Most communications crises that arise are a one player game. Some event has occurred and the client is working to manage the situation. There are certainly many people involved: stakeholders, customers, employees, the media, regulators, etc, but generally, none of them are actively working to make the situation worse.

But what if they are? The most dynamic and dangerous situations are those at which there are multiple players at the table, what we call an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. It is vital not only to consider the likely results of any statement or action, but the countermoves of the party seeking to do you harm must also be considered.

As I worked on the team fighting to protect Wicked Faire and its thousands of stakeholders, we had a Adversarial Reputation Crisis.

The basic situation was relatively simple. The owner of the company had been accused of inappropriate behavior and had stepped down from the company with an apology. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the existential threat to the organization, but there were actors with a more comprehensive agenda. They did not merely want their concerns heard, they wanted to take down what he had built.

Our moves faced countermoves. Complex and organized misinformation campaigns were working to counter our communications. Individual members of our team were facing character assassination and threats.

It was only by being more organized and thinking more moves ahead that we were able to prevail and run a highly successful event.

Your Opponent’s Objectives

Before any kind of planning or response can be effective, you must understand your opponent’s objectives. Why are they doing this? Adversarial Reputation Management situations are quite rare outside of politics because it takes a great deal of time and energy to attack a reputation.

Most often they occur because an individual or group of people feel that a person or organization has done something wrong, and they feel that they have the duty to create “justice.”

This can happen because of actual wrongdoing. It can happen because of a misunderstanding. It can also happen because of a PR response so catastrophically flawed that it inspires people to take action against you. This last reason is why it is so important to have good plans in place and to work with crisis communications experts when a situation arises.

The objective may be limited, such as getting restitution for a person who was wronged. It maybe punitive, in the sense of punishing a person or company for what they did. Usually, even the parties involved are not completely sure what they want, but they know they really want it.

The objectives can also change, especially if you mismanage the situation. A situation, that could have been solved by a sincere apology early on, may reach a point where it can only be addressed at great expense and loss later in the process. This is often exacerbated by lies early on, which is why we advise that you should never lie under any circumstances.

Always look for those easy solutions early.

Vulnerabilities

If a party is trying to hurt you, they are seeking to hit you where it hurts. If you are up against a big, muscle-bound bruiser, a poke in the eye, punch in the nose, or even stepping on his toe, will take him down just as fast as any other opponent.

There are many places where you are invulnerable to assault, but there are others where you are highly vulnerable. You must quickly assess where those weaknesses are and be prepared to defend them.

In the case of a convention, for example, the vulnerability is hotel room bookings. The event could run if it lost some speakers or some vendors, but it cannot run without a venue. In a convention at a hotel, if the number of booked rooms falls below a certain point, the organizer must cover the difference.

Thus, a campaign to shut down an event could focus on the hotel, convincing reservation holders to cancel their reservations.

Situational Awareness

It is vital to know your assets in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. What resources do you have in cash, public relations platforms, contacts, allies, supporters in the public.

You must also know the situation. What is the terrain? Where is people’s attention focused? What do they want to hear? What outcome do they desire?

It is here that many companies stumble. By failing to understand what the public is upset about, what they want, they lose goodwill while wasting time and resources pursuing the wrong course.

If you can understand the desires and objectives of various stakeholders, as well as perceptions and misconceptions, you may find that the solution is quite apparent. This goes back to understanding the objectives of those who are aggrieved.

Transmitting Information

Situations may also arise in which you have actually done what the public has demanded, but you have failed to inform them. You may think that you have informed them, but they have not received and embraced that information.

This is another element of situational awareness: know what people know, and know how to get information to them. Much of this comes down to knowing where their attention is focused and then placing your message there.

Some audiences will not read closely, meaning that they may read your statement or letter, but they may not take from it the message that you intend. Many people read the first paragraph or two and then skim. Likewise with video announcements. They may only watch the first minute or two.

Often, others will then interpret your message for them. In some cases, it is an unbiased third party such as the media. In other cases, especially in an Adversarial Reputation Management, individuals with an agenda may interpret your message for you, co-opting your communication and rendering it ineffective.

You must find communication channels which will reach your audience, and due to the constantly shifting media and digital landscape, the solution to that question may be different by the time you read this article than it was when I started writing it.

This is another reason why it can be very important to work with a crisis communications expert who is versed in identifying the best channels and platforms to carry your message.


The great majority of reputation management crisis situations do not involve other parties actively seeking to harm your reputation. Should you find yourself in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis, we can help. Contact us.

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