Advancing ACC’s Global Vision And The Interests Of The In-House Bar

Monday, November 12, 2012 - 08:23

The Editor interviews Derede McAlpin, ACC’s Vice President and Chief Communications Officer.

Editor: As the newly arrived vice president and chief communications officer at ACC, please tell our readers about your previous career.

McAlpin: I officially started my career at ABC News in Philadelphia. I first worked in their public affairs department as an intern and then switched to the news department once I graduated, where I covered all kinds of high-profile stories as part of their news team – stories varied from presidential elections to trials and crisis issues.  My work also included a breaking news story involving Gary Heidnik, a serial killer whose case inspired the movie Silence of the Lambs, and coverage of the trial of Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, an accused Philadelphia mob crime boss.

I turned down a full scholarship at a prestigious university to attend Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia and take advantage of their comprehensive international law program. While in that program I studied international law in Rome, Italy.

Following graduation from law school, I moved back to Washington, DC, where I worked at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia as a judicial law clerk. Clerking not only offered invaluable training and experience in the legal system, it provided a precious glimpse into the reasoning and thought process that go into judicial decisions. It was a capstone career opportunity by far because I was responsible for everything from legal research, drafting orders, writing draft opinions and stipulations, and preparing pre-argument memoranda to serving as a liaison with the media in high-profile trials.  As a former member of the press, I particularly enjoyed anticipating quotes journalists would use in their trial coverage. After my clerkship, I decided to combine my communications experience and legal background into a niche career rather than practice law.

Prior to joining ACC, I worked for Levick Strategic Communications, a firm specializing in the representation of countries and companies in the highest-stakes global crises and litigation. There, I worked as a vice president on the Crisis & Litigations team, where I directed media strategy on high-profile trials, Supreme Court cases, advocacy issues, issues management and bet-the-farm crisis issues. It was exciting to work with global organizations and cream-of-the-crop legal teams on some of the biggest issues challenging businesses today. A typical day could include developing a strategy to help address corporate governance issues, online reputation attacks, data breaches, employment disputes, social media challenges, and multijurisdictional matters, among others. In a marketplace where a 24/7 news cycle and digital media make every business decision a potential landmine and where the Court of Public Opinion essentially deems one guilty until proven innocent – no matter what the Constitution says – I find it extremely fulfilling to have worked alongside some of the best in-house and outside counsel in the world.

That said, I am eternally grateful for the wealth of experience I’ve received over the years. From providing ACC members with an inside perspective of how news organizations work to increasing the visibility of issues that matter most to inside lawyers, I can sincerely say that I never envisioned that working behind the scenes in the media and legal arena would ultimately lead to such a fulfilling career path.  

Editor: Please describe your chief mission at ACC.

McAlpin: My mission is taking ACC to a whole other level by helping the organization advance its strategic plan. ACC is doing so many great things as the go-to organization for the in-house bar.  My goal is not only to raise ACC’s visibility but also reinforce ACC’s position as voice of the in-house bar and help advance the interests of our members around the world.

Editor: According to a survey conducted by EisnerAmper, reputational risk has overtaken regulatory compliance risk as a primary concern for boards. What are your thoughts about this statement?

McAlpin: It is true. As one who has worked in a crisis management environment, I am aware that we live in a time when one news story could basically kill a company’s reputation. We live in an era of higher accountability in which a single negative news story about a company can dominate the headlines and diminish a company’s most treasured asset, its brand. Companies can no longer afford to let misinformation dominate the marketplace. In a news environment, where there are investigations on the grounds of hearsay accusations, regulatory action, high-profile litigation and data breaches, it is more important than ever for companies to keep stakeholders adequately informed. All of these things increase the level of risk for companies, and all of these issues ultimately connect to and concern the board of directors. In representing clients of different organizations that have had to interact with the C-suite and leadership, in every instance board members have a high level of concern that their organizations are managing risk properly, since it ultimately creates more vulnerability for board members. Public faith in corporations is at an all-time low. Everyone from politicians to NGOs and shareholders wants to be assured that corporations are held accountable for any and every action. Boards have a shared sense of purpose with their organizations. Therefore, at the end of the day, a board of directors can’t risk exposure to an organization’s blind spot.  

Editor: What are the major areas of reputational risk and liability for U.S. corporations? Do these risks change substantially for companies doing business globally?

McAlpin: The world is essentially flat, which calls for every issue being viewed as essentially global. A local issue is not local anymore. Thanks to the Internet, an incident in a small town will go viral and spread around the world in a matter of minutes. Therefore, you really have to understand how your particular incident is going to affect a broad range of stakeholders, not just U.S. customers, clients, your board or distributors. You also have to determine how it is going to be perceived by any stakeholder that could be touched by your particular issue.

In these times and considering the issues I’ve worked on, the biggest reputational risks would include a more aggressive regulatory environment. I’ve worked on a variety of cases where the Department of Justice, the Securities & Exchange Commission and members of Congress have indicated that they are watching issues very closely. Anticorruption matters and whistleblower issues are big.  Other issues are in the areas of technology, environmental, and financial sectors – basically all corporate areas across the board. During this political season, especially with a high-profile election, there are political issues driving agendas that create reputational risk. Therefore, organizations should take preemptive measures to avoid being the perfect whipping boy on issues tied to their organizations. This is also a time period in which there is increased whistleblower activity, given recent news by the U.S. government and  oversight agencies. There are also high-profile issues of concern to board members, such as shareholder activism, or with outside organizations, such as Occupy Wall Street.

Editor: What is the interplay between reputational risk and other areas of corporate risk, such as product liability, class actions, qui tam, mass torts and regulatory matters?

McAlpin: Crisis happens; it is not a matter of if but when. The key for any organization is to address the issue when it’s at an ember level rather than when the house is burning down. You can always expect some crisis to happen – on a personal level, on a corporate level and on a global level. If a corporate risk is not managed properly, it will create a reputational risk. The key is to manage the corporate risk and anticipate issues that might impact your organization early. Many reputational risk issues are created because of a communications and leadership gap.  It could involve employees or managers who are not adequately trained and find themselves in the position of making split-second decisions that could ultimately bring a company to its knees.  It generally all comes down to how effectively you respond in the first 24 hours.  

Editor: What are some techniques to bolster or restore a company’s reputation after significant or catastrophic events, such as data breaches, product liability claims, false advertising claims or allegations of corruption?

McAlpin: First, look at any crisis or issue that has damaged your reputation as an opportunity. Every crisis presents an opportunity. The failure to manage a reputational risk properly is essentially a lost opportunity. All parties concerned should convene and look at lessons learned, thus providing a prime opportunity to move forward. The public overall is very forgiving and expects companies to make mistakes, so it’s a prime opportunity to build a reputation by taking a show rather than tell approach. This means if an organization is faced with a compliance issue, show you have rectified the issue and that you are doing more than you’re required to do.

For example, one of the issues my team worked on involved a tainted product that could be harmful to babies. The organization put the information out on a “mommy blog” (a highly influential blog written by mothers as a way to share information about childcare issues and products). Social media provided the fastest way to get information out. As a result, the company did not face any litigation, nor did it receive any scrutiny from the media. It showed that the product manager was on top of the issue. It offered a prime example of “running to the light” to resolve a reputational risk.

Editor: What are the best methods to track press and other public coverage of corporate activities? Given the volume and accessibility of information posted on the Internet, has some of the responsibility for such monitoring been allocated to IT or other departments?

McAlpin: Every organization is different, depending on its size. In many organizations tracking coverage is a communications function, and in others the responsibility falls in the hands of an IT-savvy professional. IT professionals often monitor website activity and traffic. I recommend that organizations implement an early warning system through daily monitoring of news, not only regarding their organization but also their competitors and any issues affecting their particular industry. There have been many instances where there is an issue involving a consumer product amounting to a little murmur on a blog. Some organizations used to ignore social media chatter, particularly that involving an unsatisfied customer, but we live in a time when you can no longer ignore that type of activity. 

Today’s need is for professionals who are able not only to screen traditional media but who can also monitor all social media activity, as on Twitter and Facebook. If a corporation does not create its own Facebook profile and there’s someone criticizing the organization online, it raises the risk of profiles popping up that could be mistaken as an official site for the organization. The bottom line – if you don’t take ownership of your reputation online, others will.  

Editor: What is the role of public relations within corporate governance structures? Please talk about specific strategies and how they may be affected by the particular medium in use (social media or network broadcasting, for example).

McAlpin: Overall good corporate governance will expose and correct any issues before issues become major problems for an organization. It is critical to establish a positive organizational culture from a corporate governance standpoint. Perception is reality. It will trump facts anytime. The highest expectation of an organization from a public relations standpoint is to demonstrate transparency and accountability. A failure to do so raises risk from a regulatory, litigation and consumer-confidence standpoint. It is also important from a public relations perspective to make sure that all of an organization’s actions depict a high level of responsibility, consistency and fairness. The most important is transparency.

Editor: How can companies earn the long-term confidence of consumers and the public, both domestically and globally?

McAlpin: This depends on good corporate governance, being transparent, reinforcing your brand, and showing that you are accountable. Show rather than tell your stakeholders that you’re doing the right thing.

Editor: How can companies earn the confidence of regulators and enforcement agencies in the design and implementation of compliance programs?

McAlpin: Every organization will face some type of crisis or reputational risk. As the voice of the in-house bar, ACC is aware that in-house counsel is increasingly called on to wear more hats, which means there will never be a shortage of risk. Therefore, in a time of instant and lasting impressions, it is imperative for in-house counsel to know the strategies and best practices needed to protect the companies they serve. It is also beneficial for them to use ACC's wide array of resources so that they are fully prepared when regulators or enforcement agencies come knocking at their door.

Please email the interviewee at mcalpin@acc.com with questions about this interview.

Photo by Scott Dressel-Martin.