Mary Jo Jacobi was formerly the presidential advisor to Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, and has served as the corporate director and strategist and former communications chief for BP America, HSBC and Lehman Brothers. In the upcoming Global PR Trends Summit – taking place in Doha, Qatar, on June 1 – Jacobi will, naturally, make for an interesting speaker on crisis and reputation management. However, if past experience has taught her anything, it is to err on the side of caution.
You have both advised corporate and political names, and have been a corporate and political name yourself. What are the major points of difference and commonality between these two lines of your career?
Whether it’s politics, business or NGOs, the goal is to engage effectively, to make a lasting good impression and to garner support for your policies or products. The most important lesson I’ve learned is the importance of understanding the difference between being disliked and disagreed with; in communications, we have no enemies, only those who don’t agree with us. It’s vital to keep communicating, working toward common ground, always with an eye to earning trust and building long-term relationships.
Big people and big companies have big reputations – and often face big problems. It takes concerted efforts and commitment to promote, protect and preserve those reputations, particularly in times of crisis. Sometimes we work in large teams, where it’s vital to make sure everyone has the information they need to contribute fully. Other times we work one-to-one, where personal chemistry becomes more important.
Your name has been associated with some of the world’s biggest names, and some have been embroiled in international crises. How have you managed your personal reputation working on these names?
I’ve found it very challenging to keep myself motivated and to calm the natural fears that result when crises are swirling around. It helps to keep focus on the task at hand, keep your personal values in your heart and your head, and know where to draw the lines between the job and the personal. You have to know where you’ve drawn the line in your mind and your heart, the line that sets the limits of how far you’re willing to go to defend your organization.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Wall Street companies, along with the political systems and figures that fostered their growth, were considered to be public enemies, to say the least. What challenges and opportunities did you see in working on and in these companies after those times?
I was fortunate to have avoided the latest financial crisis, but I was working in Wall Street at the time of the 1987 market crash. In general, how an individual or organization, politician handles a crisis can make or break their reputation.
The damage to reputation usually comes from handling the event poorly. A crisis can present a great opportunity to change and improve; on the other hand, if mismanaged, it can be very destructive and, sometimes, fatal.
What are the key takeouts and lessons you have learned, and failures and successes you recall over years of working in political and corporate crisis and reputation management?
The biggest lesson is not to make a drama out of a crisis. Those on the front line of a crisis have a lot at stake: their own reputations, their jobs, their source of income and their personal fortune. I think the most important thing is to preserve your personal values and your own ethical standards. One company for which I worked went bankrupt, which meant I lost my job and my invested capital; but I came away with my values and my own reputation intact.
There have been several schools and practices of crisis and reputation management over the years. Do you believe there are certain trends that shape crisis and reputation management? If so, what are they?
Honesty is always the best policy. It’s important to be as open and transparent as the circumstances permit. The “golden hour” – the first moments after a crisis strikes – is key. It’s necessary to garner as much information as possible to help formulate responses, and to try to give as much information as you can as quickly as possible. Always be mindful of the feelings and reactions of who have been personally affected by the situation, showing empathy and concern. Arrogance and hubris are deadly qualities in business generally, and particularly in a crisis.
What is your stance on the role social media plays in the PR of large corporations and political figures? What role do you think it will play in the future?
Social media is part of the arsenal of tools available to reputation and communications managers. However, they are tools and messengers, and not the message. I think technology will play a growing role in how we communicate with each other and on behalf of our employers.
Communicators will have to continue to learn and adapt to the new means of delivering messages and ensure clarity, simplicity and consistency in the messages. The message, not the medium, is the message; the medium is the how, the message is the what.