Four Tips to Navigate Reputation-Challenging Crises

Most organizations will face a crisis that challenges their reputation. Highly visible brands are at higher risk, but even small companies are vulnerable. Here are four tips to help.

'By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail'

Ben Franklin’s advice still holds 200 years later. When a smartphone video can go global before you are aware of a problem, not having a crisis plan is hard to excuse.

As a former media director at a large railroad, I never left home without our crisis manual. It helped when midnight calls turned into days-long deployments to the scene of serious derailments.

The speed of an organization’s response to a crisis can influence its credibility. Plan ahead and be ready to act. Work with subject-matter experts in your organization to identify potential crises. Develop message platforms to form the basis of your response. Areas of vulnerability to examine include:

  •      Product/manufacturing failures
  •      Infrastructure failures
  •      Regulatory compliance failures
  •      Management failures
  •      Inappropriate activities (employees or executives)
  •      Social media mistakes

To be ready to respond, understand steps your organization has taken to prevent problems and ensure desired performance. You need to consider:

  •      How you train
  •      Your audit processes
  •      Compliance regimens
  •      Employee and process oversight
  •      Documentation

'You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want'

Once you’ve identified risks, developing messages to explain your position on those vulnerabilities is the vital next step. Vet messages with internal partners in critical management organizations: executive, legal, HR, investor relations, government relations and sales. Ensure everyone understands how the organization will respond when a crisis hits.

Having knowledge of facts and strategic agreement will help you make a persuasive case relatively quickly. This will make it more likely you will convince key audiences that what happened is an anomaly.

For example, when the novel coronavirus emerged, our school district team's job was to reassure parents. We were able to quickly produce the checklist that custodians use to guide their daily classroom cleaning.

In addition, we named the list of hospital-grade anti-viral cleaners. The simple step of quickly detailing those procedures publicly helped parents feel more confident about sending their children to school.

Practice: 'It's the thing you do that makes you good'

Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. An annual crisis drill will give organizations a huge advantage in responding when a real crisis occurs. As part of any practice, organizations should:

  • review the risks they’ve identified to make sure they remain relevant
  • review the team assigned to respond to a crisis
  • review the resources that you can access quickly
  • revise the messages in your response kit so they remain current and accurate

An essential outcome of any exercise is building resilience. It is unlikely that the crisis you practiced on is the one you will encounter. But team exercises will create muscle memory that you can rely on when the real thing occurs.

'You always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it'

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf captures the heart of leadership when he talks about "the hard part." It’s an important note in crises, when communicators are pushed to the front of the problem-solving line.

Another powerful tenet comes from Dan McGinn, founder and CEO of issues management-firm McGinn and Company. “People will forgive almost anything except gross negligence, cruelty and arrogance,” he says.

Acting quickly, providing accurate information and doing "the right thing” are the only answers to reputation crises. Part of every communicator’s responsibility is to help leaders understand and act in ways that stakeholders can respect.

Anticipating scenarios, building a tool-kit of resources and practicing your approach will give your team the confidence and credibility to lead when the company or organization needs it most.

Rob Doolittle is director, communications and community engagement, Loudoun County Public Schools