Rapid Response: Preparing for and Managing a Hit to Your Corporate Reputation

March 1, 2018

It takes discipline, flexibility and speed to overcome a difficult issue in today’s communications environment. What might have been a minor incident a few years ago can quickly become a business disaster today, thanks to social media and smartphone video. 

Indeed, technology has dramatically altered how communications professionals and the organizations we work for must handle issues that threaten our companies’ reputations and licenses to operate. Interacting with employees, investors, consumers, regulators and even the media demands transparency, diplomacy and humility.

We cannot underestimate the speed at which information now travels, nor can we ignore the increasingly public manner in which business is now conducted. A disgruntled employee can walk out of a meeting, tweet about it and start a chain of responses and events that quickly spiral out of control. Tapping out the wrong 140 characters on Twitter (or 280 if you prefer) can permanently alter a company’s fortunes. Sites like Glassdoor let employees air their grievances in the public square.

For those caught in the crosshairs of crisis and responsible for a public response, it can be difficult to manage the competing interests of legal counsel, investors, public opinion and other audience perceptions. Regardless of the dynamics, successfully navigating any issue comes down to how, when and what you communicate. So what’s a communications professional to do?

Don’t rush a crisis response

It’s not uncommon for companies to find themselves retracting or revising statements after they’ve gathered more information. The need for speed and transparency is high, but having the right information is more important than giving it quickly. Companies lose credibility every time they revise a statement.

To avoid issuing a hasty statement that you later have to revise, stay calm, ask questions and formulate a forthright and transparent response. Doing so can be difficult when your blood pressure rises and it feels like all eyes are watching you. If there are still facts to uncover, then say so in your response. Don’t pretend the crisis doesn’t exist or that you have all the answers.

Now more than ever, we have learned that it’s not possible to dodge an issue or selectively share your way out of trouble. How often have we seen decades-old statements come back to haunt elected officials? How many times have reporters’ Freedom of Information Act requests fueled new stories or internal memos been leaked to reveal details previously hidden from public view?

Right now, before a crisis, we have to admit to ourselves that times have changed, and so too must the standard practices that we as communications professionals have been honing over our entire careers. We are all doing business in and with the public, and the truth invariably comes to light in one way or another.

Tell your own story

To manage an issue, you need to play offense. In fact, one of the most trusted canons in the PR playbook is that if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you.

As soon as an issue begins to emerge, stop and think ahead. How do you want the story to end? What will it take to get there? Whose help will you need? What will your detractors say?  How will the work get done? What could derail your efforts and how do you get ahead of those threats?

The sooner you answer these questions, the faster you can share your story, correct misinformation and begin to recover.

The communications feeding frenzy that a crisis creates requires constant attention. You must be willing to share information and have the capacity to do so in real-time. This means eschewing old-line responses like “no comment” or “I’ll get back to you” and pivoting to proactive engagement.

At its heart, managing a crisis is an exercise in fact-sharing. Core points — including who, what, when, where and why — must be artfully constructed so that you direct the conversation in a helpful, not harmful, way.

In a recent study by FTI Consulting, we found that during a crisis, investors wish to collect information directly from the source.

That doesn’t mean you should jump into the waters without thought. But changing your culture from battle armor to engagement requires understanding that strategy and substance cannot be divorced from communications. Organizations that are reluctant to engage and prioritize communication might find that other people are happy to comment on their behalf — responses that probably won’t match the company’s.

As opinions form, the story you tell must calibrate around the facts to ensure it is taken in the right context. Share information ahead of the curve, correct misinformation and allow stakeholders to understand your point of view. Make sure your response matches the financial and reputational implications of the crisis.

Communicate from the inside out

During a crisis, any number of stakeholder groups will need responses and attention. However, despite the pressure, the media, analysts, policymakers and nongovernmental organizations are not the first ones to address. To endure the situation, first engage with employees. That doesn’t mean you should ignore or delay responding to the others. Just start with the people around you. Employees are sometimes the last audience on the crisis-communications list, but when they haven’t bought into a company’s position, message or initiative, there is little chance for success. If employees have to hear about their organization’s issue on the news, their confidence wanes.

Employees actively participate in our interconnected world and can directly influence the perceptions and understanding of external stakeholders. Engaging employees early and often, through both formal and informal channels, gives them information they can share with their own social networks to help spread your message in a more authentic way. Internal communications help earn trust, demonstrate transparency and provide insight into your company’s behavior.

When Uber lost its license to operate in London in September, the company’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote a letter to employees that went public and offered a glimpse into his management style. The letter not only gave employees confidence in their leader and in the company’s response, it also provided a context in which the public could view Uber’s position.

If you have the benefit of time and need to manage a slow-brewing issue like upcoming layoffs, an anticipated plant closing or company merger, then you can do even more to prepare communications with employees.

After your communications have begun from the inside of your organization, having a stable group of outsiders who are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and vouch for your action is often the secret ingredient in successful issues management. Try to build and support initiatives that foster trust and confidence ahead of time, so that when crises arise you can inoculate your organization from some of the damage. Such efforts can include community relations, corporate social responsibility initiatives and regular outreach to third parties and other stakeholders.

Keep track of perceptions

Do you know the public’s current perceptions of your company? Are you aware of your organization’s reputational strengths and weaknesses? Investing in stakeholder research and outreach to help better understand current perceptions will allow you to temper your responses and know what facts to push and pull in the heat of the moment. The ability to gauge perceptions against a benchmark gives you insights into what to say and lets you measure the effectiveness of your communications and whether to correct your course.

Clear patterns have emerged from successful issues management: Be honest and thoughtful, have a rapid but measured response and proactively tell your story. All change is disruptive in some way, but if managed effectively with well-delivered messages, it can also present opportunities for growth.

Christine DiBartolo

Christine DiBartolo is a senior managing director within the strategic communications segment of FTI Consulting, Inc. She specializes in CEO and corporate communications strategy. During her more than 20-year career, she has advised cabinet-level government officials and corporate officers. Among her previous roles, she served as an aide to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.


Michele A Collet-Kriz, APR, MA, MBA says:

Did I miss the part where you apologize for any wrong-doing that contributed to the crisis, make those (individuals and communities) harmed, whole, and determine and then communicate what you will do to preclude a recurrence of the actions that drove the crisis?

March 7, 2018

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