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Protecting your reputation during an international crisis

November 6, 2018 by Jonathan Hemus

Jamal Khashoggi

The recent fallout from the Khashoggi affair shows us that connections with countries, organisations or people who hit the headlines for the wrong reasons create serious reputational challenges. In 2013, when Lance Armstrong admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs, he was transformed from one of the world’s most admired sportspeople to an utterly toxic brand.

Revelations about Bell Pottinger’s work for the Gupta family in South Africa resulted in clients leaving in their droves and the swift demise of the long-established agency. Organisations with business links to Saudi Arabia find themselves facing a similar challenge following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

 

Assessing your reputational risk

When organisations enter into any significant business relationship they should evaluate the pros and cons of the connection not just commercially, but also reputationally by asking two critical questions.

Firstly, ‘How does the reputation of our business partner align with our values and what reputational risk could this pose?’. The greater the misalignment between the values of the two organisations, the greater the risk to the brand in question.

Secondly, ‘Would we be comfortable and confident in justifying the relationship if questioned about it?’. Unless the answer is an unequivocal yes, the relationship may have commercial benefit but could be a reputational timebomb.

 

Effective crisis communication

When considering the reputational impact of the Khashoggi affair (and recognising there are many businesses with connections to Saudi) it can be argued that there is safety in numbers and so proactive communication may be unnecessary. When you are the sole focus, as Bell Pottinger discovered, it’s much harder to keep your head down.

However, when approached directly for comment, some businesses have been more expansive in their communication than others. Whilst recipients of SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which benefits from significant Saudi investment, have on the whole remained tight lipped, others such as the Vue cinema chain have been more expansive in their communication. Vue’s measured statement strikes the right note in a rapidly changing situation by expressing concern without committing to ‘kneejerk reactions’.

 

There are few countries, businesses and individuals without their critics. So, it is unreasonable to expect organisations to only work with third parties who are universally loved and admired. However, a willingness to communicate when the spotlight falls on the relationship is a good test of whether the decision to form the connection was prudent in the first place.