Karen Kessler didn’t bat an eye when she told the hundreds of women (and the handful of men) attending the event that she didn’t want to meet with any of them in her office.
“My intention today is to scare you all,” she said.
That’s because those who visit Kessler at Evergreen Partners in Warren are often in big trouble — the kind they can’t get out of themselves.
“And more often than not, our clients are men or organizations that are run by men,” Kessler said. “But that’s not really indicative of anything other than the culture we live in — which, we all know, because we wouldn’t be in this room today if we didn’t understand that.”
After more than 20 years as head of the communications division and co-founder of the deceptively boutique public relations and event-planning firm, Kessler — the go-to reputation management and crisis communications consultant from New York City to Washington, D.C. — has connected with and protected the interests of some of the state’s most influential politicians, religious and educational institutions, businesses and more.
You name it, Kessler has seen it, from legal business inquiries to personnel misconduct to political corruption.
“But when a woman falls from power, or whenever a woman has an issue of prestige or reputation, the media interest is profound and unrelenting,” Kessler said.
It’d be wise to listen to her — after all, dealing with the media is what she does best.
“Many of you might be thinking, ‘I’m really smart, I’m really ethical, this doesn’t apply to me, and if I leave now, I can get an early start on the weekend,’” Kessler said. “But that kind of thinking is a bit delusional, dangerous and gives a false sense of security. … If you’re a business executive, a reputation crisis can come from virtually anywhere in your life.”
Maybe, Kessler said, it comes from a poorly handled situation in the HR department, such as discrimination, harassment, retaliation or extortion.
Maybe it’s due to employee or executive or board misconduct.
Maybe it’s a pending federal investigation or long-forgotten background information brought to light. (“Whose idea was Throwback Thursday?” Kessler said. “Who thought that was a good idea?”)
Whatever the culprit, the outcome is always the same.
“If your company stumbles, as a se-nior executive, you’re going to be in the line of fire,” Kessler said. “If you or your company is not prepared, as is often the case, odds are, you are going to take a hit to your own personal reputation.”
Kessler, therefore, spent the rest of her time at the podium providing real-life strategies to help businesswomen and men navigate the career potholes that often bring clients through the doors of Evergreen Partners.
“This is different for every organization, but the point is, someone has to be responsible to be the front line in a crisis,” Kessler said. “When no one has that responsibility, all systems fail.”
Who, then, is allowed to speak for your company?
Learn how to use the telephone … again
These days, reputational threats often come in the form of texts and emails.
“From the Abercrombie CEO who texted that he was only making his clothes for cool, good- looking people, to Amy Pascal, former CEO of Sony, we’ve seen people’s careers end because of wonderful things that they’ve sent,” Kessler said.
Kessler recalled one client, an overworked executive, who had been working late one night on a very frustrating deal.
“She decided to vent to three friends in an email,” complaining about the deal, the client the executive was working for, and others in the firm working on the deal with her, Kessler said. “But those friends had other friends.”
The next thing the executive knew, the trade journal was calling her to tell her that they had her email.
Not only was this a problem for the executive, Kessler said, but it became a huge problem for her firm, as it lost the client and was sanctioned, as well.
“It’s just not enough to say, ‘I was really upset and it was really late at night.’”
Kessler’s solution? Use the telephone.
“For many years, it worked really well,” she said. “You’ve got to relearn it. … When you have confidential information, when you’re discussing something sensitive, when you have some concerns, just use the telephone.”
“And who will speak for you if it’s your responsibility? Your doing?” Kessler said.
“Here is what could happen if you don’t have a successful plan in place.”
She recalled a client, a major property owner of a large New Jersey city institution, who only learned hours later that one of his security guards had been shot and killed in the parking lot.
“These were his questions: ‘Does that person work for us or is he a vendor? … Where is that person? Where did they take him? … How do we find his family? … Was this intentional? … What do we say to our employees in the morning? Do we let them come to work or do we tell them not to come to work?’”
Total communication breakdown.
So Kessler and her team at Evergreen Partners showed up in the middle of the night to call hospitals in the area until they found where the employee had been taken.
“We sent the CEO of the institution to the hospital at that moment to sit with the family as we began to put a plan together so that, by 6 a.m., when people started showing up for work we could communicate the plan,” Kessler said.
That’s not the way it should be done.
“You have to develop a strategy,” Kessler said. “While you will never know all the specifics of what is going to happen, there are some questions to ask.”
No. 1, Kessler said, is that when a call comes in, where does it go?
“For most, it’s a receptionist — and if that receptionist is not trained, that could be the first fire, where all the information gets spewed out in a way that can really be a problem to reel back in,” Kessler said.
Finally, she said, it is not only necessary to follow the chain of phone calls past the receptionist, but to then also discover how to get in touch with clients and vendors in unforeseen circumstances.
“If the Internet crashes; if you’re somewhere without phone service; if you’re in your car without Bluetooth; how are they going to find you? How are you going to find the people you need to?” Kessler said.
“I hope your anxiety level is rising.”
Keeping the audience in focus
As keynote speaker of the 2015 NJBIA Women Business Leaders Forum, Karen Kessler refused to talk about herself.
“If you are privileged enough to be asked to be a keynote speaker at a conference for women executives, there’s sort of a template,” she said.
Typically, Kessler said, speakers tell attendees about their life, starting from when their parents and teachers encouraged them to be whatever they wanted.
“Then, the speaker goes on to tell you about the trials they’ve had and how they got to college and how overwhelmed they were because they got into a school that was more competitive than they thought they should belong to, because after all, we’re women, we always are denying that we really belong where we belong,” Kessler said.
To conclude, Kessler said, speakers then talk about setbacks their co-workers created that they had to overcome to get their dream job before dwelling on their success and name-dropping for forty minutes.
“But if you are like me, the only thing my dad ever told me was to get off the phone and clean up my room; the only thing my teachers ever said was, ‘That homework was due today, Karen;’ and I never had a boss who had too much time to sit down and explore my career ambitions as much as they did to complain about their own lives,” Kessler said.
So, instead, Kessler focused on everyone else in the room but herself.
She didn’t mention everyone’s favorite fun fact about her, which is that she served as technical consultant to the television shows “The Good Wife” and “Nashville” and was an on-air reputation consultant for NBC’s “Today Show.”
Nor did she bring up her prior professional experience as vice president of corporate communications for the American Stock Exchange or as commissioner of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority.
She barely mentioned her past and present work on boards, including AllSpire Health Partners, Atlantic Health System, Northfield Bancorp, the Chambers Center for Wellness and the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
“Not here, not now, not today,” Kessler said. “I’m simply going to tell you what I believe to be the essence of life, which is that everyone’s favorite topic is themselves.
“So I’m here to talk about you.”
Evergreen Partners once received a panicked phone call from an executive at a professional services firm.
“A Google search had turned up a website that looked identical to theirs — same font, same graphics, same logos — but the content said things like, ‘We love to rip off our clients; we make fun of them behind their back,’ and, ‘Our work sucks.’”
A recently fired employee had decided to create the website using the firm’s available dot-net domain name.
“There was so much traffic on that website — in part from the employees who worked at the firm — that all of a sudden, when you searched the firm, that website came up first,” Kessler said.
The company immediately filed a lawsuit — a move Kessler and her team thought was too soon.
“It got so much more publicity for them that they ended up on the front cover of their professional journal,” Kessler said. “If you think that Google search didn’t go singing after that, you couldn’t even find their real site.
“And in the end, there was something called free speech, and that guy was allowed to do exactly what he did.”
Bottom line? Think about all of the dot-net, dot-org and other domain names including the words “a” and “the” related to your business, and purchase them.
“Believe me: Walmart never expected www.walmartians.com,” Kessler said.
“Sometimes, the media finds you well before you’re ready to be found,” Kessler said.
Clients often ask her how reporters got their cell phone number, as if implying someone has nefariously slipped it.
“Every time, we give the same answer: ‘Did you ever call anybody back from your car?’” Kessler said. “Don’t think a good reporter is going to forget that phone number. … It’s going to happen. You’re going to get called. You’re not going to know how they got your number. You’re going to be unprepared, and usually, your first reaction is going to be, ‘No comment.’”
In Kessler’s world, ‘no comment’ is almost the same as saying, ‘guilty as charged.’
“There are a million other ways to say ‘no comment’ without saying ‘no comment,’” Kessler said. “You can say, ‘I’ll get back to you,’ or ‘I’m gathering that information,’ or even, ‘Right now, I don’t have a lot to share.’”
Even if you have nothing to say to the press, Kessler said, it is still best to pick up the phone and call them back.
“Polite really goes far in life,” Kessler said. “Even if you call back and say, ‘I don’t have something for you right now, but I will tell you when I do.’
“Just don’t let those calls go unanswered.”
Stay smart on social media
“We have had a lot of clients who have posted inappropriate things about themselves, about their corporations, about their schools, about their nonprofit organizations and executives who have had to deal with the fallout one after another,” Kessler said.
In this day and age, it is rather unbelievable the things that people will say on social media without thinking, or believing that it is only their friends who will see it.
Kessler provided the example of 30-year old Justine Sacco, the former head public relations representative of IAC, the media company responsible for websites such as Vimeo and OKCupid.
Sacco infamously tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding! I’m white!” before boarding an 11-hour flight to visit family in South Africa.
“It hurts me the most when they are in my field because they should really know better,” Kessler said.
Sacco’s tweet incited a No. 1 worldwide trending frenzy and the creation of an angry hashtag entitled #HasJustineLandedYet.
“Her boss, while she was in the air, tweeted, ‘We will be dealing with this,’” Kessler said. “And suddenly everyone else in the world knew before her plane even landed that she had been fired.”
Don’t assume, Kessler said, that because someone is in a position that they are smart or careful, or know what they are doing.
“It is just not the case,” Kessler said. “Her job was to communicate the company’s message. … If you’re not aware of what the people who work for you are doing on social media, you are leaving yourself and your business wide open.”
Then again, its 2015. Privacy no longer exists.
Kessler herself was conducting some simple research when she inadvertently landed on a Flickr site belonging to Barry Diller, media billionaire and CEO of IAC.
“All of a sudden, I was on his family’s African safari,” Kessler said. “I got to see him and Diane von Furstenberg hang out with their friends at their house.
“I could not believe this guy was so exposed that I was on his summer vacation with him.”
The last and most important rule, Kessler stressed, is to create a Google search not only for yourself, but for your family and your colleagues.
“If your reputation is at the mercy of others, which in many cases it is, this is the most important rule of all,” she said. “Trust me — you want to know first before anybody else does.”
Kessler bases her business on two distinct Japanese proverbs:
“The tallest nail gets hit the hardest,” Kessler said. “For all of you here now that one day hope to be sitting at the big table in a big office with the big job and a big paycheck, just understand that vulnerability comes with responsibility.”
And, most importantly and appropriately: “The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.”
“I have spent a career dealing with people who would give back all of their material wealth for the one single hour in which they made the dopey decision that ruined their career,” Kessler said.
“Hopefully, the next time we meet, it will again be at a conference for women leaders — and not at a conference room table in my office.”
E-mail to: [email protected]
On Twitter: @megfry3