At the heart of every crisis is a reputation iceberg. One that may sink the ship right away or punch a tiny hole that will eventually swamp the boat. If you don't seize the wheel right after impact, someone else will. They'll steer your reputation right onto the rocks using traditional and social media.
Today, more than ever, it's easy for just about anyone to try to seize control of your reputation for their own benefit. Crisis manager Eric Denzenhall puts it this way: "One person's crisis is another person's meal ticket."
It's amazing to me how often companies cede control of their reputations to everyone else instead of seizing it as soon as possible after a crisis. I've had a front-row seat on this phenomenon as I watch the ongoing saga of Hartford's stalled attempt to build and open a minor league baseball stadium for the Hartford Yard Goats.
There's a lot of finger-pointing and legal grandstanding about the $60 million-plus ballpark that now sits unfinished, unloved and unworked upon. And, most recently, also sits at the center of a lawsuit by its fired developers against the owner of the team.
On June 6, the city held a news conference to announce that they would be firing the organization's developer, Centerplan, operating as DoNo LLC. " … We simply lost confidence in DoNo and Centerplan's capacity to complete this project … ," said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. DoNo's President Jason Rudnick held his own press conference in response, calling Bronin's decision "irresponsible governance."
As the situation marinated, Centerplan's reputation became the favorite punching bag of every politician and journalist in the state, egged on by a rising tide of social media buzz.
While Centerplan trashed the politicians and the Yard Goats' management they looked very much like a fighter throwing wild punches while lying flat on his back on the canvass. Make no mistake about it, there's more on the line than the stadium job. Centerplan had expected to get much of the work in the development surrounding the ballpark, which was to include retail, office and housing. They've also got other projects in process around the city. At that same news conference, Bronin acknowledged that the city's firing of the firm from the stadium project would probably have an impact on those other jobs.
So why, oh why, I asked myself has Centerplan not stepped up to defend their own reputation? Why has the company spent its time (and reputation) filing a lawsuit, pointing fingers, trashing all involved and, in a surprisingly bloodless editorial, touting their superior judgement on the project's viability?
The editorial in the Hartford Courant by Centerplan's CEO Robert Landino is a great example of the company's attitude. It included these gems:
• "Terminating Centerplan Cos. from the development of Hartford's Dunkin' Donuts Park — with merely weeks to go before completion — because deadlines needed to be extended was reckless, extremely short-sighted and indicative of a newly elected city administration without any experience in public office.
• "Considering the breadth of my experience in the private and public sectors during both times of economic boom and recession, I have never seen such ill-advised judgment and drastic action taken to sabotage a public project as I have this month from Hartford city hall.
• "I say this from the perspective of the last 25 years during which I have always tried to commit myself to public service, nonprofit work and charity, all while working at my profession in real estate development and construction."
The 600-word diatribe only stoked the controversy. Strangely, the company waited another two weeks before Landino did an interview on WNPR during which he said the company would complete the ballpark and pay for the remaining work out of their own pocket. That's a very impressive gesture. It would have had a lot more impact if it had been part of that editorial. It's the kind of offer that would have helped Centerplan take back control of their reputation and lay the foundation to rebuild it over time.
My point is this: During and after a crisis, it's critical you take control of your own reputation. Don't allow others to do it for you. And don't wait for things to "calm down" before you take control of your reputation. Seize the tiller. Define who you are and what you're doing to proactively respond to the crisis. Demonstrate understanding, compassion and yes, even a little humility.
In today's online world, it's easy for anyone to tell your story. Don't let them. Tell it yourself. Tell it authentically and tell it often. If you don't, expect someone else to do it for you — whether you like it or not.
Andrea Obston is president of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications in Bloomfield.