The following, from author Kristopher Scott, originally appeared in Platform Magazine’s March edition. Thanks to Kris and the crisis experts quoted, including Dorothy Crenshaw, Jason Mudd, and BCM founder Jonathan Bernstein for giving us permission to reprint!
Reputation Management: The Next Seussville Classic
One fish, two fish. Black fish, white fish. Inclusivity is not just black and white.
Known for his fantastical characters and whimsical rhymes, Theodor Geisel is one of the world’s most renowned children’s book authors. Better recognized under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss, the author published over 40 books and sold more than 600 million copies during his lifetime. Today, Dr. Seuss’ catalog consists of 60 publications, continues to top bestseller lists and is sold in more than 100 different countries.
Despite these accolades, six publications — “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” “The Cat’s Quizzer,” “On Beyond Zebra!” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!” — threaten to dismantle the Seussville reputation.
“Reputation is an organization’s most important asset,” asserted Jason Mudd, CEO and managing partner at Axia Public Relations. “For any organization, having a good reputation is more than just a nice thing to have. Rather, it’s imperative for success!”
“Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?”
Seeking to evade cancel culture, Seuss Enterprises released a statement apologizing and condemning its publications containing offensive caricatures. Further, the estate ceased the publication of images and sales of these books.
Crenshaw Communications CEO Dorothy Crenshaw described the significance of the estate’s decision.
“The Seuss estate made a prudent move in discontinuing a handful of titles with outdated or racially insensitive imagery,” explained Crenshaw. “There’s a great deal of variation within the Seuss catalogue, and it makes sense to adapt to changing cultural attitudes and values. You can make the argument that if the estate hadn’t discontinued the titles in question, it could have harmed their reputation at some point in the future. It could taint the entire Seuss collection.”
Jonathan Bernstein, founder and chairman at Bernstein Crisis Management Inc., adamantly agreed.
“If they hadn’t taken the books off the shelves and demonstrated that they didn’t do it because they were forced to, that combination would have been deadly for their brand,” stated Bernstein.
Bernstein further characterized the decision as “commendable.” He said the Seuss estate’s proactiveness demonstrates its ability to adapt to changing perceptions. Moreover, Bernstein said the estate’s acknowledgment emphasizes the importance of corporate social responsibility and the long-term value of maintaining positive relationships with stakeholders.
“Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!”
Bernstein affirmed that the Seuss estate’s proactiveness is an example of effective reputation management. In fact, he characterized the Seussville backlash as an issue rather than a crisis. He said the estate’s response served as a preventive measure. As a result, the Seussville reputation did not endure any “lasting damage.”
“Often, the way you handle an issue or crisis can actually enhance the perception of an organization,” Bernstein stated. “Even if the initial news is bad, if you respond with compassion, confidence and competence, you can enhance the way people view and feel about your organization. The Seuss estate did all three in their communication.”
Similarly, Mudd detailed specific initiatives organizations can enact to ensure effective reputation management. He advised organizations become aware of and adapt to the changing political climate.
“Be more awake to what’s going on around,” expressed Mudd. “Organizations should be more sensitive and more inclusive. Also, you should ask, seek help, diversify and expand your horizons. Get involved in cultures and communities that you’re not currently in.”
He proclaimed that reaching out and getting involved was only the first step. Next, Mudd suggested that organizations “allow those cultures and communities to share feedback and input” in an authentic manner. Lastly, he advised, “take what they share with you, keep it in mind, pivot and adjust where you can.”
Using Seuss Enterprises’ decision as an example, Crenshaw also emphasized the strategic nature of reputation management.
“The most important thing about a good PR or reputation campaign is that it be strategic, that is, aligned with business goals, and consistent,” explained Crenshaw. “The Dr. Seuss brand is iconic, and the decision probably deserved more deliberation and advance planning before it was announced. It’s important, before announcing any decision or step that can be seen as controversial, to be clear, proactive, and consistent, and to have spokespersons and advocates available.”
“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
In public relations, reputation has enormous intangible and monetary value. As such, understanding how to avoid situations that negatively impact an organization’s reputation are beneficial.
“Reputation management has got to be an integral part of every communications campaign,” said Bernstein. “It has a fundamental core value for every organization and for any prominent individual.”
Even beyond, PR now exists in a digital-heavy world. Because of social media — specifically people’s interconnectivity through social media — reputation management has never been more relevant.
“With the rise of social media, consumers are back in control,” said Mudd. “Consumers are now able to have a voice, congregate and collectively share messaging. They also can go on the attack, persuade and certainly put a fire under companies to make them respond and be more socially considerate.”
In a world where issues can evolve into crises on a whim, maintaining positive reputations is becoming increasingly difficult for organizations. For this reason, preserving beneficial relationships with allies, advocates and consumers is paramount. If cultivated, these relationships can aid an organization in its issue or crisis recovery efforts. Perhaps more noteworthy, these relationships dictate an organization’s most important asset — its reputation.
One fish, two fish. Black fish, white fish. Reputation management is not just black and white.