Brand invincibility isn’t something that happens instantaneously. It takes a culture that values crisis management on which this month’s guest is an expert. Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. She sits down with host Rhoan Morgan, to discuss how companies can build an invincible brand that can withstand crises in all forms.
About Our Guest
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today's leading organizations faced with the greatest risks.
Unable to listen? Read the full interview transcript below:
Rhoan Morgan: Hey, listeners. Welcome back to another episode of Revenue Rebels, the podcast highlighting marketing and sales leaders who are breaking rules and pushing boundaries to grow their companies.
Today, I'm really excited to have on our show a guest who is working with a lot of different companies, a lot of different groups on achieving something called brand invincibility, which I just think is an incredibly smart way of talking about this. I'm really excited to welcome an expert in the field, Melissa Agnes. Melissa, thank you so much for joining us today.
Melissa Agnes: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Rhoan Morgan: So to give a brief introduction to the listeners, Melissa, I'm just going to share a little bit of background. Melissa is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. She's an advisor and a keynote speaker. She helps companies understand risk and how they can build invincible brands, brands that can withstand even the most devastating of events. We know that those certainly are not few and far between. We hear about those in the news practically daily these days. So I'm excited to learn a lot more from you, Melissa, on how to do that.
Also, as a note to the listeners and one of my early introductions to Melissa's work was her TEDx talk: The Secret to Successful Crisis Management in the 21st Century, and we will leave a link to that talk in our show notes and the transcripts when we get this posted on our website.
Melissa, to get started, during our first conversation, I was really impressed when I heard about how you got started and the passion you have around this. I know you've been doing this for, I think, about 10 years. Can you briefly share your story with our listeners?
Melissa Agnes: Yeah, absolutely. It's so funny to think 10 years. I feel like I'm not old enough to say that, which probably people would look at me and say, "That's probably true."
So it started about 10 years. I've been an entrepreneur actually since I was 21, which was, for the record, more years than 10 years ago. About 10 years ago, my partner at the time and I, we were doing digital brand strategies. It was right at the time where people were getting on the whole social media bandwagon and companies are saying, "Yes, yes, social media. What a wonderful tool." The way that my brain just happens to work, the way that I'm wired, is I see risk everywhere. I see mitigation strategies for those risks. Then I see opportunity through the mitigation. I think that that's the biggest differentiator of mine in my marketplace.
I remember the morning I was just catching up on my morning reading and reading the news and whatever I was doing. It just struck me that why is nobody talking about the risk, the risk of social, the risk of digital, the risk of mobile, the risk of realtime communication, which was becoming a phenomenon, a new thing, mainstream. The risk of all of the expectations that are amounting from all of these realities by stakeholders and what that means for brands. Then my brain went to the risks are so easy to mitigate. And then, oh my goodness, the opportunity, once you get to that level of mitigation, is unprecedented. It illuminated something within me. It spoke to the way that I'm wired.
I spent about a year devouring everything that I could on the topic of crisis management because up until that point in time, I didn't know that it was a thing. I remember I kept telling my partner at the time, I kept turning to him and saying, "There's something here. I don't know quite what it is yet."
Then the day that I realized what it was, we had just launched the website for one of our clients, which was a public company, a real estate investment trust. So invested in real estate, their primary stakeholders are their investors. We had just launched their website. One very early morning, the VP calls me in a panic saying, "Our president is in the car with a prospective investor, a massive prospective investor. The media on the radio is reporting that one of our buildings is about to explode. We're being named left, right and center. Investors are calling in left, right and center. Apparently, the rumor started on Twitter. We have no idea what Twitter is, but we're told it's a digital thing, and since you just launched our website, we're hoping you can help us."
Rhoan Morgan: Wow.
Melissa Agnes: Yeah. And like a panic, right? I went in. Within a half an hour, I had the media correcting themselves and reporting on those corrections. I had the information funneling to stakeholders, to their investors who were not on Twitter at the time. So we needed to work around that. Long story short, the next day, the president of the company calls me to say “not only did our unit price, so their stock price, not go down since yesterday, but it actually went up by a cent. So thank you so much.” That was my, “oh my goodness, I can serve.” This is my calling, this is what I can do, this is what I have to offer, and this is so, so, so invaluable.
I remember, too, thinking that nobody is talking about this, and that's not okay. So young entrepreneur, didn't really know how to position myself or market myself in a new world, in a world where people weren't even talking about it. Like how do you do that? So what I did was I just started a blog, and I dedicated myself to blogging five days a week. I did that for several years. Mine was the first blog in the world of its kind that only addressed this stuff, but addressed the new world, the new ways of the world, not just the old. Right place, right time, right natural aptitude. I had a whole bunch of longstanding, brilliant crisis management professionals that were reading my work and reading ... I was posing questions, I was providing solutions to those questions. I was advocating for everything that I advocate through crisis readiness. They came and they said, "We don't know if this whole thing is a fad or a trend. We don't know how long it's going to last. We don't necessarily want to learn it, but we are smart enough to know that our clients need this now. So can we partner?" I got incredible mentors that showed me a lot, opened up their client lists to me, and I grew my experience, and I grew my business from there.
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Rhoan Morgan: Got it. That is a fantastic launch story. Something that's interesting here is that you were really at the cusp of this new media, right? I remember 10 years ago, 11, 12 years ago being on the other side where we were managing social media for a company. This is pre-DemandLab days when I was an employee somewhere. It was like, well, what are we supposed to put on here? What's going to happen? How are people going to respond to something that we put on these new platforms? So it was a really difficult time, and there was a lot of questions and a lot of unknowns.
Obviously, it stuck, it grew and expanded and probably also expanded opportunity for crisis, right? So it sounds like your perspective is also to get ahead of that. Having watched the TEDx talk and spoken to you in greater detail about that recently, how can we ensure that ... A crisis will happen. Something will come up. But the point is to find the opportunity within the mitigation, but that mitigation is not happening just only in the moment. It actually is happening far ahead of anything ever happening.
Can you talk a little bit about when you're working with clients and how you work to get ahead of crisis and sort of establish the relationship with your clients' audiences or just in terms of how you advise in groups? I know you do a lot of speaking. So tell us a little bit about getting ahead of this.
Melissa Agnes: Yeah, absolutely. I'm launching something massive actually in 2020 to launch this forward, because one of my grievances right now within my industry is best practice is still regarded as having a quote-unquote crisis management plan that sits on a shelf. That plan does little to nothing to actually serve the organization and its people when they need it the most. Reason being that by the time you reach for that plan, because an incident is unfolding, you're playing catchup. Things, expectations, demands, national, international headlines, et cetera, start at minute 0.1 today. And so by the time you're reaching for that plan, it's past 0.1. You're already behind.
So the work that I do, that I'm so passionate about, is I help organizations become what I call crisis ready. Crisis readiness is cultural. It means a couple things. It means that you have a culture of an organization that has prevented and continuously prevents the preventable risk. Because if you can prevent it, it shouldn't happen. If it does happen, those that you've built trust with, that trust will depreciate, because it shouldn't have happened and you let it happen, right? So that's first and foremost.
Then from there, we also know that not all risk is entirely preventable. Bad things happen to great companies. In those moments, if you don't want to be dependent on a stagnant plan that puts you behind, then you really need to have what I call a crisis-ready culture, which means that you have an entire organization, every single member of every single department in every single region across every single business unit knows precisely and is empowered to know three things. They know what risk looks like so they're able to identify and detect it in real-time, giving you the headstart. If expectations start at minute 0.1, then you want to catch it hopefully at minute negative zero, right? And give yourself that headstart.
They know how to assess its material impact on the organization. So that means assessing what the scale of the impact is. Is it an issue? Because an issue can go viral today and not be a crisis but feel like a crisis. So what they've detected, have they detected an issue? Have they detected a crisis? What are the thresholds for determining that escalation and that de-escalation? Then just so they're able to detect and assess properly, which is so important.
Then from there, everybody knows exactly what to do to not just put the incident to bed but to come out of any negative event with increased trust and credibility in your organization. So instead of a depreciation of brand equity, you're actually building upon your brand equity. Because when you're put to the test and you meet expectations and you do what's right by the people you serve, people will forgive the mistake because of the intention behind it. You've done everything right with regards to those intentions and very transparently and proactively; and so therefore, you're coming out of it with increased brand equity. That is the whole purpose and the whole goal of the work that I do with my clients.
Rhoan Morgan: Something that you talked about, I think, the last time we were talking kind of makes me think of building up, to me it was an idea of a love bank, in a way. Sort of the relationship building that happens where you're developing the trust before anything happens. I think especially around preventable risk, people are very aware of what are the risks that they're taking on. Even, for example, by sharing their data. We all know what those risks are, or most of them now. But oftentimes, especially in the past, I think a lot of these things caught us by surprise.
We need to take a break; and when we come back, let's talk about some examples and how you would advise folks that you work with now or perhaps even talk about some of the tactics that have been implemented or maybe should have been implemented with some of the examples.
Melissa Agnes: Absolutely.
Rhoan Morgan: Cool. So let's take a quick break. We're going to learn a little bit more about DemandLab and how we help companies communicate with their audiences in authentic and engaging ways. Hopefully, that actually helps to build some of that trust and the brand equity needed in a crisis. Right? Stay tuned, and we'll be right back with our guest, Melissa. Thanks, Paul.
Okay, we are back with crisis management strategist, Melissa Agnes, to continue the conversation on how to build brand invincibility.
You were talking earlier, before we went to break, on the three things that companies need to know and be prepared for and how it's sort of infused throughout the organization. Can you share some examples with us around a couple of crises that you have personally worked on or have seen maybe even unfold in front of you and thought, "Oh, maybe there was an alternative way to have worked on this." I'd love to hear some stories around this.
Melissa Agnes: One of the stories that I love that I watched unfold now, now nearly two years ago. I can't believe that. Wow. Was the "This Is Us" and the Crock-Pot story. Do you remember that one?
Rhoan Morgan: No, I do not.
Melissa Agnes: Okay, so "This Is Us." Are you familiar with the show "This Is Us?"
Rhoan Morgan: I am. I haven't watched it as much as everybody says that I should.
Melissa Agnes: Oh, I haven't watched any of it. The only thing I've watched is a five-minute segment, because of this very story that I'm about to share, and I didn't know of its existence before this happened. But "This Is Us" is one of the hottest television shows on prime time. This has something like 15.6 million viewers a year. It's one of those beautiful pieces of storytelling that captivates its audience. In a world where people, families struggle to sit down and have a meal together, they manage to somehow sit down once a week and watch this show together, which is a beautiful thing.
After about two years of the show, where audience members knew that the patriarch of the family, Jack Pearson, that he died. They just didn't know how. So in early 2018 ... We are 2019, yeah. 2018, they finally revealed that story. The story is this beautiful piece of storytelling, emotionally compelling, where you're watching Jack clean the kitchen at night, and he's putting everything away to go to bed. You get some flashbacks on some family stories and all that. Then he flips off a generic slow cooker, not a Crock-Pot machine, a generic slow cooker and he goes to bed. That generic slow cooker was old and faulty and it short-circuits and it sets flames to the house and Jack dies of smoke inhalation.
Now the next morning after the show aired, Crock-Pot, who was not a part of this fictitious television show, wakes up to a frenzy of generational customers all threatening to throw out their Crock-Pot machines and never buy or use the brand again. It's not just social media. It's being reported on, on national news. I was back in Canada at this time. I was hearing about it there, and everybody was pinging me. "Melissa, have you seen this? Have you seen this? Have you seen this?" Stephen Colbert talked about it in his monologue that evening. This garnered national attention for a situation that was entirely fictitious, that had never happened in the history of Crock-Pot. Never in the history of Crock-Pot has one of their machines short-circuited, set flames to a house, and killed one of their customers or a family member. Yet this is what was happening.
I love this story because issue versus crisis. I said earlier that an issue can go viral and not amount to crisis level. A lot of brands would have looked at this and thought, "Oh my God, this is ridiculous. This is ridiculous. This has never happened before. This was a fictitious television show. It's not even a Crock-Pot machine. It's a generic slow cooker. Get a grip everybody." Right? That would have been a very common response for a lot of professionals who look at this from a logical perspective.
But if we go to the why that this is happening and really detected, assess its material impact, was this an issue truly or was this truly a potential crisis? The answer lies in why this happened in the first place. So what happened was families around the country were sitting at home watching this beloved television show, bawling their eyes out because this character that they love dies and are so emotionally enthralled in the show, because it's such a beautiful piece or form of storytelling. This story is so well-crafted, that the show itself is so well-crafted, so well-produced. All of a sudden, their brains go to, "Oh my goodness, I have a Crock-Pot machine. I don't want my family to die." Now this becomes very, very real for them. This emotion is now made real to the protection, that security, that fear, which is an intrinsic core emotion that they don't want their families to die.
So if we fast forward to the long-term material impact on this, the risk, the real risk is because of how deep-seated that fear is, how real it is, even though it's not based on fact, it doesn't matter. It's still felt, and it's therefore still very, very, very real. The risk is, yes, people threw out their Crock-Pot machines. Yes, they don't buy anymore. Moving forward as they cross by the Crock-Pots in the department store, whether they consciously realize it or not, their hearts drops to the pit of their stomach and they get this tense knot that makes them feel very uncomfortable, which is associated to that fear, and they quickly walk away.
Research shows, like it or not, that we purchase based on emotion. So very high level, very quickly, that is the situation that Crock-Pot woke up to blindsidedly one morning due to a television show that they weren't even a part of. Their response was brilliant. So when something is going negatively viral, is it emotionally compelling? You can't trump emotion with logic.
So I have a crisis-ready formula, which is available freely on my website if listeners want to go and download it, that helps you overcome that emotion so that you can actually resonate with the people that you need to resonate with and not let that emotion drive and destroy your brand. They adhered. I have a whole article on this. They adhered to that formula, which is take your logic and wrap it in validation. Validate your stakeholders' feelings, what they're feeling, their emotions. Relate to what matters to them, and then come in with the proof.
As a very quick example, they would say things like, "Oh my goodness, our hearts are broken with you. We can't believe this is how Jack died." So that validated what people were feeling. Then they would say, "But we need you to know that your family safety has always been our top priority, has always been on the top of our list," which now relates to what matters to them. Then they would come in and say, "And here is the proof. Here's the research. Here's the studies. Here's the statistics. Here's everything you need to know to know that this would never happen to your family as a result of our Crock-Pots.
As a result of doing that, they quickly transformed or switched that narrative and actually took a blindsiding situation and transformed it into a really great opportunity to connect with their generational customers and skyrocket, like soar their business from there, or their brand equity from there as a result.
Rhoan Morgan: That's a phenomenal story. In fact, I do recall somebody in my family telling me to be careful of my Crock-Pot and really not getting where they were coming from.
Melissa Agnes: But now you know.
Rhoan Morgan: Now I know, now I know. The poor guy. But what it also sounds like is that they were able to really relate to their customers and had a level of preparedness in terms of how to respond to something. I mean, it's amazing. It was even fictional, right?
Melissa Agnes: Yep.
Rhoan Morgan: I think that nowadays even more fictional things can spread very, very quickly through social media, and then an entire company, it's not maybe the VP or the executive level, it's phone calls coming to somebody else that's working just going along their day and suddenly get a call from a buddy, a family member, "Hey, what's going on with your company?" It seems to me that now the alert of a crisis could happen at any moment, at any level, anywhere within your company.
You've talked about that a little bit at one point in terms of infusing that through your culture. How would you advise or how do you talk about pulling this throughout the entire organization so everybody's ready, from the intern that's there for a semester, up to the executive level?
Melissa Agnes: That's where it goes to the cultural piece, and there's a process. Over my years of advising and working with organizations across nearly every industry and sector around the world, I have developed what I call the crisis-ready model, which is a precise framework that takes you through ... It doesn't matter where you currently sit on the spectrum of crisis readiness.
This framework takes you straight through to implementing that crisis-ready culture. There's five specific phases, and then there's work to do within each phase. But there's a precise framework to help you get there if you're committed and willing to do the work. One of the things that you need to achieve in order to do that is gaining buy-in and support from leadership, because culture is led from the top down and then supported from the bottom up. It needs to be a cross-cultural or a cross-organizational initiative that is supported and led by leadership.
Rhoan Morgan: Great. Yes. So you have developed the framework that you're providing to your clients or that you're sharing in speeches, that sort of thing?
Melissa Agnes: Well, it's the foundation of my book. So Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World is my book. The framework and the book are being taught in universities around the world, including at Harvard, by Homeland Security, at the Pentagon, and a bunch of other different places. Then, yes, through my consulting, through my coaching.
Actually, in early 2020, I'm launching the Crisis Ready Institute, which is going to certify professionals in becoming crisis-ready certified, walk you through the process, help coach you through the process, guide you through the process of implementing this crisis-ready culture. Then at the same time, for those who go through the motions of it through the Institute, you now become crisis-ready certified. That is a skill set that research and study shows that leadership is really starting to value and see the competitive edge and the advantages and the benefits of. So providing professionals with that skillset, so they can now use that within their careers.
Rhoan Morgan: Very cool. That's exciting.
Melissa Agnes: It is so exciting.
Rhoan Morgan: You know what? We are actually out of time, unfortunately. I know that we could talk a lot more about this. But as we bring this to a close, I'd love it if you could share top tips that you'd offer to companies that are looking to prioritize crisis management for 2020.
Melissa Agnes: Gain some buy-in. If you sit on the C-suite or if you don't, it doesn't matter. Just get buy-in. Start having those conversations internally. Look at where you currently sit on the spectrum of crisis readiness. What is your culture? What is the mindset? How is that led? How is that rewarded? How do you currently respond to issues that are a factor of everyday business? How can that improve? Get a feel for where you currently sit. Gain that buy-in and then educate yourselves on what's involved.
In order to do that, you could read the book, go to melissaagnes.com and kind of get a grasp on the different phases of crisis readiness and what you'd have to prioritize in 2020. You can also reach out to me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'd be happy to kind of just walk you through that motion, give you a snapshot of what's entailed, because it is not as cumbersome and complicated as it probably seems. However, it does take resources, it does take time, it does take commitment, and it does take leadership.
But the rewards are so much more than just crisis and issue management. We're talking about competitive edge, we're talking about a stronger culture, we're talking about less silos internally, we're talking about deeper connection with stakeholders, every single stakeholder on every single front. It goes to your marketing, it goes to your sales, it goes to your operations, it goes to all of it. So yeah, so it's definitely something worth considering for 2020, educating yourself on, and then putting together a roadmap of what that might look like for you. You could do it incrementally. It's just a matter of starting to do it.
Rhoan Morgan: Yep, yep. Well, and even starting to recognize that you need a plan or that you've got to take the plan that's been sitting on your shelf and update it a bit to align with today's environment at the end of the day.
Melissa Agnes: Yeah.
Rhoan Morgan: Well, Melissa, thank you so much for joining us today. As always, I feel like our program is way too short, and this is a very juicy topic that I think our listeners will get a lot out of. Thank you.
As always, a huge thank you to our listeners. I'm your host Rowan Morgan, and you can find me on LinkedIn by looking up DemandLab or visiting our resource center on the DemandLab website. That's www.demandlab.com/resources. Again, thank you all for joining us today, and I wish you a Happy New Year, and we'll be back with you next month.