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Time to Stop Confusing Crisis Communications for Reputation Building


In D.C., we live and die by a “crisis.”

The looming threat of a 280-character torpedo lobbed at a company. A sudden shift in the Congressional docket that lines up back-to-back hearings and hammers an industry. As public affairs professionals, we’re never more than a moment away from a crisis that threatens the way we do business. But, for too long, we’ve allowed issue management to rule the day (or month or year). It’s time for us to do what we know works: prioritize proactive reputation building over isolated issue management.

While your reputation may be tested in moments of crisis, it is established long before then.

A strong reputation–one that can weather inevitable attacks–is formed consistently and repeatedly over long periods of time. We must shift our time and energy to focus on the long game.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Reputation in DC is built through frequent and consistent tactics.

In our field, we can’t resist watching global corporations handle (or fumble) a PR crisis. We analyze their techniques, study their results and offer countless awards for crisis communications. It’s true that a big win during a crisis can put you and your company on the map. But like a successful sports team, the strongest public affairs reputation programs are built on a winning record over time.

Consistent and repeated outreach to policymakers helps DC influencers associate your company or industry with the positive things you’re doing. Through a frequent and proactive approach, you will shape their perception favorably and soften the ground for specific policy wins. You’ll also prime this audience to contextualize (and even downplay) negative narratives about your organization, making future crises easier to manage.

2. Consumer reputation is not enough to sway policymakers.

If you think that your brand’s consumer reputation will translate to policymakers, think again. Influencers in DC want to know about an organization’s corporate strengths and contributions to society, not its products. Simply stated, just because a Congressional staffer drives a Ford does not mean she’ll revise her stance on tariffs that hurt Ford’s bottom line.

As a result, you must build a positive reputation around the issues that policymakers and regulators care about in your industry. Do you train and develop a manufacturing workforce of the future? Do you safeguard consumer privacy? Do you innovate programs that lower healthcare costs for patients or the government?

3. Telling effective stories to policymakers helps to cement a positive perception that ultimately influences policy decisions.

Building a positive reputation will benefit you and your company in two ways. First, policymakers will be less likely to single you out in Congressional hearings or implement regulatory oversight that disproportionately affects your company. Second, policymakers who view your company in a positive light will be more likely to offer you a seat at the table in policy discussions.