Q&A: Charles Lankester on Managing Corporate Reputation, Planning Ahead and a Polarized PR Industry


Late last month, Ruder Finn announced the formation of a Hong Kong-based reputation & risk management practice headed up by Charles Lankester, an industry veteran with 20+ years experience in Asia and in Europe.

Of primary focus for Lankester and his team is “predictive intelligence”, a preparedness approach that he describes as giving clients tools to look “around the corner” or, at the very least, to have plans in place to adapt to an unfolding PR crisis. 

Say, an exploding smartphone, a tasteless Tweet, a reckless candidate or other unwanted brand narratives that now circle the globe within minutes rather than hours or days.


 

Sound familiar?

Branding in Asia recently caught up with Charles Lankester at his office in Hong Kong to talk about reputation management, ‘schizophrenia’ in the PR industry and the importance of organizations to think like scriptwriters as much as risk managers.


What was the drive behind launching the Reputation & Risk Management Practice and why base it in Hong Kong?

The recent VW, Samsung and Well Fargo cases – to name just three – show how fragile corporate reputation can be and the importance of managing it professionally. Reputation has always been vital to business but the exponential growth of digital communications has made it more vulnerable than ever. As an example, VW’s share price is still 50% below the level before the crisis hit in 2015.

The irony? In many cases, whilst not chosen, a crisis is a unique opportunity to demonstrate the character of your company. You will get undreamed of visibility, airtime and coverage: make the most of it!


 

Ruder Finn wants to take a leadership position in the space and build in predictive technology to our offering, allowing clients to see “around the corner” and buying invaluable time.

Why Hong Kong? It is natural business hub and ideal to service our Asia-Pac and global clients. Plus, I am based here!

At the risk of generalizing, how have Asia’s larger firms traditionally approached reputation & risk management and how will Ruder Finn differentiate itself in terms of what it offers across the region?

There is no real geographic divide in terms of corporate skill in reputation management. Air Asia is widely praised as being very capable in this area, with Wells Fargo being heavily criticized. So, I won’t take an Asia corporate perspective.

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I think a better aspect is digital vs. analogue. Any company that believes it can manage a reputational issue in the absence of a social media strategy is delusional. Example: close to 60% of the community in Hong Kong are on Facebook. If you have a Hong Kong problem that involves the public and you don’t have a Facebook plan, you are missing a vital, effective communications resource.

Ruder Finn’s point of difference is crystal clear – we will help clients identify issues at the earliest possible stage and make sure our clients have no digital disconnect – our clients will be digital ready.

In a recent ASEAN survey, the World Federation of Advertisers found that marketers felt that PR was “their worst performing” agency resource. What’s the problem and what can be done about it?

I wrote a fair bit about this survey. I think it’s a great thing as it provides an invaluable wake-up call for our industry. The challenge we face is that our industry is hugely polarised and fragmented: some practitioners think they do media relations and others think they are data scientists. At the heart of this schizophrenia is a redundant legacy name – Public Relations.

If you have a reputational problem, there is no grace period or any time to think. Which is why we always impress on our clients to think and plan ahead because they won’t have any time in reality.

This should be consigned to the bin pronto, as it causes more harm than good. If there was ever a time for our industry to strive for a marketing leadership position, that time is now. All bets are off. Marketing borders are breaking down. Looking ahead, there are three drivers I see as moving our industry towards first place (vs worst performing) among marketers.

First, reset. This is not a drill. Things really are different. We need to be different too. Second, value. We must bring new, dynamic, vibrant and exciting thinking. We must augment and enhance our clients’ businesses and reputations. Third, results. We need to be crystal clear how the work we do benefits our clients.

Some note that a highly connected world is kindling for greater blowback following a PR misstep. On the flipside however, isn’t it a unique era for engagement opportunities with consumers?

The reality of life as we approach 2020 is everyone sees, reads and hears everything, immediately. All the time. This is the new baseline. So if you have a reputational problem, there is no grace period or any time to think. Which is why we always impress on our clients to think and plan ahead because they won’t have any time in reality.

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One of my favourite expressions – and I think it was Mark Twain who said it – ‘When you need a friend, it’s too late to make one’. So organizations had better get battle ready. The irony? In many cases, whilst not chosen, a crisis is a unique opportunity to demonstrate the character of your company. You will get undreamed of visibility, airtime and coverage: make the most of it!

You might as well as you won’t have a choice anyway. Especially if you usually have a vibrant communications stance with your stakeholders and customers: you can’t turn off communications just because time are tough. People will want to hear from you more than ever. Many brands (Domino’s is a classic example) have shown their real mettle when under pressure. Skittles recently managed the Trump Tweet about Syrian refugees very well.

Samsung calls you tomorrow morning and asks you to help lay the groundwork for the Galaxy Note 8. What’s the roadmap you give them?

Very simple. I’d want to work through five questions that would make sure they could manage any business development – positive or negative. What could go wrong? Who’s in charge? What’s the strategy? What do we say? Who are our spokespeople? The most important – and the toughest because no-one want to hear it is – what could go wrong.

The challenge we face is that our industry is hugely polarised and fragmented: some practitioners think they do media relations and others think they are data scientists. At the heart of this schizophrenia is a redundant legacy name – Public Relations.

Imagine you are back in July 2016. You are scenario risk planning for the Board of Samsung. The conversation goes something like this. “Dear Boss, by October, 2016 our bright, shiny, new Note7 phone will burst into flames, generate horrendous headlines, be all over the internet, be banned from aircraft, cost us billions, be globally recalled and we will stop making it. You would probably see the executives fall off their chairs laughing right before they fire you.

But every single one of these things happened. So I’d really encourage any corporation (Samsung included) to think like scriptwriters (right brain) as much as risk managers (left brain).

Finally, what have you been doing for fun lately?

Ha! Great question. Three things. First, I like to drag myself up around the mountains on Hong Kong Island on the weekend in an attempt to stay healthy. There is a great sense of achievement after completing 15km walking straight up, and then down, thousands of steps! Second, I have been working with the TEDx folks helping a Hong Kong professor design and deliver her TED talk. That was very rewarding and her talk was a highlight of the event. Third, I am going to Koi Samui for a week to totally unplug. That will be fun!

Picture of Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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