Rob Weinhold and Fallston Group
Years ago, Warren Buffet warned, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Today, Facebook, Twitter, TMZ and a 24/7 news cycle have shortened that descent to less than two minutes.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tiger Woods. The Tylenol tampering and the Toyota recall. A patient shooting at Johns Hopkins Hospital and medical misconduct at St. Joseph Medical Center. Enron and BP. Every day we hear of another news story that threatens the reputation of a brand that took years to build. The speed at which the story travels renders the truthfulness and accuracy of the claim practically irrelevant. The damage is done.
Enter Rob Weinhold, the principal founder and leader of Fallston Group, LLC. Actually, if you take Buffett’s warning to heart, Weinhold and Fallston Group would have been part of your strategic plan before anything actually happened. Weinhold and Fallston Group consider themselves “reputation keepers.” Working with companies and individuals before, during and after a situation, their job is to make sure you or your company’s brand – your reputation – is protected.
Rob Weinhold presents a formidable image himself. His shaven head and large frame make it easy to picture him as the police officer he once was. An early career as a sworn Baltimore City Police Officer proved an appropriate training ground for this level headed crisis manager. “Diffusing volatile situations and experiencing the reactions of normal people under abnormal circumstances, really taught me how to approach matters in a non-emotional and methodical way to get the job done,” he admits.
Leaving the ranks, but not the organization, Weinhold held the post of director of public affairs for the Baltimore City Police for nearly seven years. As the calm voice delivering the facts, he gave thousands of interviews to the public and media, always telling the story with discretion. He went on in his public career to hold other prestigious appointments as the chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Justice and as an executive within the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
After years in the public sector, Weinhold took a job as vice president of Amateur Baseball for Ripken Baseball, working for Cal Ripken, Jr. Some might see this as a major departure from what he knew, but, with both an undergraduate and master’s degree in marketing, Weinhold sees it merely as a logical progression of events that got him where he is today. “At Ripken, I was a trusted advisor handling all the aspects of the Ripken family’s core amateur business,” he states. “Marketing. Business development. Customer experience. Operations. Everything. My team had the good fortune of leading the business to profitability within the first year and ultimately grew revenues by 700 percent during the nearly seven years I was there. I worked shoulder to shoulder with Cal and Bill [Ripken] to really understand their vision for the company and what we needed to do collectively to get there.”
A defining moment for Weinhold came after expertly handling a tragic incident involving a young player at one of their baseball venues in South Carolina. He remembers Cal commenting on how well he handled a crisis – coming in, seeing through all the tragedy and emotion, assessing and then taking control of the situation – and at all times with compassion. Weinhold admits to always having the entrepreneurial itch but not being able to focus it fully. Cal’s comment helped him continue to realize that he had real talent and skill in handling these tough situations. “I had to figure out if I liked handling adversity and crisis enough to do it full time,” he says. “Then I had to figure out if it could make money by developing a sound business model for it.” The answers he found led him to form Fallston Group.
The group, led by Weinhold, includes executive team members Joseph DeFeo, Gina Brelesky and Frank Barile. Together, they deliver the expertise in Fallston Group’s four main concentration areas: Crisis and Issue Management, Strategic Communications and Media, Safety and Security, and Resiliency Training. Other subject matter experts (SMEs) are called in to tailor the crisis team to match the needs of the client’s situation. Already, Weinhold has served his clients with SMEs in human resources and organization development; communications and media relations; quality assurance and safety in food and pharmaceutical manufacturing; cyber security and surveillance; and accounting and financial fraud to complete their team. This approach keeps the strategy at the highest level while adding layered expert knowledge to address the nuances of each situation. “This model allows us to be very flexible. We’re not industry specific,” emphasizes Weinhold. “We bring together independent professionals to work as one highly skilled team for the client.”
He adds, “We’re most effective when companies consider us an extension of their C-level management team. We are discreet, loyal and trustworthy. We have no motive to take over your position or your company when you’re at your most vulnerable. When your brand survives the incident, we’ve been successful.”
Anatomy of a Crisis
As any of the media storm examples above can prove, once a story is out, so is business as usual. Weinhold and Fallston Group help businesses prepare for a crisis with prevention strategies and training tactics; navigate a crisis for optimal outcome through consultancy or hands-on involvement; and recover from a crisis with an emphasis on resiliency leadership and employee well-being. Their objective is first and foremost to assist companies in preventing an incident. However, if their involvement is after the fact, then they work to mitigate the damage. Weinhold says, “Our goal is to turn short-term adversity into long-term advantage.”
Weinhold points out that the first step in crisis management and communication is to perform a crisis audit within a company – finding out what keeps the CEO up at night. Claims of sexual harassment? Product integrity? Social media attack? Employee relations issues? Fallston Group performs the audit with the executive team and key decision makers to uncover five to 10 potential issues. Weinhold smiles and adds, “As you can guess, with a little imagination, there are limitless scenarios. We guide the participants to think in terms of probability instead of possibility.”
From the list of potential issues, Fallston Group will help the client’s assigned team identify the top three. These are used as the foundation to write the crisis communication plan, develop the training and then execute the plan with the rest of the company’s employees. “Once this is completed, the company will be able to refer to the plan as a guide to offset unusual circumstances if they should occur,” Weinhold points out. Weinhold emphasizes the training they conduct using tabletop exercises and simulations. “Training is crucial,” says Weinhold. “You don’t get buy-in for the plan unless there is confidence and ownership in the plan. And, you don’t instill confidence unless key personnel experience the plan in action and develop their corporate muscle memory through extensive training. You can actually see the ‘aha moment’ when someone around the table gets it and the confidence has seeped in. We know then that we’ve developed an advocate for the company and brand.”
The training also includes media training and simulations for the CEO, the company spokesperson and other company personnel. “I’ve seen the most impressive company representatives become ineffective when surrounded by media at the podium,” explains Weinhold. “We train our clients to message develop and deliver the information that journalists need to tell their stories. Reporters want the what, why, who and when, but they also want the reaction of the CEO. We practice using a real microphone and camera with lights so that our clients are fully prepared for how it feels. We relentlessly question and train.”
Further down the crisis continuum, Weinhold and his team can help a company and its employees through the healing process and recovery. Sitting on his desk is a copy of the book, “The Secrets of Resilient Leadership: When Failure is Not an Option,” by Dr. George S. Everly, Jr. The book and its lessons are the basis of the Resiliency Sciences Institute, International at UMBC Training Centers led by Dr. Everly. Impressed by the book, Weinhold contributed to the course development and completed the certification process, leading to his appointment to core faculty status in the fall of 2010. Dr. Everly has become one of Fallston Group’s SMEs. “Our business begins with the crisis audit and ends with recovery,” he adds. “Remember, our goal is to not only manage the short-term problem effectively, but also to turn it into an advantage in the long-term. A company really has to go through every step of the crisis – including resiliency and recovery – to fully survive and thrive from it.”
Crisis management. Brand equity. Stakeholder security. These are phrases that don’t lend themselves to a 30-second elevator pitch, making Weinhold’s business development efforts a little harder than most. Furthermore, even in the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, debilitating winter storms in 2010 and most recently the tornado epidemic sweeping through the Midwest, 57 percent of small businesses and 47 percent of medium-size businesses still don’t have a basic disaster plan for their computers or networking systems, according to “Symantec 2011 SMB (Small to Medium Size Business) Disaster Preparedness Survey.” If businesses aren’t preparing for a physical shutdown or service interruption, imagine the challenge Weinhold faces convincing them they need a communications strategy as well. “It’s easier when I can speak directly to the CEO since they are the ‘keeper of the brand,'” he says. Adding, “Our strategic skill set resonates with chief executives.”
Even when he has the CEO’s ear, however, it does not mean smooth sailing. By his estimation, companies under communicate by a factor of 10. Their apprehension, he concludes, is really a result of not having the plan and confidence in the message they want to convey. His first mission is often convincing the CEO that how they react – proactively vs. reactively – will determine how they are positioned in the news. Weinhold stresses that the decisions they make today will be judged by many for years to come. A high degree of thoughtful transparency is one of the first strategies he tries to implement.
Another challenge Weinhold faces is getting companies to take social media and its impact seriously. Many companies, he observes, believe that a Facebook page or website blog is social media in a nutshell. He wants them to address social media strategically as well. “This is where some of the first signs of a smoldering issue will show up,” states Weinhold. “Like negative comments on someone’s Facebook page or bad reviews on a consumer discussion board. And with social media and the Internet, it’s the story that doesn’t stay local and never goes away,” referencing the days when front page news warranted less ink as it got pushed further back in the paper before disappearing into archives. With today’s search engines and the phenomenon of re-posting, re-Tweeting and re-blogging, a story never dies. “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will – and it may not be the story you want told,” he says.
Which brings us back to Warren Buffett’s quote and about doing things differently to protect the company’s reputation. Proactive and strategic planning before a crisis is the best way to prevent one. In today’s business climate, no company can afford to be unprepared. Weinhold adds, “Our past and current clients are our best marketing engine. CEOs talk to each other, and our clients see the value in the services we provide them – we will over deliver. CEOs refer to us as their CRO – Chief Reputation Officer.” I95
Fallston Group, LLC
323 Williams Street
Bel Air, MD