Why are agencies so bad at handling their own reputations in a crisis?

It’s alarming to discover that, until they are elbow-deep in a controversy, some of our biggest and most respected agencies have never considered the need to protect their reputations in advance.

Not only that, they struggle to identify an “issue” before it becomes a crisis.

At the Mumbrella SAGE event last week, a panel discussion on agency reputations revealed that, despite being in the “communication” business, agencies big and small are leaving themselves exposed to wholesale reputation wreckage by not having a prepared issues and crisis management plan.

It was good timing for this discussion, given the explosive gender bias debate that ran away with Leo Burnett’s reputation in the past week. This wildfire event reminded us reputation management shouldn’t be ignored in our industry.

The Leo’s story is a hard lesson in what not to do, while the panel (including GroupM’s own Greg ‘Sparrow’ Graham, agency PR expert Tim Addington from Tag PR and Lorraine Murphy, founder of The Remarkables Group) and the audience generally agreed that GroupM’s scandal last year was a good example of tackling a damaging issue head-on.

Sparrow admitted that, as last year’s TV misreporting scandal unfolded, the organisation didn’t have a crisis management plan in place. While they received a flood of great advice from fellow WPP companies specialising in PR and crisis management, he said they would do things a little differently with the benefit of hindsight, the experience of handling the crisis, and developing a plan for the future.

It’s a conversation I have with all of my agency clients when I begin handling their public relations. Alongside building strong and trusting relationships with journalists – which are incredibly valuable if you do find yourself staring down a crisis – forethought about your reputation should be at the top of the PR agenda.

When you have a plan, you also have the time to discuss the risks and responses to projected issues.

But clearly not all agencies are thinking along these lines.

Just as being insured doesn’t mean you will inevitably crash your car, having a plan for issues and crisis management doesn’t mean you will find yourself in a situation that requires it.

But in these days of social media proliferation, when anyone can comment on anything at any time, the possibility cannot be ignored. There is real risk that your agency could hijacked by someone else’s activism – whether a worthy cause or not.

If you are not already protecting your agency’s reputation, here is the absolute minimum that you need to do right now.

Firstly, listen. Agencies spend a huge amount of time using social listening platforms, Google alerts and other resources to research their clients’ brands. It’s important that you are using these tools and others to establish a listening and alert system for your own brand. You can’t respond to a potential issue if you don’t know it’s out there.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, identify your internal crisis management team, led by the head of the agency and involving two or three other smart people in your business, who will get together immediately to assess any potential issues and work out a plan to handle them. You will need a crisis protocol that this team follows whenever the need arises.

Thirdly, have a PR professional on standby to advise you in these situations.

Their experience and training can help to diffuse potential issues. The value of a good PR professional is not just what they can get into the media about your business, but also what they can keep out of the media.

Finally, learn to identify what could be a potential issue. If Leo Burnett had recognised the first signs of trouble, they could have responded much sooner and taken the opportunity to turn a criticism into an opportunity.

You need to be on the front foot, managing the messages about your company and your brand, rather than letting others control the message about you.