Reputation Rx: How to Come Back Stronger After a Crisis

We all do it. We fail. We don’t want to fail — but we do.

I conduct crisis trainings across the country and begin each session with a request: “Raise your hand if you are perfect.” I get a handful of brave souls who think they are without flaws. The rest of us, not so much.

We can usually recover from a personal slip up by making amends and doing some soul searching.

In business, the same is true if we admit our shortcomings, take our medicine and respond.

When a business fails – even when it’s not their fault – the reputational repercussions are of an entirely different magnitude and duration.

Whether private data goes public or an employee goes rogue, a corporate crisis can generate successive shock waves of public scorn. The fallout can obliterate a proud legacy of philanthropy and public service. And, it can wipe out a company’s customer base.

Plan to fail
But a crisis doesn’t have to break your business. Not if you plan to fail.

While that may sound like a self-defeating prophesy, crisis planning is a business’ best defense to protect its reputation.

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After all, businesses are human endeavors, so it’s not a matter of whether you’ll have a crisis, but when. And that’s why every business needs a crisis communications plan – with the help of outside communications and legal counsel.

Crisis defined
What constitutes a crisis? Simply put, it’s a business problem or operational threat that puts your organization’s reputation at risk.

Whether it’s an industrial accident or an executive scandal, any crisis can jeopardize your financial, reputational and brand health. How? By devaluing your organization’s most valuable currency: trust.

As a former investigative reporter, I’ve often witnessed executives’ disbelief when negative news came to light. My advice? Step up – and walk toward the crisis. Owning up to the problem is the first step toward fixing it and regaining lost trust.

Get ahead of disaster
News travels fast, but bad news travels faster. That’s especially true today, when the nonstop news cycle and ubiquitous social media can instantly fan the flames of public outrage – and continue to kindle false information.

Take comfort in this: A well-managed crisis can actually raise your industry reputation. If you handle a crisis well, key stakeholders – including your internal and external audiences – will praise you for walking toward the crisis and taking responsibility for a tough situation. An organization’s key audiences understand that tough situations happen, but it’s how you handle it that makes all the difference.

Crisis survivors

University Medical Center (UMC) in Las Vegas was faced with mass casualties following the tragic shooting at a concert on the Vegas Strip. Media from across the country converged on the hospital. CNN, in particular, had a reporter on scene trying to describe chaos and confusion within the hospital assuming the staff was overwhelmed. But it was quite the contrary, because of the hospital’s extensive crisis preparedness. A media-trained UMC physician spoke confidently on live television about the scene inside the hospital and the organization’s response, while expressing gratitude for the staff’s readiness.

This proactive and transparent communications strategy allowed UMC to control its own crisis narrative.

Top recovery tactics
How can you bounce back from a potential crisis? Prepare for recovery before it even happens. Include detailed recovery tactics within your crisis communications plan, then review and update your plan often, and hold training and practice sessions.

Consider including these essential recovery tactics:

  1. Confront the problem
    Fight the human instinct to deny, minimize, blame or hide. Admit the problem – in fact, announce your own bad news to take control of the narrative. Then acknowledge the pain it may have caused and apologize, even if you’ve done nothing wrong. Continue to affirm the concerns of all affected parties.
  2. Communicate clearly and often
    Your crisis communications plan should identify potential impacts on all stakeholder groups and provide messaging tailored to each group. Start by telling your own employees about the event. They deserve to know, and by confiding in them you’ll gain their trust and support.

Prioritize communications with your customers, board and other crucial stakeholders and then focus on the news media. Be honest and responsive in your news media communications. Treat reporters with respect and always get back to them. Never say, “No comment.”

  1. Stay visible, be transparent
    Leaders don’t hide. When executives maintain a presence, it reassures employees and affirms to your public that you’re dealing with the issue. Train business leaders to speak with the media and make sure they know all the facts beforehand, and avoid “weasel words.” Say, “We made mistakes,” not “Mistakes were made.”
  2. Understand the landscape — and your exposure
    Media monitoring and issue tracking are good practices in the best of times. By staying on top of opinion trends and anticipating emerging issues, your business can prepare for potential threats.

In the worst of times – just after a crisis – media monitoring tools are essential. They can help you understand exactly how the crisis is playing out, and how it is affecting your reputation and your brand. New rounds of recriminations can continue to surface even after the initial crisis has passed. Keep your ear to the ground.

Take action
When the crisis is over, remember that actions speak louder than words. Organizations need to make changes that will help prevent a similar event – whether that means engaging independent quality experts or auditors, changing company policies or reporting structures, or improving training, technology or equipment.

No business is immune from a reputational crisis. But when bad things happen, good crisis management can restore your reputation – and stakeholders’ trust – far more quickly. You could even become a model to your industry and your public.

This post originally appeared in Twin Cities Business.

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