Mary Jo Jacobi On US Elections, The Little Black Book Of PR And Reputation
November 04, 2016
Mary Jo Jacobi has been with the P World since Day One.
She is a renowned expert in reputation, brand and crisis management drawn from her extensive experience at senior levels of the corporate, public and voluntary sectors on both sides of the Atlantic. Most recently, Mary Jo was Executive Vice President of BP America during its response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Previously she led reputation management for Royal Dutch Shell, Lehman Brothers, HSBC Holdings and Drexel Burnham Lambert. She also devised and executed the award-winning global brand strategies for Lehman and HSBC, including the first-ever use of airport jetties for brand projection and thought leadership. She is a non-executive director of the Weir Group PLC, Mulvaney Capital Management and Panafsat and a member of the advisory board of Fink Africa. She is also a Visiting Fellow of Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation. Mary Jo was the first woman to chair the board of the Ladies Professional Golf Association and subsequently served on the board of the Ladies European (Golf) Tour. She is a frequent broadcast commentator, lecturer and public speaker around the world.
Shortly after the launch of The Little Black Book of PR (Mary Jo wrote the Introduction), we sat down with Mary Jo to discuss the importance of the book, hew views on the US elections and her thoughts on crisis communications and reputation management.
Why is the The Little Black Book of PR so important for PR professionals? Can we reveal for our readers any of “the secrets” of the PR masters that have contributed in the book?
I think PR is a misunderstood profession because skillful practitioners make it look so easy! Our goal with the book is to help PR practitioners learn from the experiences of those who have been in the business for a long time, from issues and crisis management to today's world of digital marketing and communications. We want people to read the book so the only secret I'm willing to disclose is that success requires dedication, hard work and creativity.
Speaking of PR, very often the line between PR writing and objective reporting is kind of blurred, examples are numerous: too much PR in business news, interviews too “soft” towards business or political leaders… etc. What are the useful moves for PR experts to gain objective partnerships from the side of media? Which recommendations might help both sides preserve their professional dignity regardless of the circumstances?
The role of the PR professional is to communicate events and to help build understanding of an organization's work and activities. The role of the media is to report on those events. On occasion, practitioners get lazy; the media sometimes just use what they were given rather than delving into the story and PR practitioners sometimes try to "spin" a story so that only selected parts of it are told. We each must be professional in our approach to building the narrative of the organization, by creating balance in the story telling and in the reporting. This requires building long-term relationships and earning trust, it demands clarity and honesty from both the practitioner and the reporter.
Your biography is very impressive. What are you doing at the moment, how does a standard day in your professional life looks like these days?
What a nice compliment, thank you! After many years in the employ of large companies and governments, I now run my own strategic business advisory service, working with companies and executives on building their reputations and brands and helping them respond to international affairs issues. I also serve on two corporate boards in the UK and am involved with several university business schools. I also provide commentary to CNBC Europe and other broadcast media. And I try to participate in all the P World events that I can.
Since you’ve reached a vast expertise from political, business and crisis communications, what do you think are the key qualities that communications professional must possess within such an extensive range?
One attribute that I think is essential is personal integrity, to establish ethical boundaries for yourself in the conduct of your profession. Honesty is also vital. And a skill I've tried to develop is to see issues from the stakeholders' perspectives. And patience is important, but I'm not so good at it!
You were involved in crisis management following the BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico. What are the most valuable lessons you’ve gained along with this experience?
I've worked on a variety of corporate crises since the 1980s, ranging from financial and accounting fraud to tragic accidents in which lives were lost and that caused environmental damage and economic losses. I can sum up the lessons with five Cs: confidence, compassion, courage, clarity and communications. A crisis manager must approach the crisis with confidence built on planning and learning. Crisis planning and rehearsing can help build that confidence, bearing in mind that no crisis unfolds the way it was rehearsed. A crisis manager must show compassion to those affected by what's happened and be empathetic to the stakeholders who have been affected, both externally and internally. A crisis manager must have the courage to speak up, to advise and to act. A crisis manager must have clarity of thought and must communicate clearly to help others understand what's happened and what's being done about it. And most importantly, a crisis manager must communicate, communicate and communicate througout the entire crisis period.
All of these lessons are essential for the crisis manager to help the organization earn back the trust that was damaged or lost because of the crisis. In his chapter of the PR book my husband, Patrick Jephson, calls this "forgivability."
What would be the top three most challenging professional experiences you’ve had so far in your career, regarding crisis management?
Beyond any question was the great tragedy of lost lives, the loss of people whose families, friends and colleagues are forever deprived of the joy of their presence; this loss can never be overstated or overcome. A distant second was the personal challenge of dealing with legal investigations when difficult issues couldn't be shared; I'm a very open person and these matters required silence and secrecy while leaked information was pubicized to which I couldn't respond. A third area of challenge is having resilience, the art of not taking things personally when terrible things are being said about my company, colleagues and sometimes even myself.
What should an organization first do after a crisis occurred, the first three crucial steps? And what one mustn’t do, the things that could only worsen the crisis?
In any crisis, there's what is called the "golden hour", the immediate time period after the event. Donald Steel discusses this in depth and with great eloquence and skill in "The Little Black Book of PR," and as he says, with the rise of social media, the "hour" is now more like a minute. The first step is to have a prepared and rehearsed crisis management plan that can be operationalized when a crisis occurs. The second is to gather information to help you seize control of the narrative, to communicate to the public as quickly as possible as much information as possible, explaining that events are unfolding and more information will be forthcoming. Part of this step is to be clear, externally and internally, about who is managing the crisis and who is able to speak for the organization. Third, and hardest, is to apologize, to convey to stakeholders that the organization is sorry. And, as Elton John's song says, "sorry seems to be the hardest word."
As a former aide of President Ronald Reagan and member of his Advisory Committee on Trade Negotiations, what does your experience say: is it always possible to make a “win-win situation” on the negotiating table? What is the most important for a negotiator in order to maximize the outcome for his side in the process?
The art of negotiation is to get to "yes", to find the space where both sides can feel they've achieved a successful outcome, where they've won. Each side must know the limits beyond which they're not willing to go, but each side must be willing to give the other side something so that agreement can be reached and success can be achieved. But it's also important to know when to walk away. I recently participated in P World Reykjavik and was reminded of President Reagan's 1986 summit meeting there with General Secretary Gorbachev. Although the summit ended without any agreement and was derided by the media and some members of the public as a failure, the success was that both the President and the General Secretary came away from Reykjavik with an awareness and understanding that they could and must work together on nuclear proliferation. This led to further meetings and resulted in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and USSR. It was a lesson I've never forgotten even as the 30th anniversay of the Reykjavik Summit occurs on 11-12 October.
Recently, you told CNBC that Trump has one big advantage in the presidential race and that advantage is called Hillary Clinton, since “people are tired of the Clintons, they are tired of the same old, same old scandal a week sort of thing…”, as you said. What do you think will be the crucial factor determining the victory in November elections? Why do you think Mr. Trump is better choice for the US and for the world?
In my view this year's US elections represent a choice for American voters between whom they dislike less. Mr Trump's best advantage is he isn't Hillary Clilnton, and her best advantage is that she isn't Donald Trump! Both candidates have very high negatives in opinion polls. The choice is such that a mass-extinction event such as a huge meteor striking earth, the Sweet Meteor o'Death, polled 12 percent against Mr Trump and Secretary Clinton. Mr Trump is seen as an inexperienced, volatile candidate who represents a risky change from the past. Secretary Clinton is seen as a well-known but seriously-flawed candidate. For many Americans, the choice is as simple as which candidate they'd prefer to invite to dinner every night for the next four to eight years.
President Reagan once said: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” Do you really think that mankind is good, given all this destruction and suffering caused by people today? Do you truly believe that the world can survive the current crisis without some radical change in the way the liberal capitalism and globalization are functioning today?
I believe that there is tremendous good in the world, even in the faces of some bad actors; I agree with President Reagan. But I also like the quote from Verbal Kint in the movie, "The Usual Suspects": "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." Yes, some terrible things are happening today, but terrible things have always happened. I think we should take heart from the words of Thomas Jefferson, "Evil triumphs when good men do nothing." Good men and women can turn things around if only they're willing to take action. Capitalism might be flawed, but it's still better than the alternatives!
Mary Jo is speaking next at our Global PR Summit Istanbul 4 from 16-17 February in Istanbul.