services & publications: good marketing, PR and government relations are not enough

[article published in The Public Affairs Newsletter, July/August 2002]

by Andrew A. Napier communications & issues management consulting

The 1990s produced many examples of how companies can have a strong brand, outstanding marketing and product PR and excellent government relations, and secure government support for their positions and plans, but still it can all go horribly wrong. Some of the most highly-publicised examples:

  • 1990: one of the world's strongest brands, McDonald's served libel writs on environmental activists for a leaflet "What's wrong with McDonald's?" - by common consent the damage to the company's reputation by the campaigns against the seven-year legal action far outweighed any legal redress
  • 1995: the British government agreed with Shell's plans to dispose of the Brent Spar oil rig, but Greenpeace "won"
  • 1996: another of the world's strongest brands, Nike, was first attacked by workers' rights and human rights groups for the conditions in the factories producing Nike-branded goods
  • 1997/8: governments generally approved the food industry's use of genetically modified (GM) food, but in Europe especially a concerted campaign by environmentalists and consumer groups was so successful that "GM-free" became a marketing advantage
  • ongoing - pharmaceutical companies are required by law to test their products extensively before they can be launched, but some animal rights activists are prepared to take extreme measures to prevent any animal research

It now seems that the stronger the brand, the more attractive a target the brand-owner could be. (See "No Logo" by Naomi Klein, and "The Silent Takeover" by Noreena Hertz.) The coalescence of various protest and activist groups into the 'anti-globalisation' movement of recent years - and the fallout from the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the USA - are having a profound effect on public affairs.

How an organisation reacts when first attacked will affect the outcome - if the attacks are thought to be wrong or unjustified, one may be tempted to ignore them, dismiss them or attack the people making the attacks. (This can often backfire badly and be counter-productive.) Alternatively, one may try dialogue, try to negotiate codes of conduct, try to win over hearts and minds through the media, try direct contact with various stakeholders, and other approaches. There are examples of success and failure for each tactic. As in all examples of good crisis management, the most successful are usually those who are best prepared. With hindsight one often sees that the unexpected could have been anticipated.

The above examples mostly concern corporate behaviour. There are other reputational issues that stem more directly from the products themselves. Product liability, personal injury and other consumer protection lawsuits pose particular challenges, and accompanying publicity can seriously affect corporate reputations. It is not enough to have a strong legal case and strong supporting evidence: you can win the legal battles and still lose the PR war.

It is now becoming widely accepted that good corporate reputation has a value and - along with health, safety and environmental and business probity issues - is among the risks that should be identified and assessed on an ongoing basis, as part of good corporate governance.

One of the key services provided by (communications and issues management) and Prosequence (business solutions) is to help organisations to establish How Well Prepared they are to anticipate and manage the risks and opportunities arising from new external challenges and critical external developments, and to recommend the most appropriate solutions - organisational, issues management and communications strategy.

Being caught unawares is often viewed as a sign of poor corporate governance:- good issues management systems can minimise the risks and maximise the opportunities.