Small, highly experienced and bespoke trumps global giants in crisis and reputation stakes

6 men and 1 woman at a table

When a crisis strikes a multinational business’s operations in a location far from head office, the ability to marshall communications resources that you can trust can be a major challenge.

While many organisations have a local external crisis management team on hand, that team may not be able to tap into a local pool of expertise where the drama is unfolding.

Even if the external crisis consultancy boasts an office in the country where the help is needed, that team may lack both the motivation and agility to provide a bespoke blue-ribbon service best suited to the situation.

You will often hear companies complain that a crisis team working for the same PR firm in another country lacks an emotional as well as commercial investment in their issue and thus delivers a substandard level of service.

That’s why small but highly experienced networks of crisis and reputational experts, owning and working for relatively small independent public relations and public affairs firms, dotted around the globe in key markets, are so invaluable.

Not only does such a small coterie of experts help each other’s clients manage difficult issues, but they also provide a platform for the exchange and cross-pollination of ideas and trends.

Reputation Advisers International (RAI), until this month known as the Crisis Protection Network, is a group of seasoned crisis and reputation professionals drawn from 18 cities across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Icon Reputation has two members of RAI – Melbourne-based Director of Reputation, Mark Forbes, and me, Director of Media and Public Affairs, based in Sydney.

Earlier this month I attended the RAI’s annual meeting in London.

The benefit of such a small gathering is the ability to share ideas and debate issues affecting the reputation management space. But just as importantly, the scale of RAI helps foster strong personal as well as professional relationships, which underpins each member’s motivation to help the others’ clients.

As RAI President, Jim Haggerty, CEO at PRCG Haggerty in New York, explains it: “The reason why meetings like this are so important is we're together and we get to know each other and trust each other”.

“With the complex sensitive issues we're working on, it's the case that you need an understanding and a level of trust with all your colleagues because that is what your clients desire,” Haggerty says.

“I've often found that in situations where you're protecting reputation or dealing with a crisis or dealing with a sensitive issue, the client looks across the table and says, ‘is this someone I can trust?’.

“When we bring everyone together in a network of this sort, we trust our colleagues as much as our clients trust us.”

As someone who works in the public affairs space, learning about the looming EU AI Act from European Parliament specialist, Kajsa Stenström, from Stenström Consulting, Brussels, was fascinating, especially given Icon’s work in the tech space.

I was oblivious to the power EU regulations have beyond the Continent.

As Kajsa explained in London: “(the AI Act) is like the General Data Protection Regulation, the GDPR, which applies to anyone wanting to do business in Europe or mining European data”.

“If you use European data in your AI applications, you better be aware of what's in the AI Act,” she says.

“(It’s important to) keep an eye on what's going on in Brussels, monitor the EU policy developments in this area, because there is more to come.

“The AI Act is about to be agreed upon, so there is a limit to how much you can influence the process right now.

“But it just goes to show that it's important to be active early on in EU policy development.”

Another issue explored in London, and which shocked me, is the scale of cyber ransom hacks on companies and their willingness to stump up the cash. And it’s getting worse.

According to Dirk Schmitt, Managing Partner at Frankfurt-based, Rosenberg Strategic Communications, more than 40 percent of the companies in Europe, and more than 50 per cent in the US, are currently paying the ransom.

“It's a real threat and it's expensive,” says Schmitt, whose firm runs cyber hack crisis simulations.

“Some of the hackers only encrypt your data (making it inaccessible), some of them steal your data and offer it on the darknet to your competitors or other people.

“The only thing they have in common is they want a ransom and usually the ransom they want is 10 percent of your turnover.”

With its data effectively frozen or stolen, a company can quickly lose the trust of customers, suppliers and employees.

“When your data is gone, you're tempted to pay the ransom instead of admitting there was a hack,” he says.

“It's a matter for everyone in the company, not only for the CEO, not only for the crisis team.

“Every single employee should follow some very simple rules because the phishing attacks and the attacks from the hackers are getting more and more sophisticated, and it's really hard to tell sometimes - is it an attack or is it a real email?

“So employees with access to sensitive data should all have training because then you can avoid 80 to 85 percent of attacks.”

a group of 5 men and 1 woman sitting at a table

Attendees (L-R): Benjamin Haslem, Icon Reputation, Sydney; Dirk Schmitt, Rosenberg Strategic Communications, Frankfurt; Martin Hofmann, Oversea Strategies, Toronto; Jim Haggerty, PRCG | Haggerty LLC, New York; Chris Cartwright, Chris Cartwright Communications, Geneva; Kajsa Stenström, Stenström Consulting, Brussels; Jonathan Jordan, Sermelo, London.

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