By the time an SOS has gone out to PR and communications ace Al Leach to summon his formidable crisis management skills, chances are the desperate company sending that frantic Mayday call has probably come to disagree with P.T. Barnum’s famous belief that “there is no bad publicity.”

Chances are, too, that desperate company hasn’t been one of Leach’s clients, because preventing brand reputation crises from occurring in the first place is how Al Leach measures success.

As President and Chief Strategy Officer at MMI Public Relations, one of the top 100 independent public relations firms in the US and a driving force in North Carolina’s Research Triangle business community, Leach has honed a keen perspective on brand reputation and client service excellence during his three decades in the business. His PR mantra: “The most successful brands focus on everyone’s interests except their own.”

Expect the Best, Plan for the Worst

Leach believes that the need for companies to act not out of self-interest, but for the good of the community has become even more vital in the Internet age. Reminding us that “the Internet was conceived to share information,” he works to render his clients crisis-proof through contingency planning that focuses on protecting their privacy, data security and intellectual property rights. 

As two major PR crises heated up the August news, Al Leach graciously agreed sit down with us to share his thoughts on data hacking, non-celebrity spokespeople and the future of crisis PR. 

Sobel: Your career path in public relations and communications has spanned three decades and been uncommonly rich and varied. You worked early on for some pillars of the industry such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller and then added deep-dive expertise in financial services PR at Deloitte & Touche and The Dun & Bradstreet Corporation.

You’ve also charted a couple of interesting resume detours such as your work as counsel on foreign direct investment to the Republic of Kazakhstan and your position from 2001-08 as an advisor to The New York Times Company.

All of this has led to your current role as President and Chief Strategy Officer at MMI Public Relations in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., where you work with Fortune 500 clients on growth initiatives and innovation. What overarching patterns and lessons can you draw from your journey so far?

Leach: As varied as my career has been, I’d say that two common elements have been how blessed I’ve been to work with highly intelligent people and what a learning experience it has been to work on accounts that have been leading brands.

I’ve seen firsthand how different businesses view the same playing field from different vantage points and formulate different courses of action. That breadth of experience has taught me how to see around corners, anticipate likely ― and unlikely ― outcomes and understand others’ point of view as I work to maximize positive results for my clients.

Sobel: You’ve said that "many companies have ‘noteworthy’ accomplishments that must be made ‘newsworthy’” and you’ve reminded us that the process of building influence, thought leadership and brand reputation is a long one that requires extensive planning and research to "manage the public perception of your business."

But it seems like this summer we’ve seen the flip side of that: Years of careful, deliberate branding undone in an instant by factors beyond a company’s control. An example that’s on everyone’s minds is the recent news about Jared Scot Fogle, the Subway restaurant chain’s former “Subway Guy” spokesperson. Can you share your thoughts from the perspective of the Subway brand?

Leach: I think Subway has appropriately managed its brand reputation crisis. When early allegations surfaced against Mr. Fogle, Subway took swift action to suspend its relationship with him. Once the facts came out, Subway terminated the relationship.

Taking prompt action was critical for Subway, since the issue involved children. Any delay on Subway’s part might have implied that Subway was weighing its cost-benefit options. 

Leading brands must never present themselves as acting out of self-interest. Their unwavering message needs to be all about the customer and/or community.

Subway’s crisis team took fast, decisive action. They were not going to risk being perceived as putting their own commercial interests before those of society — especially when it came to the welfare of children.

I think an additional subtext of Subway’s crisis that deserves more thought is the role that social media played in providing an avenue for Mr. Fogle to rise to fame as a brand advocate from the ranks of the general public. Brands who might be considering elevating unknowns to spokesperson roles may want to revisit the pros and cons of that equation and consider a more formal vetting process.

Sobel: Turning to another ripped from the headlines scenario, I’m interested in your thoughts regarding the hacking at AshleyMadison.com, the adult dating site meant to facilitate discreet extramarital affairs. Here we have not only credit card information being made public but intimate details about site users' sexuality. How do you see this playing out from a reputation management perspective?

Leach: We saw this before with the “Hollywood Madam” back in the 1990s. As the Ashley Madison saga unfolds, we will likely see this type of white hat extortion ruin several careers and test the hiring standards and retention policies of our nation’s government and private enterprise employers. The affected individuals and companies will have to manage their brand reputations either proactively or reactively as they see fit.

In my view, the central issue here is privacy in the Internet age. We are increasingly witnessing breaches of sensitive data — Ashley Madison, Target, Sony Pictures, the US Office of Personnel Management, etc. — for political, moral and financial reasons.

Data security, privacy and intellectual property rights will remain a core issue as our dependence on the Internet grows. So, from a reputation management standpoint, crisis experts need to do more contingency planning, not only for vulnerabilities they can foresee based on recent events, but for their worst case, nightmare scenarios that are accidents waiting to happen. Companies need to plan on that level because there are no limits today as to what can be hacked and leaked.

Sobel: Back in 2010 the Pew Research Center published an article entitled “Reputation Management and Social Media.” It said that, “Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many Internet users, especially the young. While some Internet users are careful to project themselves online in a way that suits specific audiences, others … embrace an open approach to sharing information about themselves and do not take steps to restrict what they share.” Do you agree?

Leach: As more people live out loud on the latest social media platforms, our society’s moral fortitude will continue to be tested. But we are also seeing a lot of positive impact on society around the world because of social media. It’s all about what type of information is being shared — not the sharing of information itself.

Sobel: Finally, in a recent blog post by Michael Fertik, CEO and founder of Reputation.com, he states his belief that reputation management is closely tied to privacy. “Most of us want to prioritize privacy. But then the idea of learning the ins and outs of privacy settings on Facebook and Gmail (for example), becomes intimidating and we go right ahead and post a status update without considering the consequences.” How do you advise your clients with regard to these kinds of issues both from a personal as well as a professional standpoint?

Leach:  There’s a saying we’ve all heard: “Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to read about in The New York Times.” Once you hit the send button, your information runs the risk of going public no matter what a site’s privacy rights or terms and conditions say. Never forget that the Internet was conceived to share information.