‘Communicate, communicate throughout the entire crisis’

Mary Jo Jacobi has advised two US Presidents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister David Cameron.

Mary Jo Jacobi has advised two US Presidents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister David Cameron.

Mary Jo Jacobi, one of the world’s leading experts on crisis communications and reputation management, and former vice-president at BP America during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, speaks to The Sunday Times of Malta ahead of her participation as a keynote speaker at the upcoming Global PR Summit Malta during April 12-13 at the InterContinental Hotel.

How should public relations experts build objective partnerships with the media?

The role of the public relations professional is to communicate events and to help build understanding of an organisation’s work and activities. The role of the media is to report on those events. On occasion, practitioners get lazy; the media sometimes just use what they are given rather than delving into the story and practitioners sometimes try to ‘spin’ a story so that only selected parts of it are told. We each must be professional in our approach to building the narrative of the organisation, by creating balance in the story-telling and in the reporting. This requires building long-term relationships and earning trust. It demands clarity and honesty from both the practitioner and the reporter.

What does a standard day in your professional life look like?

After many years in the employ of large companies and governments, I now run my own strategic business advisory service, working with companies and executives on building their reputations and brands and helping them respond to international affairs issues. I also serve on two corporate boards in the UK and am involved with several university business schools. I also provide commentary to CNBC Europe and other broadcast media. And I try to participate in all the P World events that I can.

What are the key qualities that a communications professional must possess?

One attribute that I think is essential is personal integrity, to establish ethical boundaries for oneself in the conduct of one’s profession. Honesty is also vital. And a skill I’ve tried to develop is to see issues from the stakeholders’ perspectives.

You were involved in the crisis management that followed the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What did you learn from this experience?

I’ve worked on a variety of corporate crises since the 1980s, ranging from financial and accounting fraud to tragic accidents in which lives were lost and that caused environmental damage and economic losses. I can sum up the lessons with five Cs: confidence, compassion, courage, clarity and communications.

A crisis manager must approach the crisis with confidence built on planning and learning. Crisis planning and rehearsing can help build that confidence, bearing in mind that no crisis unfolds the way it was rehearsed.

A crisis manager must show compassion to those affected by what’s happened and be empathetic to the stakeholders who have been affected, both externally and internally.

A crisis manager must have the courage to speak up, to advise and to act.

A crisis manager must have clarity of thought and must communicate clearly to help others understand what’s happened and what’s being done about it.

And most importantly, a crisis manager must communicate, communicate and communicate throughout the entire crisis period.

What have been your top three crisis management challenges?

Beyond any question, the great tragedy of lost lives, the loss of people whose families, friends and colleagues are forever deprived of the joy of their presence. This loss can never be overstated or overcome. A distant second was the personal challenge of dealing with legal investigations when difficult issues couldn’t be shared. I’m a very open person and these matters required silence and secrecy, but leaked information was publicised to which I couldn’t respond. A third area of challenge is having resilience: the art of not taking things personally when terrible things are being said about my company, colleagues and sometimes even about myself.

What should an organisation first do in a crisis? And what shouldn’t it do?

In any crisis, there’s what is called the ‘golden hour’, the immediate time period after the event. Donald Steel (*) discusses this in depth and with great eloquence and skill in The Little Black Book of PR. He says that with the rise of social media, the ‘hour’ is now more like a minute.

The first step is to have a prepared and rehearsed crisis management plan that can be operationalised when a crisis occurs. The second is to gather information to help you seize control of the narrative, to communicate to the public as quickly as possible as much information as possible, explaining that events are unfolding and more information will be forthcoming.

Part of this step is to be clear, externally and internally, about who is managing the crisis and who is able to speak for the organisation. Third, and hardest, is to apologise, to convey to stakeholders that the organisation is sorry. And, as Elton John’s song says, “sorry seems to be the hardest word”.

From your experience as a former aide to President Ronald Reagan and a member of his Advisory Committee on Trade Negotiations, is a ‘win-win situation’ always possible?

The art of negotiation is to get to ‘yes’, to find the space where both sides can feel they’ve achieved a successful outcome, where they’ve both won. Each side must know the limits beyond which they’re not willing to go, but each side must be willing to give the other side something so that an agreement can be reached and success can be achieved.

But it’s also important to know when to walk away. I recently participated in P World Reykjavik and was reminded of President Reagan’s 1986 summit meeting there with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Although the summit ended without any agreement and was derided by the media and some members of the public as a failure, the success was that both the President and the General Secretary came away from Reykjavik with an awareness and an understanding that they could and must work together on nuclear proliferation.

This led to further meetings and resulted in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and USSR. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten even as the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit occurs on October 11-12, 2018.

To attend the Global PR Summit Malta and be able to meet Mary Jo Jacobi, and 15 other global public relations and social media experts from Virgin, You Tube, Credit-Suisse, TUI Group and Civil Aviation Authority, tickets are available at

(*) Donald Steel is another keynote speaker at this Malta Summit.

Biography – Mary Jo Jacobi

For more than 40 years, Mary Jo Jacobi has operated at the nexus of energy, finance and government, from the White House and Wall Street to the City of London and Westminster.

Along the way she created two award-winning global corporate brands, managed three of history’s most conspicuous corporate crises and became the only person ever to be appointed to office by two US Presidents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister David Cameron.

Jacobi previously was the chief communications executive for Royal Dutch Shell, BP America, Lehman Brothers, HSBC Holdings and Drexel Burnham Lambert. She created Lehman’s and HSBC’s much-lauded rebranding strategies, including devising the first-ever use of airport jetties for brand building.

Her world-renowned crisis management expertise was honed at Drexel in what was then the largest securities fraud investigation in history; at Shell through investigations of miscategorisation of its proved oil and gas reserves; and as executive vice president of BP America in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Her prior public relations experience includes public affairs for El Paso Alaska, 3M and the National Association of Manufacturers.

She currently advises clients on reputation, brand and crisis avoidance strategies and provides commentary for CNBC Europe, the BBC and LBC radio.

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