Several years ago, a 3M Corp. engineer – a native of China – developed the company's program for reducing its generation of pollution. He acknowledged the public's view of the pollution "crisis," but still provided a positive emphasis by noting that the Chinese symbol for "crisis" combines the symbols for "danger" and "opportunity."

I've thought of that perspective – that a crisis can not only involve preventing or removing a danger, but offers an opportunity to learn, grow or even benefit – as I've read recent tips and commentaries by PR thought leaders on crisis communications. Crisis counsel is among the most important roles for public relations professionals, and public relations firms have developed robust crisis communications practices.

Yet such commentaries usually emphasize defense and protection: responding quickly, managing the media, deflecting attention and protecting the stock price. Key considerations, of course, but do we often overlook the "opportunity" part of the crisis equation?

Effective crisis counsel should evaluate not only the initial response, but how to build on that response by leveraging a company’s reputation to enhance its standing among key publics. In fact, clients should ask themselves and their public relations counsel well before any crisis occurs if they have forged a sufficiently strong reputation to manage a crisis to their advantage.

Tapping community support

Please note: I'm not referring cases involving human tragedy: in such crises, safety, security and even survival must be primary concerns.

Nor am I necessarily referring to self-inflicted crises, such as that created recently by Food Network celebrity Paula Deen -- although even that case, had it been addressed early and sensibly, could have been managed to restore and even build her reputation.

Perhaps the best example of what I am referring to occurred in 1987. "Greenmailers" were rapidly accumulating stock of the Dayton-Hudson Corporation, signaling a prelude to a hostile takeover of the department store firm. As Dayton-Hudson management undertook various immediate legal and financial actions, the company’s head of public relations, Ann Barkelew, rallied to the company’s side leaders of the many nonprofit organizations that had benefited from the company’s largesse. 

Members of the Dayton family, since the inception of their firm, had demonstrated a longstanding commitment to their local communities through such measures as financial support of nonprofits. Community leaders from an array of nonprofit organizations joined to support and lobby on behalf of the company.

Dayton-Hudson had incorporated under Minnesota law, not, as with many of its competitors, Delaware law, and the community groups drove public opinion that resulted in new legislation that made such takeovers of Minnesota-domiciled firms much more difficult. With that public support, the takeover effort stalled and eventually failed.

Dayton-Hudson had built up a reservoir of goodwill through its community efforts, along with ethical business practices, a high level of customer service and other factors in its long history. 

The 1987 crisis became was an opportunity to tap that support and goodwill to fend off a threat to the company. But it also served as an additional opportunity, to remind the community of the company’s importance and to further build and enhance its reputation. 

Don’t wait for the danger

Since then, changes in customer preferences and the economics of retail have reduced the popularity of such department stores and led to the rise of such “big box” retailers as Target, once a division of Dayton-Hudson but, today, the surviving and much larger firm.

But the lessons of Dayton-Hudson’s experience are relevant for a company of any size or industry.  When the crisis hit, the company had built up support among its community and customers and developed a strong and authentic public reputation.

When help was needed, that reputation counted for a lot.  But the experience of the crisis itself, by reminding the public of the community asset represented in Dayton-Hudson, helped to further enhance and strengthen the company's reputation.

Likewise, if you run a company and want to ensure that, if a crisis hits, you have the resources to deal with it, it’s not enough to have the phone number of a crisis counselor who can step in when the emergency occurs. The best preparation is to work with public relations counsel to build the strong marketplace reputation that, if a crisis occurs, will enable you to take advantage of it as an opportunity – and not just survive the danger.

Patrick Hirigoyen* * *

Patrick Hirigoyen, former VP, marketing and communications, John B. Collins Associates, heads The Hirigoyen Group, Minneapolis, specializing in corporate communications and counsel to the insurance and financial sectors. He previously handled strategic communications for The St. Paul Companies (now The Travelers Group).