How to handle a brand reputation crisis

History tells us brands can come back from the brink of a company crisis, yet it takes serious and long-term communications, vision and commitment to get there


Social impact

While the history of organisations suffering crises of a criminal or financial nature stretch back for centuries, the digital era has given rise to another form – the social media crisis.

Adelaide-based publicist, Morgan Spencer, had direct experience last year when a client launched a campaign linking religion to its brand in the context of the same-sex marriage debate.

“The client had really good intentions and objectives for what they wanted to achieve,” Spencer says. “It was a little bit off-brand for them, but the key message was close to what the business believed in. But it went horribly wrong.”

It was an experience that reinforced in her mind the essential requirements for diffusing a crisis as it plays out in the public sphere.

“My advice is always that you have to come out and explain your reasoning, and be honest to the community and the people around you as to what you wanted to achieve, and apologise for any misconception that has happened around that” Spencer says. “You have to come out with an honest statement and apologise. Many organisations don’t do that.

“That is the biggest mistake I see organisations make. They get really defensive and make it all about them.”

Former Telstra senior insights manager and now founder and managing partner at strategy and insight agency Barr None, Stephanie Barr, says the playbook for crisis and reputation management is well-worn.

“The first step is planning for the worst and having an action plan in case something does happen, so that your management isn’t put on the spot when they are talking to media,” she says.

Many organisations implement a stoplight system to assess the risks they face, and then identify and train their spokespeople, while also ensuring that statements are prepared in the event that any of the amber lights from the risk assessment exercise suddenly turn red. When statements are made, they need to factual, with any progress against goals clearly communicated.

More mature organisations will conduct simulation training, to ensure that when things do go wrong, that the recovery plan actually works.

Critical to all of this is, says Barr, is honesty – even if the message is that you honestly don’t have all of the answers.

“Whenever there is an open, honest communication, it is a breath of fresh air and well received,” she continues. “Even if you don’t have the answers right now, you need to make a commitment and demonstrate the fact that you are looking to take this seriously and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Follow through on that action plan and keep communicating openly through the process.

“Taking actions in a very proactive way and appointing someone to make sure it doesn’t happen again is a very good signal to your customers, your shareholders and the media.”

Even the language used can play an important role in re-establishing a bridge of trust.

“People appreciate open and honest communication and every day we are seeing more and more we are seeing everyday language be really appreciated by the general public,” Barr says.

Balance of communications

But none of this seems to step some organisations doing their level best to make the worst out of a situation. One clear example is Ardent Leisure. Having experienced the tragedy of four guests at its Dreamworld theme park losing their lives on a ride, the company issued confusing statements to the media in relation to the park’s reopening, and handled the communications process poorly overall. This led to significant financial losses and the resignation of the CEO.

The Ardent example demonstrates the fine balance organisations face between the need to communicate clearly, and the dangers of communicating too quickly, and without a clear plan.

Barr believes the reason why large organisations deviate from procedure – or fail to even have one - is that their marketing teams are focused only on the positive ‘wins’.

“There is not so much investment in risk management from a commercial perspective, and less from a communications perspective,” Barr says. “So the majority of investment is in telling a positive story rather than planning for a crisis.

“But if the organisation is fudging information or lying, that is when you need to get into the change of management and changing the culture as well.”

Still, there are situations where brands have demonstrated that a potential crisis can be turned into a win. When American actress Roseanne Barr was widely censured for tweeting racist remarks, she attempted to lay the blame for her behaviour partly at the feet of Sanofi, the makers of the sedative drug Ambien.

Ambien also chose to respond via Twitter: “People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Crisis averted.

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