Thomas GrahamThomas Graham

On any given day, the odds of an attack on your organization’s reputation are low, but never zero. In a world where “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots,”—a line often attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Thomas Jefferson, among others—what’s the right approach to this challenge?

In 2024, reputation management is best understood as an integral part of your communication operation, heavily informed by your crisis communication plan. And this requires thinking of crisis communication as an ongoing activity—not a temporary state invoked during an emergency, but a continuum.

While this approach makes sense logically, it can be hard for many organizations to adopt. You’re good people doing good things in an ethical manner. You don’t see yourself as controversial or political. Why would anyone attack you? And wouldn’t such attacks be easily defeated with the truth?

Organizational goodness can be a blind spot, so it may help to think of it as prudent, not paranoid. Crisis prevention is preferable to crisis response.

Operating on a continuum

Perhaps the biggest change to incorporating ongoing reputation management is the notion of a continuum of communication preparedness. In the United States, the military prescribes five graduated levels of readiness concerning global events, known as defense readiness conditions (DEFCONs). DEFCON 5 is the lowest threat level, DEFCON 1 signals the impending outbreak of a nuclear war. The important point is that even at DEFCON 1, threats are monitored, evaluated, reported and, if necessary, acted on. The threat level is never zero.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

Your communication team should be continually scanning for reputational threats and processing them via your crisis communication chain as a matter of routine. Yes, ongoing threat detection enables an earlier response, but it does more than that: operating it familiarizes your core team with the communication environment so you can make informed decisions rather than emotional responses.

This second benefit can’t be stressed enough. Football coach Vince Lombardi famously said, “Football is two things. It’s blocking and tackling. I don’t care about formations or new offenses or tricks on defense. You block and tackle better than the team you’re playing, you win.”

Lombardi’s words are more than a call to focus on the fundamentals. Blocking and tackling drills teach not only technique—they also build confidence. You learn that you can take a hit and keep playing.

It’s the same with reputation management. On any given day, your critics will be out there. Hits are to be expected. When you monitor the media landscape, you’ll learn the level of background noise, who’s talking, who’s listening and who’s amplifying. You’ll see that the threat level is never zero.

Practice telling the truth

Crisis response planning begins with an assessment of likely threats and the severity of each threat; extending the idea of crisis to include reputational attacks is a logical extension of the plan. And because minor hits come daily, reputation management allows you to exercise your reporting, decision and response channels daily.

Transitioning to the idea of operating on a continuum is best done in phases. Begin with monitoring, develop reporting and recommendation processes and engage deliberately.

Your team is as important as the plan. Moving from an “all hands on deck” model of crisis response—necessary in the case of an emergency-driven crisis such as a fire, crash or product recall—your team will need to be trained and organized so that routine monitoring, reporting and response are built into your daily routine.

When the team is ready to respond confidently and quickly with the truth, this can stop the momentum of a negative story or change the dynamic. For situations posing a threat where you don’t have a complete response ready, engage swiftly, even if it’s a bridge. The first hours are critical. The first 30 minutes can define your organization’s reputation.

Practice is as important as the plan

If you think you’re already doing this, chances are you’re not. Without a dedicated monitoring and reporting system in place and operating, you’re likely to miss early warning signs and pay undue attention to mere noise. An ad hoc or on-the-fly response to a reputation challenge will be chaotic, defensive and overly emotional. Planning and practicing prevent panic.

Institutional reputation takes years to build. Undefended, a reputation can be destroyed in days. Make crisis response part of an ongoing reputation management program and not just a binder on the shelf for when an alarm sounds. Response plans must be maintained—regularly reviewed, constantly monitored, carefully evaluated—and vigorously drilled. Making reputation management an ongoing function is a deliberate action that both reduces the possibility of allowing an assault on your reputation to gain momentum and avoids ad hoc, emotional responses that can make a situation worse.

Your response—or lack thereof—will be judged

True reputation attacks can happen instantly, launched overnight or even within hours against any organization, from litigation and boycotts to demands for remedial legislation and criminal sanctions.

The opposition will attack suddenly, bursting onto the public stage—fast, furious and surprisingly forceful—but not necessarily factual. The truth may be on your side, but until you respond, public opinion is being shaped by your opponent. You need a swift and strong response, which requires articulate messaging, a plan and practice.

A crisis is an unplanned test of every aspect of your organization. Are you competent? Prepared? Truthful? Responsive? Compassionate? We believe that a crisis that’s properly handled can improve your reputation. And proper handling starts with early detection and reporting.

Knowing the communication landscape and engaging strategically helps lower your threat profile. When nimble organizations take active charge of their reputations, the price of misinformation goes up. And lies can’t get very far when you’re ready to answer with authority and truth.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” is a famous axiom by champion boxer Mike Tyson. But the second part of his quote is also important. “Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.” Like Lombardi’s teams, boxers practice to learn how to avoid, take and deliver hits. It’s built into their daily routine.

We call our approach Crosswind CPR+. It’s crisis communication focused on an active, pre-crisis engagement that paves the way for a rapid, organized and smooth crisis response and reputation enhancement. Because, on any given day, the chances are never zero.


Thomas Graham is President, CEO and Founder of Crosswind Media & Public Relations in Austin, Texas.