In partnership with PR News, “Lessons Earned” is a series featuring IPR Trustees sharing a difficult lesson.

When I took my dream job as head of global corporate communications at Nike in 1997, I did not know it would turn out to be my most professionally challenging and rewarding experience.

At that time, Nike was the poster child for the anti-globalization movement. In addition, it was a top target of nearly every labor and human rights organization.  A daily pummeling in major media outlets around the world was the norm.

Nike was accused of running sweatshops in its factories, mainly in Asia. The issues in its factories were real. In addition to its business model of outsourced manufacturing, Nike was a high-profile, in-your-face global brand. Its endorsers included many of the most famous athletes in the world. A billionaire was its CEO.

I was fortunate enough to be part of a team that worked to help improve the brand’s reputation. Along the way, I learned how best to rebuild a reputation in a highly tumultuous environment.

  • Know who you are. When all else fails, return to the mission of the company as your North Star.
  • Live your values. Know what you stand for and what you believe in.
  • Take responsibility. Admit your shortcomings, and always be humble.
  • Substance precedes communication. Business reforms supersede, then integrate with, communication.
  • Be accountable. Establish performance metrics and share your progress externally.
  • Be transparent. It always leads to increased credibility.
  • Engage and collaborate with stakeholders, even critics. It creates mutual learning opportunities and puts a human face on the organization.
  • Define, don’t defend. Define yourself or others will do it for you. Be on the offense, always.
  • Be inspirational. Inform, inspire and motivate your most important stakeholder–employees.
  • Stay close to customers. Keep the brand fresh and relevant, and remember you still have to sell products and services.
  • Let others talk for you. Speak with one voice and remember tone and volume matter.
  • Anticipate and prepare. Prepare for the unexpected in a world where everything and everywhere matters. Research and track your reputation.

It wasn’t an easy journey, but Nike’s reputation improved. At the time, some said this would be impossible. It’s amazing how much belief in making the impossible possible and following a few simple principles can accomplish. I was proud to be a small part of it.

Kirk Stewart, CEO of KTStewart, has more than 30 years of experience in public relations and public affairs. He played a leading role in serving APCO’s corporate clients and helped broaden and expand the firm’s corporate communication practice. Mr. Stewart served as global vice president of corporate communications for Nike, Inc. He is a Trustee for the Institute for Public Relations. 

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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