As BofA Sits Tight, Tips on Handling Crises

Company Is Latest to Find Itself in Wikileaks' Crosshairs, but Transparency, Dialogue Can Help

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If you're going to have to call up the crisis-communication team, it's probably best -- but unlikely -- to have plenty of notice. But just how much good can a marketer make of an early warning? And what does a marketer do when the nature of the crisis is unknown?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange Credit: David Evans/Bloomberg
That's the odd position that Bank of America finds itself in at the moment. The latest organization to find itself in the crosshairs of Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, Bank of America is reportedly in the midst of assembling a significant counterattack to whatever potentially damaging information -- if any -- is released.

A Bank of America spokesman said the company does not comment on internal processes, but according to reports, the company has bought up nearly 500 domain names, many of which are insulting references to top brass such as CEO Brian Moynihan, CFO Charles Noski and Chairman Charles Holiday. It's brought in outside consultants and is reviewing a massive number of documents.

The situation presents a different type of corporate crisis, and one that could become a relevant case study down the road. In most cases, a crisis tends to sneak up on a company, leaving it with absolutely zero preparation time. But Bank of America has known about these supposedly damaging documents and Wikileaks' intentions to release them for a few weeks now, which raises the question: What should a company do to prepare for an imminent crisis no matter how severe it may actually be?

A number of crisis experts spoke to Ad Age about what being the target of Wikileaks means to marketers and what they could do to limit damage.

One top crisis communications expert who asked not to be indentified said Wikileaks proposes a unique situation and there are a number of tactics a marketer can take from a crisis standpoint that it would be unable to with other sites or organizations. "A marketer can ride the sentiment of the violations Wikileaks brought about or the support for terrorist sponsoring areas and damage they brought to us and our allies," the executive said. In other words, play to patriotism and hope it works.

But it's a risk -- and not enough. "Companies that are willing to run to the light and be transparent when it hits and then quickly move on are the ones that will win," the executive added.

Steve Marino, director of digital and social media at Publicis Groupe's MSL Group, said companies need to be prepared to engage Wikileaks online. "Find conversations where people are talking about you and what Wikileaks is posting and have senior officials take part in those conversations and talk about your company's position," Mr. Marino said . If you ignore the social conversation, people are controlling the brand for you."

For Bank of America, the other unique element of this situation is that it's still fairly unclear just what type of information Wikileaks plans on releasing. But Mr. Marino said that fact shouldn't stop a marketer from being fully prepared. He said companies in this type of situation need to take an honest look at their internal practices and identify areas that are likely to be a threat and then be prepared to answer why the company has performed or conducted business in such a manner.

"In many cases, your information is leaked by disgruntled employees, so you as a company need to pay attention to the corporate environment," Mr. Marino said. "And if the mood or sentiment is bad in a certain sector of the business, try to assess what types of information people might leak to make your company look bad."

As for bracing your own employees for the potential fallout of an impending crisis, Brendan Hodgson, senior VP-digital risk management at WPP's Hill & Knowlton, said it's critically important that staff don't find out about potentially damaging information from the media or other sources. But if the company doesn't know what the crisis will actually be, the first step is to condition employees to be aware that potentially embarrassing and damaging information could be made public.

"Equally important will be the need to demonstrate that you have a plan in place to address these issues," Mr. Hodgson said. "Let them know that specific actions are being taken, that you are committed to keeping employees informed of the situation and that there are channels through which employees can share information if they need to."

Mr. Marino advised companies talk about their "values and how all employees at every level are encouraged to work toward those values. When bad information comes out, you then point back to those values and identify where the company failed to fulfill some of them, and then use those same values as rallying points to improve the company moving forward.

Marketers should also remind employees of their responsibilities with respect to safeguarding confidential information and of the potential risks digital and social media now pose to communicating and sharing information.

Lost in all this are the repercussions of what could happen if the information Wikileaks leaks turns out to be a dud.

"The potential risk to any individual or organization that positions itself as 'whistleblower' and doesn't live up to expectations is diminished credibility and, ultimately, irrelevance," Mr. Hodgson said.

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