An Important Distinction

By Jeffrey Klineman

For a political observer, it would have been a delicious bit of irony, albeit just one of the many chocolate shavings falling on the all-you-can-eat feast offered by the Andrew Weiner sexting scandal.

It was our most direct connection, however, and I think it was a doozy: while then-Congressman Weiner was on one side of the Sheraton Tower in Times Square on June 6, facing the press, his constituents, and his comeuppance as he admitted to sexual improprieties, just a few yards away in the same hotel, as part of BevNET Live, we had Robbie Vorhaus, one of the foremost communications and crisis strategists in the world, conducting a session on crisis avoidance.

Throngs were on hand to greet the Weiner event, but very few of our BevNET Live attendees went to see Vorhaus, instead hitting the other sessions offered in his time slot.

(Perhaps, had Weiner gone to see Vorhaus, his strategy and final result might have been altered; in speaking with Vorhaus, he told me there wasn’t much he could have done to help Weiner out by the date of the press conference because he had already lied to reporters and the public. “And when you lie,” Vorhaus says, “You create great forces against you.” Oh well!)

I am not revealing this story to scold Weiner, nor am I writing it to scold the people who opted for other sessions instead of Vorhaus’s. After all, as the planner for those other sessions, I know they were all (ahem) pretty darn great. As for Vorhaus, he’s not bummed about the low turnout, either.

In fact, it proved something to him – and to me, as well – about the nature of the crisis business and its relationship to brand-building. For Vorhaus, the lesson was one that has gradually become apparent over the years, but codified after his session: that a fundamental shift has taken place from being prepared for a crisis to instead having a strong enough reputation to prevent a crisis from ever disrupting one’s real job. Maintaining that kind of reputation, he said, is about following one’s heart, first and foremost, but also keeping a company’s or a leader’s standards and behavior consistent with its goals.

“Just to say, ‘let’s be prepared for a crisis,’ it’s not viable,” he said. Particularly at a time when even small events can be detected instantly on a global level, how one is already perceived is likely to take the place of any initial response.

“Instead of trying to teach about a crisis toolkit,” Vorhaus said, “I’m learning more and more that people want to learn what they can do to be a leader, so they can have a reputation that gives them an edge. It’s the exact same thing when it comes to a crisis, but one is perceived as negative and scary.”

“I’ll bet you a million dollars if we’d done a session on how following your heart can give you a competitive edge, how building and maintaining a world class reputation can give you a competitive edge, we would have filled that room,” Vorhaus added. “But instead we were saying ‘are you ready for a disaster?’ And people have just about had it. They’re saying, ‘Earthquakes in Japan, fires and floods, sexual issues, enough!’ It’s negative. My intention is that I want to be able to help you protect yourself, build your brand, lead your category by building and maintaining a world-class reputation.”

Of course, that doesn’t just take place at a surface level. Weiner’s career could have survived his actions, Vorhaus said, if he’d been truthful while maintaining separation between the personal and the political. By lying, Weiner betrayed that reputation. In business, by extension, you need to own your mistakes: Perrier recalling bottles that may have been tainted by benzene, or Coke giving in and bringing back the original formula are both cases in which concerns about reputation and core meaning were enough to drive businesses to act in ways that ultimately helped them preserve themselves.

Having so few people attend the session wasn’t a wake-up call for Vorhaus, he told me, but it did validate a shift he’s been making in his own business, from the negative connotations of crisis management to the more positive idea of inspiration and reputation. One is about how you handle a disruption in operations; the other is about how you operate day-to-day.

“Just talking about crisis is too vague,” he said. “People want to get back to business. It’s the difference between ’How can we have a competitive edge’ vs. ‘What can we do to prepare for the possible – the possible – event that may interrupt our business cycle.’”

In other words, it’s about companies telling consumers what they stand for, what’s their essential truth, and knowing how to build on people’s perceptions. It’s an important distinction, and, like Vorhaus, in our own future programming, we’ll keep this interest in staying positive and focusing on building reputation, as a way to become crisis-proof rather than crisis averse.

As for Weiner, we don’t know what the future holds for him. But we do hope that if history repeats itself, maybe next time he’ll pick a different hotel?