WINNIPEG, MAN. – The best thing you can do to defuse a public relations crisis, says Jeff Ansell, is to publically accept responsibility, admit the mistake and outline what steps you are going to take to rectify the situation.
The former Winnipeg Free Press investigative reporter and current media advisor to major North American corporations and governments was the keynote speaker at the most recent Manitoba Motor Dealers Association Sales Certification Program Graduating Breakfast on Thursday, November 24, at the Hilton Airport Suites Winnipeg.
This year, a record 250-plus sales reps and business office personnel representing more than 40 different dealerships from throughout the province earned their sales certification diplomas.
The MMDA launched its groundbreaking Sales Certification Program in 1995 in order to improve the expertise, professionalism and image of sales representatives in the automobile industry in Manitoba.
The comprehensive training program for automobile sales personnel and managers, was designed to ensure the highest standard of knowledge and professionalism in the automotive industry.
Additionally, a professional Code of Conduct adhered to by the certified sales representative assures the automotive consumer and the general public that the representative is committed to providing customer focused service.
The program has been available online for more than 10 years. The online availability means that participating sales reps no longer have to take time out from their dealerships to attend the workshops. Having the program online also makes it easier to update the curriculum.
The MMDA has also been available to incorporate WIMS training and criminal record checks.
In his remarks, Ansell presented several examples of how to react and what not to do when confronted with a public relations nightmare. As an example of the former, he pointed to the response from Steve Chipman, president of the Birchwood Auto Group to a CBC I-Team investigation last September that found that several customers at several Birchwood and other Winnipeg dealerships were required to pay additional fees beyond the advertised price of the vehicle in violation of a year-old provincial law banning such extra charges.
Chipman publically reiterated his support for the legislation and promised to take immediate action to re-educate and train his company’s sales reps and management to make sure that the violation of the rule never happens again.
Ansell cited other examples of American car dealers who, when confronted on-air by allegations that they were rolling back the odometers on their used vehicles, either refused to comment or stood there not knowing what to say.
He also noted cases of other major scandals – such as the Wells Fargo phony accounts revelations a couple of months ago – or the BP oil spill six years ago where the CEOs obfuscated or came across as unfeeling, which damaged the companies’ public image and led to the removal of the CEOs.
“Dealing with the media requires a special set of skills,” noted the president of Jeff Ansell and Associates. “There is also social media to contend with. And the media has a voracious appetite.
“And when the story is negative or controversial, you have to know how to respond. The media and the public quickly form narratives. You have to be able to get ahead of the story quickly if you want your narrative to be part of the story.”
Ansell pointed out that the media, which is being constantly squeezed for time, has developed a format for reporting on controversial stories wherein individuals are cast – for simplification purposes – in specific roles.
These roles include a victim, a villain (often the company owner/CEO), the hero (often the intrepid investigative journalist or whistleblower), the witness, the outside expert and the “village idiot” (who may also be the company owner/CEO).
If the owner/CEO wants to avoid being made to look like the “village idiot or villain,” the people in charge need to quickly determine their strategy and get their story out there – a story which demonstrates company values such as honesty, accountability and empathy. And that response has to include information on how your company is going to make things right.
“When your company’s integrity is in jeopardy, you have to show your customers the positive values underlying your company. People don’t care how much you know. They want to know what you stand for.”
“In general,” Ansell noted, “consumers are prepared to forgive a screw-up. What they won’t forgive are attempts at obfuscation.