In the past, winning Andersen as a PR client would have been a coup for any firm. A true behemoth of the business world, its sheer size and "celebrity" status bestowed on it a sense of infallibility that companies craved to be associated with. But now, as with so many celebrities, its dirty dealings have been pushed into the public domain and its star is falling fast. A dream brief has become a nightmare, and the agencies in charge of damage limitation are potentially facing industry hara-kiri.
Prior to last December the only real blot on the firm's pristine copybook was its involvement in the collapse of the high-profile 80s car manufacturer DeLorean. Which, to be fair, was probably down to the fact that Michael J Fox was the only person ever to drive one, and his particular model went back in time if it exceeded 88 mph (hardly a good advertisement).
But times have changed. The accountancy giant is now widely regarded as the chief architect of the ill-fated Enron house of cards - the biggest ever bankruptcy in corporate history - and its ubiquitous press presence is rapidly disproving the claim that all publicity is good publicity. Adding insult to grievous injury is the fact that, at the time of going to press, it was also facing a regulatory decision to investigate its part in supporting SSL's dodgy sales figures last year (mildly over-inflated to the tune of about £22m). A small matter that probably won't relieve the current epidemic of chronically itchy feet amongst its remaining clients and staff.
If any company is in desperate need of some good crisis PR, it's Andersen. With this in mind, we thought we'd call on the expertise of a selection of our local industry denizens to offer the current fire fighters some flame-retardant tips. At the same time we're convinced that the Andersen execs, if they can pull themselves away from their excruciating appearances at Capitol Hill, will also be grateful for a bit of gratis advice (after all, I hear they're avid readers of the mag...).
If it's any consolation to the firm's hefty cheddars they can at least take heart that they currently seem to be handling the situation in the most advisable manner. Martin Howells, the MD of Leeds and Newcastle-based Lynx PR, noted: "On the face of it Andersen looks to be getting it about right, appearing to be co-operative and helpful in the US, while elsewhere the offices distance themselves from the matter." However, he did add, "Although I do feel the statement of 30 January by the UK managing partner John Ormerod committed the firm too much, perhaps straying into excuses before all the facts had come to light." Which seems kind of like going round to reclaim your football when one of your bigger friends has kicked it through a neighbour's window. Meaning - if it's not you that did it, don't make up elaborate excuses and end up getting your arse tanned for somebody else.
Leaving backsides behind us (as God intended), Howells' regional peers firmly agreed that an open and conservatively honest approach was the best way to handle the huge majority of crisis PR cases. "I think you have to be very up-front, with visible communications, as a result of this kind of incident," commented Brian Beech of Leedex Euro RSCG. "They can't pretend it didn't happen and battening down the hatches would only exacerbate their problems. The businesses that adopt an honest and up-front approach are the ones that benefit in the long term." He added, "And if you're deceitful at the outset you'll have to reap the consequences when the truth eventually comes out."
Andy Leatham, the media director at Manchester's Mason Williams, concurred with Mr Beech when he stated, "The worst move that a company can make in a situation like this is to go 'hull down' and say nothing, because such a move implies guilt. The story isn't going to go away just because Andersen, or whoever, takes the decision not to talk about it. The story will get published, so you might as well make sure that it's your story."
Which is a very good point. People, and particularly the people of the press, can have over-active imaginations, and if left to run wild there's no telling what speculation they might transform into the gospel truth. (Take, for example, the famous Fergie toe-sucking incident. The tabloids implied that there was a sexual motive behind her American friend's actions, when in reality Fergie's toes are just really, really tasty. Just like Kentucky Fried Chicken, allegedly.)
Despite the fact that Andersen seems to be handling the incident in the correct spirit, the bad news is that its brand is undeniably tarnished. The revelations over their creative accounting to boost Enron's faltering balance sheets, not to mention the now infamous shredding of the evidence, may have done something to rid the industry of its rather staid image, but it's done nothing to inspire confidence in the firm's credibility. So where does it go from here? How can it soothe the aforementioned itchy feet of its clients and staff and re-invigorate its ailing brand name? Surprisingly enough, our experts think that a determined PR push might hold the answers.
"Andersen cannot simply reassure its clients and hope the problem will go away," said Stefan Lepowski of Newcastle's Karol Marketing. "The company must introduce a comprehensive communications strategy targeted at all audiences. I would suggest it considers separate but synergistic strategies for clients, staff, trade, media and the public at large."
He continued, "It would be wise for Andersen to recognise that the media and public are influenced as a 'decision-making unit' and tackling each section in isolation whilst ignoring the overall picture would be wholly inadequate."
Lepowski added that PR was the ideal discipline to change the negative perceptions of the firm as "Advertising will do nothing for it in its present condition - it will just be good money after bad." Which, of course, he would say, being in PR, but it nonetheless does seem to be an acute observation.
In terms of tactics, both Lepowski and Leedex's Beech stressed that the firm now needs to move on and start accentuating the positive rather than simply dealing with the negative. "The brand needs to be re-invented," said Beech. "They have to start again and look at all the elements that made them such a success in the first place. Once identified, they need to use a communications programme to project these positive brand messages, to re-establish their credibility and move the emphasis away from the negative."
Lepowski agreed that Andersen desperately needs to get back to "selling the positive as soon as possible" and suggested that if ("by hook or by crook") it could secure a high-profile new client, a PR initiative could utilise the positive messages this implied.
But of course you may as well be loading your communications cannons with blanks if you aim them at the public and potential clients without first attempting to win the battle on the "staff front". Your employees, as all good managers will acknowledge, are the firm's most important ambassadors and as such need to feel positive about their firm. You wouldn't send someone who thought their country was crap to work in a foreign embassy and, similarly speaking, you don't want a member of your staff telling all and sundry that they're ashamed to work for your company. Word of mouth is, after all, a very powerful medium.
As such, as Brian Beech commented, "Andersen needs to realise that it's facing as much of an internal as an external communications job." Andy Leatham wholeheartedly concurred, noting that the senior management now needs to make a point of explaining the background, the issues raised and the way they have responded. "Leaving the staff to read about it in the papers or see it on TV is just not sufficient," he said. "It makes them feel undervalued and kept in the dark. Classic mushroom management."
Karol's Stefan Lepowski went as far as suggesting some tactics for reaffirming the faith amongst the firm's congregation. "It might be an idea to poach or get a very high-profile business name/personality to join the company and also to initiate a solid trade and graduate recruitment campaign. There needs to be an emphasis to communicate the benefit of the Andersen name on your CV. At the moment some people working in the industry probably feel that their association with the name could be held against them in career terms."
The executives at Andersen are clearly facing an arduous uphill struggle, but according to our local luminaries they have at least started climbing in the right direction. They have been open about their involvement and now need to reassure their clients and staff by "selling the positive" rather than dwelling on the negative. The firm needs to rediscover what has made it one of the most potent forces in the business world and start trading on that successful formula.
If it can emerge intact from the legal washing machine it's now due to enter (60 Enron creditors are looking to take it to the cleaners) then a good crisis PR programme may help it to regain some of its lost credibility. Failing that, it might be time for them to beg Mr M J Fox for a loan of his time-travelling DeLorean. If they use that as a getaway vehicle I can't see them coming "Back to the Future", can you?