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Yago de la Cierva: “Crises affect all companies, not just poorly managed ones”

“Crises affect all companies, not just poorly managed ones,” warned Yago de la Cierva, professor of Corporate Communications and Crisis Management at IESE Business School, during his speech at the Proa Observatory, held at Degussa’s headquarters. Professor De la Cierva gave a lecture on ‘How to ask for forgiveness after a mistake: examples of corporate apology’ and did so in a very didactic way, explaining his premise through several relatively recent cases.

He compared the crisis communication with a milk jug that breaks and shatters, “there is no way to recover the milk and the jug”, but “you can always manage the post-crisis situation.” In his opinion, what we must try to do is to prevent and know how to ask for forgiveness, “which is very difficult for us because when we ask for forgiveness we reveal our weakness and become targets for the enemy, but it is the only way to overcome a problem.”

But how can you ask for forgiveness? Professor De la Cierva made three assumptions: if I am responsible, I ask for forgiveness immediately; if I am innocent, I defend myself; if I do not know if I am responsible, I open an investigation. The reason for this is “we have a duty to protect our organization.” He also pointed out that we must bear in mind that we will be judged not according to the law, but according to ethics, “the law is one of the least important things in crisis management.”

Using real-life examples, such as the mistakes made in the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey sexual abuse cases, he recommended showing sincere and brief pain and solidarity with those who have been offended. The crisis suffered by Amazon because of the sale of two books over which it had no rights to sell served to add that, in addition to the previous advice, something must always be offered. And a Starbucks employee’s incident, that led to the unlawful arrest of two people of color at one of the store´s locations, was used as an example by Professor De la Cierva. He recommended that CEOs are the ones who face public opinion, take the lead and not only apologize, but also communicate the steps they are going to take to try to prevent similar mistakes from occurring. Furthermore this policy extends to not only the CEO, but also any employee “because no company can say it won’t happen again, all risks are never eliminated.”

One of the aspects he considered most effective in the face of a crisis is to act quickly, as L’Oreal did after hiring a young follower of the Belgian team as a model that television made famous during the World Cup in Brazil. She turned out to be an experienced hunter with an important photographic imprint on her social networks, and the French company immediately dismissed her. “With social networks, companies are naked before public opinion,” De la Cierva said.

An episode triggered by the announcement of an H&M sweatshirt with a message that in some countries outside Sweden was considered racist led De la Cierva to recommend that companies that go international should first hire people who know the local market. Secondly, they should not only briefly apologize, but also connect with the sources that they have offended, try to hit bottom as soon as possible and maintain their unity in the spokesperson’s office.

During his speech, there was also plenty of humor, similar to the humor used by the American fast food company, KFC, to quell criticism when it closed its 900 restaurants in the United Kingdom because it ran out of chicken, the main ingredient in its culinary offering. KFC saved the situation with a creative campaign in which it asked for forgiveness by laughing at itself.

Professor De la Cierva’s ‘commandments’ for success in a crisis communication can be summed up in seven principles: to manifest grief, to explain what went wrong, to acknowledge responsibility, to express regret, to communicate readiness to offer compensation, to commit to informing the public about the recovery plan and to make oneself available. Additionally, companies must be aware at all times that “it is impossible to prevent the company from having a crisis again, even if you are prudent.” Nor can we forget, the professor stressed, to have a protocol drawn up that establishes how to ask for forgiveness, “learning to do so is part of a healthy corporate culture.”

The Proa Observatories are stable discussion forums with the participation of prominent executives, politicians and professionals. They are born with the vocation of being a laboratory of ideas where a genuine dialogue is fostered to debate current business issues, as well as corporate reputation, brand and public affairs as important elements for the improvement of companies.

Among the personalities who participated in these meetings were the economist Manuel Conthe; the former Minister of Public Administration Jordi Sevilla; the former Minister of Education, Culture and Sport José Ignacio Wert; the writer and priest Pablo D´Ors; the Director of External Communication of Deloitte, Antonio Belmonte; the Director of Communication and Institutional Relations of El Corte Inglés, José Luis González-Besada; the High Commissioner for the Spanish Brand, Carlos Espinosa de los Monteros; the writer and journalist Pilar Urbano, and the General Director of Information and Control of Publications S.A. (OJD), Manuel Sala, among others.

Manuel Sala, Director General of OJD, participates in a new PROA Comunicación Observatory

“The audit of media coverage and audience is required by advertisers, and quality content must be paid for,” acknowledged Manuel Sala, general manager of Información y Control de Publicaciones S.A. (OJD), at the PROA Comunicación Observatory, held at Degussa’s headquarters. “This is something that is already working in other countries,” he added, while expressing his conviction that “The media that makes an attractive product will be profitable.”

This was one of the premises he defended in the course of his speech, in which he began by explaining what the OJD is and its areas of action, who its main shareholders are, what its objectives are, how it works, the reason for the need for reliable dissemination and audience data, in addition to explaining the situation in other countries. And, since advertisers are the ones most interested in having correct and audited data on the media in which they are going to place their brands, he went into great detail about how advertising works. At that point, he alluded to a quote from marketing pioneer John Wanamaker, “Half the money I spend on advertising goes to waste; the problem is that I don’t know which half.”

In this sense, he pointed out that “Any advertiser can trust information with an OJD seal”, a private and independent company, founded in 1964, member of the IFABC (International Federation of Audit Bureaux of Circulations), which controls more than 450 titles and 370 websites, and whose shareholders are present advertisers as well as advertising and media agencies. Its main objective is “that any company or institution can rely on the dissemination data offered to the market on the reliability and effectiveness of the media in Spain,” which it does by adapting to the market and its digital evolution and ensuring transparency in the sector.

He stressed the importance of media planning and, by way of example, showed a simple 20th century marketing plan, in which the only decisions to be made were what part of the investment was for the press, what part for radio and what part for television. And he compared this with the situation in the 21st century, where, in addition to the three classic media, digital media (with both display and search advertising), social networks and digital outdoor advertising appear with a strong presence in the form of interconnected circles. Today, he said, advertising “requires media planning that is made more complex by fragmented audiences and doubts about new digital media data.”

Monthly reports

OJD publishes its written and digital media reports on a monthly basis and the certifications twice a year. Its CEO supports his motto, ‘OJD data you can trust’, to the very end. “On one occasion we had to expel a customer because he was buying traffic,” he admitted. However, he also pointed out that this is not the norm and was optimistic that advertisers are giving more and more importance to the codes of good practice of the media in which they insert their campaigns. He remarked, “They have realized that it is safer for their brands, and no advertiser wants to make the market cloudy.”  In this sense, he summed up that “The advertiser holds the key to increasing the level of demand.”

However, Manuel Sala pointed out that it is not possible to eradicate fraud 100% “because it is reinventing itself.” But he said that with weapons such as artificial intelligence, which as well as serving to defraud,  is good for fighting crime, compliance with the rules (“few, but if they are complied with”) and consensus on good practices, the situation will improve.

He stopped at institutional advertising, which, in his opinion, should take special care to go “to approved, serious means”, since the use of public resources should be based on objective criteria (audited data) and not in a discretionary manner, since “The media are a basic pillar of democracy.”

The lunch concluded with an interesting debate, in which attendees were interested in the control of audiences of all types of media, but especially digital and television, and the ways in which new generations consume information and leisure.

PROA Observatories on Communication

The Proa Observatories are stable discussion forums with the participation of prominent executives, politicians and professionals. They are born with the vocation of being a laboratory of ideas where a genuine dialogue is fostered to debate current business issues, as well as corporate reputation, brand and public affairs as important elements for the improvement of companies.

Among the personalities who participated in these meetings were the economist Manuel Conthe; the former Minister of Public Administration Jordi Sevilla; the former Minister of Education, Culture and Sport José Ignacio Wert; the writer and priest Pablo D´Ors; the Director of External Communication of Deloitte, Antonio Belmonte; the Director of Communication and Institutional Relations of El Corte Inglés, José Luis González-Besada; the High Commissioner for the Spanish Brand, Caros Espinosa de los Monteros, and the writer and journalist Pilar Urbano, among others.