Public Relations: Going on the Offense to Benefit Community and Company: Crisis planning
A number of years ago I read that Bob Ingram, Chief Executive Officer of Glaxo Wellcome’s U-S operations would become CEO of Glaxo’s entire worldwide pharmaceutical operations (he has since retired), my first thought was, “I am not surprised.” I had already begun writing this column about how Ingram and Glaxo had powerfully demonstrated good corporate public service. Some background.
Is your company only in a defensive mode?
Through this column, seminars, speeches, and consulting, I encourage executives to prepare to protect their companies’ reputations. Crisis communication plans, media-coached personnel, and experts-on-call provide a potent first line of defense against reputation-ruining events. Ah, but there’s the rub – they are a line of defense. Under the best of circumstances, your company is still responding and reacting. Operating defensively means that a low profile company runs the risk that its first contact with the public may be connected to a negative event.
Take the offense instead
What if, instead of being reactive, your company were pro-active? Rather than waiting to offset an unfortunate situation, suppose you took steps to establish credibility in the public eye. Suppose that instead of making withdrawals from the bank of public goodwill during a crisis, you make a deposit by going on the offense.
One company’s example
This is where Bob Ingram and Glaxo come in. Since I provided services to Glaxo, the company wanted me to learn about its values and its chief executive. Several months ago they invited me to an awards ceremony. I was impressed by what I saw:
- Unsung public health employees from across the state honored as “heroes” for their efforts to protect the health of children while hundreds of their peers watched from the audience. (When was the last time you saw public health workers getting credit?).
- Sensitively taped up-close-and-personal videos showing these heroes working with their young patients and explaining creative programs they had devised to safeguard children.
- A genuinely-involved Chief Executive Officer not “going through the motions.” Ingram was fully engaged for 90 minutes of congratulations and chats with winners. He regularly sidestepped prepared remarks to ad-lib heartfelt comments. He then announced that he would expand this award program from North Carolina to Georgia and Vermont.
This was Glaxo Wellcome’s four-year-old Child Health Recognition Program. Certainly corporate giants like Glaxo have the dollars to launch such programs, but if you had seen this program in person you would have realized that this was genuine commitment, not finance, at work.
Here are a few of the lessons about helping the community and building good will that we can draw from this project:
Find a mission that is meaningful, not self-serving
Glaxo Wellcome makes no pharmaceuticals targeted toward children or pregnant mothers. This ceremony simply grew out of a top-level desire to do something about the dreadful infant mortality rate in North Carolina.
Be genuinely motivated
The company knew that this effort would generate positive PR, but the genesis of it came from hearing out-of-state Glaxo clients lamenting North Carolina’s high infant death rate. Glaxo looked for a way to help its home state, and learned that it didn’t need to create a new program. In fact, good local programs were already in place. However, due to a lack of publicity and attention, health officials elsewhere could not always learn from the success of their colleagues. Glaxo resolved to solve the communication roadblock by creating the Child Health Recognition Program.
Gather powerful sympathetic allies
Former NC Governor Jim Hunt was present on videotape. Also attending were the governor of Vermont (where child health care is a top priority) and U.S. Representative (now U.S. Senator) Richard Burr who lead a government effort to speed federal approval of new drugs. Both political parties were represented.
To my mind, no one was simply putting in an appearance at this awards ceremony. Comments about healthy children were heartfelt. America’s stake in robust youngsters replaced corporate platitudes.
Time it well
The ceremony coincided with the annual convention of the North Carolina Public Health Association. That confluence guaranteed a large audience of public health colleagues who will likely be inspired to make their own child health care improvements.
Engage your own sympathetic colleagues
Most of the heavy lifting for this ceremony came from ten Glaxo employees who do this alongside their regular duties. They did not appear to be simply following orders. The videos of the public health winners showed sensitivity and attention to detail. Employees simply doing their jobs would not likely have created the smiling faces, painstaking photography, and creative editing. Such truly moving pictures usually come from those participating with true affection for their task. There was love in this project.
Try it yourself, with your heart and not your head
I invite you to reflect on how your business could accomplish something similar, if not in scale, at least in spirit. Make it your goal to show that (a) your company genuinely cares about the people it is honoring, (b) the effort comes from the executive suite and not the PR department, and (c) the impact of the event, sustained over a period of years, could actually improve the community.