Complex Made Simple

Crisis Alert: How to get your company’s reputation back

The digital age has made it more difficult to get out of a "sticky" situation - and those are bound to come by sooner or later ... but don't fret!

Don't bother sweeping it under the rug; face your fears Call your PR team before you call your lawyers Show remorse; be authentically sorry and display conduct to demonstrate change

(Words by Brooke Boyschau & Sophie Simpson, Co-Founders of Public Relations Agency Atteline)

While all businesses wish for smooth sailing, waves of trouble are likely to roll through at some point along the journey. Once upon a time, in an "offline" era, sticky issues could be tightly managed and quietly dealt with. Yet in the digital age, people – and businesses – don’t often screw up in silence. In fact, once the pot boils over, we are no longer just worrying about cleaning up the mess within the immediate area – we are looking to cyberspace with panicked visions of how to tackle a communications crisis of exponential proportions.  

Day after day, we read internet headlines of executives losing their jobs due to workplace misconduct or product and services failures – be it Hollywood, Wall Street or Walmart, no industry is safe from the power of the digisphere. When word travels, it trails the speed of light. What’s more, social media magnifies the mishaps or misdeeds of companies or individuals, creating a digital footprint that can alert the masses to incidents that may have happened even years in the past.  

Companies (and people) can spend a lifetime building their reputations and, while we think they’re made of brick and mortar, reputations are more like a house of cards – vulnerable to a puff of wind (or the click of a button). We've all heard the expression that you're only as good as your last mistake, and when it hits, what companies can be left trying to preserve, or rebuild, is their brand equity – the intangibles such as customer loyalty, prestige and positive brand recognition. Mistakes aside, businesses globally can be defamed, or "misframed" easily, finding themselves on the defensive in often the most improbable moments.

The fall-out from one innocently misguided or ill-thought out decision – even a mere tweet – can leave an organisation at the mercy of the figurative, or literal jury for the remainder of its lifespan. On a more serious level, companies can (rightly) be called out for unethical or questionable conduct that dodged greater public knowledge in the past. And sometimes, we can actually do everything right—but one unfounded accusation, or false truth, can go on to define us thanks to the power of the internet. For large corporations, their brand equity is the company's most valuable asset, and clawing back a damaged corporate reputation can be a long, painful and expensive business.

Preventing a crippling blow to your reputation means you need a tactical crisis plan, which caters to the specific situation. However, all crisis plans have some factors in common: They must be swift. They must be aggressive. And if you are indeed in the wrong, you must first and foremost acknowledge the situation with clients, followers, and in some cases the general public, and with that demonstrate intention and commitment to set things it right. Companies should not sit in a state of denial. Those who have tried to sweep it under the carpet have typically paid a much higher price in terms of loss of consumer trust. 

That means you should be calling your PR team, before your lawyers. 

From a PR perspective, it is very important for companies to have a recognisable spokesperson – a reassuring CEO, or Managing Director, who is leading the public communication and steering the ship through the murmurs, or mayhem. 

Take the great fraud of Fyre Festival as a poignant example. When the disastrous "real life" site images began to leak on social media, it presented the now convicted fraudster Billy McFarland with the chance to address the public honestly about the festival's strained progress and manage expectations for customers and investors. Rather, he chose to ignore the digital firestorm, reportedly dismissed the better judgement of his consultants and led over 10,000 unassuming international guests into the figurative fire.

Would a swift and honest management of those initial social media photos have prevented the PR fall-out that was to follow? Probably not. Though it may have preserved some skerrick of McFarland's integrity in the public eye. While the eye-watering mismanagement of Fyre Festival and fraudulent conduct reached an unfathomable scale beyond the organization's social media narrative, social media did indeed play a pivotal role in stoking the flames of Fyre's public deception, and when presented the opportunity to speak directly, control the message and partially soften the inevitable blow that was to come, McFarland buried his head in the sand. 

That brings us to the issue of "remorse". Being authentically sorry and going on to display conduct that is a witness to the fundamental change in direction you or your company has undergone is a necessary step in encouraging people to offer forgiveness and do business with you again. You have to be truly sorry, and you have to say so in your words and subsequent deeds. If you go wrong again, you may never get another chance.  

While much of reputation protection and defense seems reactive, it really isn’t. True, you might not be able to anticipate a specific crisis when it comes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan for one. At the bare minimum, you should have an internal team in place whose responsibility is to coordinate a strategy for when a reputational crisis hits, in addition to working with your outside communications team to devise an action plan. That plan must take into account everyone who might be affected by the crisis: employees, customers, partners, friends, and family.

The plan must also account for every communications platform available to you, with specific plans for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Website. You also should also consider how to leverage video channels such as YouTube, as well as traditional media outlets like broadcast television, newspapers and online news outlets.

Not every reputational crisis can be handled as easily. Yet, any work that takes back control of your own message is worth the time and effort.