, TRW, ZF, BASF, 3M, PPG Industries, Schaeffler and Yanfeng.

Jim and his team have also worked with top auto-related organizations such as SAE International, the Automotive Industry Action Group, the Center for Automotive Research, the National Automobile Dealers Association and the Steel Market Development Institute.

Jim’s firm has been named among the “Best of Michigan Business” and one of “101 Best & Brightest Companies” in Metro Detroit. It has been ranked by PR industry journals as the largest independent PR firm based in Detroit and one of the top automotive and technology PR firms in the U.S.

Around Detroit, Jim is often called “the dean of auto supplier PR.” He was inducted into the PRSA Detroit Hall of Fame in 2012 for his contributions to the PR industry, and was the first recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award from Wayne State University Department of Communication in 2003.

Before jumping to the PR agency side of the business, Jim served as public relations manager for Fruehauf Corp., which was a Fortune 200, Detroit-based global transportation equipment manufacturer. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Wayne State University in Detroit.

Jim launched his full-time PR career as a publicist on automotive, agricultural and industrial accounts at the J.I. Scott Co., a Grand Rapids, Mich. B2B marketing communications agency.

Accredited in public relations by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Jim is a member of the Automotive Press Association, the Automotive Public Relations Council, the Detroit Chapter of PRSA, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Troy Chamber of Commerce and the Marketing & Sales Executives of Detroit. He is also an affiliate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and is an active member of the Public Relations Global Network (www.prgn.com).

What is reputation management? How does it relate to public relations?

Reputation management is, at its core, all the things an organization does to listen to and influence how its key constituencies perceive it. As social media has exploded and can drive rapid changes in perceptions, reputation management has become a critical and increasingly larger component of an organization’s overarching public relations strategy.

What are the biggest PR mistakes you see companies make online? How could these mistakes have been avoided?

With the global coronavirus pandemic, the most evident PR mistakes that companies were making online were publishing tone-deaf or insensitive messaging as they failed to consider or misread the audience’s sensibilities during this crisis. Companies should carefully monitor social channels and conduct pre-tests of their messaging before publishing, in order to help prevent making this kind of messaging mistake.

With some organizations, there never seems to be enough time to think things through carefully in order to prevent a crisis, yet there always is enough time to deal with the crisis that ensues. When it comes to crises, an ounce of prevention is truly worth more than a pound of the cure.

As Warren Buffet said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

How does social media factor into your reputation management strategy?

Social media channels are key in any current reputation management strategy, because of the velocity at which they can spread your messages, the broad reach they can generate for your messaging, and the crucial ability they give an organization to monitor its key constituencies 24/7/365.

However, social media can also be a dual-edge sword, because it can carry a crisis into mainstream media and go viral much quicker than before. Each platform presents its own benefits and challenges, but a company’s approach to managing the situation with social media remains pretty consistent.

Every crisis communications plan should define the organization’s social channels, passwords, social media team members, pre-approved messages and its social media policies in advance, so that the team can respond quickly and confidently to any digital firestorm.

What is the first thing a company should do when there is a crisis online?

LISTEN, then think. The best way to know what is going on is to monitor social media channels and news outlets before, during and after any online crisis. Work quickly to gather information to understand and assess the situation: identify the issue, what is known and unknown, who will be affected, what people are feeling/thinking, what the relative risks are, what the severity of the situation is, and what the likely life cycle of the crisis will be.

Having a crisis communications plan already in place before the crisis arises – a road map for navigating a precarious highway – enables an organization to save precious time in an urgent and often emotional situation. It helps to align management direction, streamline the process, reduce stress and maximize the effectiveness of your response amidst the heat and pressure of battle.

For this reason, smart companies have a comprehensive crisis communications plan prepared long before any crisis arises.

What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

Employees can be the best ambassadors for the company if they are well-informed about the crisis and their roles … or they can be the company’s own worst enemies who either inadvertently or intentionally spread inappropriate or incorrect information.

First, employees can play a major role in helping to amplify and reinforce the company’s key messages through their own social media channels and interactions with others … but only if the company effectively communicates with them before, during, and after the crisis and enlists their support.

If your company’s employees have a solid understanding of the situation and know what information they can share with their social networks, they will do a great deal to help protect the organization’s reputation. If not, they can fan the flames of the crisis.

What can senior executives and companies do to better prepare for a PR crisis?

The best way to prepare for a PR crisis is to create a comprehensive crisis communications plan before you need it and to continually update it.

That plan should outline internal processes for handling the crisis; define the makeup of a crisis communication team; provide a framework for assessing the crisis and initial actions; identify the key audiences and how and when they will be notified; create core messaging, communications tools and templates; spell out likely risk scenarios and response strategies for each, and catalog the company’s potential spokespeople and social media channel passwords.

Senior executives who are likely to be spokespeople should undergo media training so that they are comfortable in dealing with the media when the inevitable crisis arises. And the members of the executive team should practice crisis communications through drills and rehearsals, which help to increase their confidence levels as well as enable continuous improvements to be made to the plan.

Having a strong crisis communications plan helps the company to act objectively, confidently and quickly during a high-pressure and emotionally charged situation. If you’re prepared for the worst, you’ll handle it best.

There are many firms that will help organizations to develop their plans, and many resources that PR professionals can turn to for insight. I recommend the book “Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management.” Another great reference is Jim Lukaszewski’s website at www.e911.com.

Is reputation management getting easier or harder? Why?

With the growing use of social media and the rapid rise of fake news, reputation management is both more challenging and more important than ever.

With 24/7 news coverage and the unpredictable viral nature of social media posts, companies face greater reputational risk than ever – and they must be ready to defend their company at a moment’s notice. Bad news travels at lightning speed.

Today, there are all kinds of threats that can potentially spark an online crisis – from acts of God and natural disasters to lawsuits, from workplace violence to employer discrimination and sexual harassment, from corporate mismanagement to data breeches, from workplace fires, explosions, accidents, and injuries to product recalls, from labor unrest to product tampering, from SEC or FTC violations to ethics charges … and the list continues to grow every day.

What has been your biggest PR or crisis communications challenge? How did you handle it?

In our work in the automotive industry, we’ve helped clients to deal with hurricanes, strikes, product recalls, lawsuits and explosions, and all of them have been big challenges. But I like to say that my biggest PR challenge is the next one.

As new technologies and new communications platforms arise and evolve, as the environment in which companies operate becomes increasingly complex, and as people become more polarized, more skeptical, and more distrustful of organizations of all kinds, reputation management continues to become increasingly difficult.

There are more potential risks, pitfalls and missteps than ever in business today.

And in an era where technology enables any individual to share and spread their story – whether it’s factual or not – globally and instantaneously, to millions of people with the click of a few keys, companies may be just one Tweet away from a potential crisis.

So companies need to be vigilant and prepared with a plan. They need to continually update that plan with new risk scenarios and situations, to rehearse their response to the crisis, and to constantly monitor social media channels and news media for potential early warning signals.

As crisis expert and author James Lukaszewski says so succinctly, in a crisis, speed beats smart every time. Waiting to execute the perfect response will cost you your reputation and your job. Responding in the first 60-120 minutes of a situation can save assets, markets, and reputations. Will you be prepared to respond in such a short timeframe?

The key lesson learned from these crises and the underlying truth about crisis communications remains the same: If you don’t actively manage your organization’s reputation, there is always someone out there with a different agenda that will. And odds are, you’re not going to like the results.

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