Strong companies are built on the reputation they earn with their clients.
But as the saying goes, a reputation can take years to build and only minutes to destroy—impacting both the client relationship and the bottom line.
What happens when your company is faced with a crisis that can negatively impact your reputation? While such events can pose a threat to even the strongest organization, by implementing the core principles of crisis communications, you can take steps to mitigate the intensity of the damage so your firm can quickly recover lost ground.
Guideline 1: Take the Issue Seriously
In 2010, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured, becoming the largest oil spill to occur in the U.S. at the time.
Not only was it an environmental disaster, it was a disaster from a crisis communications perspective. Instead of acknowledging the problem and making a serious commitment to environmental remediation, CEO Tony Hayward commented that “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.”
The comment was seen as insensitive and insufficient given the magnitude of the problem at hand. When contextualized against the backdrop of company-wide cuts to maintenance and safety, Hayward’s statement compounded the impression that BP leadership was incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions.
The incident, and its subsequent mishandling, resulted in a 30% drop in share value. Three months later, BP announced Hayward’s exit from the company.
The best practice when confronting a crisis is to take the issue seriously. Take steps to educate your team on the issues, understand your audience’s pain points, and respond with earnest urgency. Failing to do so can impact your reputation—as well as your bottom line.
Guideline 2: Keep Information Flowing
Inaccuracies are most likely to arise during the early hours of a crisis, when information is scarce and speculation rules the day. For this reason, it is important that those faced with a reputational challenge to be visible and take steps to control the narrative.
Even if you are operating in a knowledge deficit relative to the crisis at hand, it is important to remain visible. Not only will a spokesperson’s absence be read as “ducking the issue,” visibility is the first step to establishing an official channel for communications. A good rule of thumb is to make clear that you are taking the issue seriously, looking into it, and will provide more details as information becomes available.
Once you have more information and a cogent response, disseminate it widely, making sure to clarify any inaccuracies that may have emerged. By becoming the official conduit of information and providing regular updates, you can better contain the issue and lessen its damage.
Guideline 3: Demonstrate Accountability
In 2022, criticism of Hockey Canada, the organization that manages ice hockey in Canada, reached a fever pitch when it was discovered that the organization downplayed sexual assault allegations. As details of the scandal emerged, including the use of a reserve fund to settle “uninsured liabilities,” there were calls from all sides for Hockey Canada to do something to address the organization’s culture of systemic abuse.
Hockey Canada publicly apologized and announced the establishment of processes to report and address abuse, but its efforts to make amends left a bad taste with the public. On the surface, the statement said all the right things. In reality, Hockey Canada dug in their heels, defiantly keeping in place the very executives who were responsible for ignoring the toxic culture at the organization.
When taking accountability, it is essential to back your words up with consistent action. Hockey Canada undermined its message of change when it failed to take concrete, visible steps to hold its leadership team responsible. (They were eventually let go, anyway—public outcry will do that.)
When navigating a crisis, accountability must go beyond words, it must be demonstrably verifiable in order to be taken seriously. An organization needs to not only acknowledge the issue, but also identify and implement strategies that effectively—and publicly—address the core issues at hand.
No one wants to find themselves in the middle of a crisis, but by taking the issue seriously, controlling the flow of information, and demonstrating accountability when addressing the issue, your organization can lessen the impact of reputational threats. By following the core principles of crisis communications, you can ensure that you appropriately take the steps necessary to repair any damage caused by external challenges.