July 21, 2021
Take These Steps to Protect and Fortify Your Firm’s Reputation in the Age of Cancel Culture
New complexities in the age of “cancel culture” are no longer just a challenge for celebrities. Increasingly, professional services firms face a new reality as online communities and individual actors use the power of social media to whip up public outcry because of the people or organizations firms represent.
These actors can be tenacious, even vicious. If they access your client list and accompanying email addresses, they will use that information to exert incredible pressure, sometimes going as far as demanding you fire your client or face their wrath.
In this evolving court of public opinion, you may feel the pressure to drop individuals and corporations who are controversial. And if you’re like us, you’re struggling with questions regarding the bastions of our liberal society — namely, free speech and the right to fair representation under the law — in the face of attacks that modern communications have made more intense. It takes deep pockets and a whole lot of courage to stand firm — to say nothing of the soul-searching that’s often necessary to make sure doing so is the right thing for your organization.
Here’s how to mitigate your risk of exposure and respond appropriately if and when you come under attack.
Refine (or Define) Your Firm’s Organizational Values
On the social media battlefield, your organizational values are your first line of defense. But what does your firm truly stand for?
Don’t roll your eyes just yet. Think about how common it is for firms facing criticism to release a statement claiming “this is not in line with our values.” Does that ring true if, in fact, it’s clear that their modus operandi is to prioritize top-line revenue above all else?
Before you can assess your risk and develop an authentic crisis communication strategy, the first step is to reevaluate and redefine your firm’s values. Who do you aspire to be? Is it time to evolve your position in order to be relevant in today’s world? Or do your values compel you to hold fast to a particular ideal, even in the face of criticism? Do your business practices demonstrate concern for prominent social issues such as racial justice, climate change, economic disparity, gender equality, and voting rights? And are you communicating effectively about the issues that matter to your firm and to society at large with confidence?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you can effectively assess your risk in light of your defined values.
Analyze Your Risk in 3 Key Areas
There are three unique areas of vulnerability for professional services firms — your talent, your clients, and your history. You’ll need to identify possible risks of exposure within each area.
If your partners are involved in the political arena, are outspoken in ways that don’t align with your firm’s overarching values, or choose to represent problematic clients, those decisions can tarnish your firm’s reputation and test the bounds of your partnership agreements. To mitigate this risk, assess whether your talent pool is aligned around common values. In our experience, the best way to do this is to talk about those values as frequently as possible, solicit feedback from across the organization on the strength and accuracy of those values and ask your teams to share the ways in which they’ve relied on those values to make tough decisions. (And if your team can’t cite examples, it’s probably an indication that your values need to be revisited).
Take a close look at your client rosters to identify any controversial individuals or companies in your fold. Do you have a firm handle on who your organization represents? Is there a clear process to make decisions on new engagements that have the potential to draw scrutiny? Do your newly-refined values guide you toward continuing to represent them? If so, proceed — but be sure to include specific clients like these in scenario planning so you’re ready to respond to outside criticism. If your values don’t align with continuing to represent that client, it’s time to make some hard decisions.
Your past representations may also come to light when your firm faces scrutiny from a social advocacy group. These relationships leave fingerprints on your firm’s public image and likely will not simply fade with time. If your past decisions don’t align with your current values or today’s social context, they could come back to haunt you. It’s worth the time and effort to do the hard work of assessing past representations that may not reflect positively on your firm without proper explanation. Be prepared to face scrutiny for these engagements and be willing to explain why the organization’s decision to represent certain clients from the past was the right (or wrong) one.
Once you have a handle on the vulnerabilities that exist within your organization, it’s time to do a deep dive into possible scenarios that could arise using a simple scenario planning framework.
Conduct Worst-Case Scenario Planning
How will you respond if the vulnerabilities you’ve identified in your talent, client, and history become a public issue that reflects negatively on the organization? The last thing you want to do is panic and react in a way that makes a bad situation even worse.
Instead, take the time to conduct thorough scenario planning in advance to help you craft appropriate responses to a variety of hypothetical crises. Bring your C-suite, key partners, and members of your communication team together to develop a playbook for each scenario. The best strategy to mitigate reputational threats around talent, clients and history is to invest the time to prepare in advance.
Together, we suggest working through the following steps:
- Plot the likely scenarios based on vulnerabilities identified in your talent pool, client list, and history. What decisions would you need to make in this situation? What actions would you need to take?
- Identify and prioritize the impacted audiences. Who will be most affected if an imagined crisis becomes reality? Clients? Partners? Employees? Among the audiences you identify, who is the highest priority? What perceptions need to be anticipated and addressed?
- Develop the messages each audience needs to hear. Now is the time to craft standby messaging that can be used in various scenarios and targeted to key audiences. Your messages will be stronger, clearer, and more strategic if you draft them now, rather than when you’re in the midst of the storm where emotions tend to cloud decision making and limit the possibilities.
- Identify and prepare the right spokesperson(s). Choose the right media spokesperson (usually someone other than your CEO) to represent you — someone who is calm under pressure and has the credibility to represent the organization well. Allow them to practice delivering difficult messaging before a crisis actually hits. And only leverage your CEO when the issue(s) truly rise to the level of the C-suite. Remember that leveraging your CEO as the organization’s spokesperson is a message in and of itself.
- Deliver key messages via the appropriate channels (internal and external). If possible, identify internal and external audiences who can help evaluate your messaging and give you honest feedback on how it lands. Social media in particular is a preferred communications medium among these online communities but is often not the most advantageous delivery mechanism for your organization. You may need to recast the communications approach to traditional media, for example, to help level the playing field.
- Measure the impact so you can reassess and adapt as needed. Even in a hypothetical situation, practice adapting your messaging based on the feedback you receive from target audiences. Establishing effective feedback loops is critical to help you make the decision to shift course when necessary.
Don’t Waste a Good Crisis
Activist groups know how to use the super-charged political environment we all live in to their advantage. But you can use the threat of a hypothetical crisis to your firm’s advantage as well. After all, sometimes it takes an emergency (even a hypothetical one) to inspire organizations like yours to do the hard work that will end up enhancing your reputation in the long run.
By strengthening your values, aligning your business decisions around your overarching principles, and crafting compelling messages for a variety of scenarios, you can win the hearts and minds of the audiences that really matter to you — your employees, your clients, and the various other stakeholders who contribute to your success.
Invest the time now to prepare for scrutiny from these online communities before you land in their crosshairs. You’ll be better prepared, you’ll likely uncover reputational vulnerabilities that you didn’t know existed previously, and your organization will emerge stronger and more aligned with its values as a result.