Protecting reputation in a crisis

For nearly two decades, I’ve been honing my skills as a crisis management consultant. I try to never stop learning from the best. Here are some basic principles to keep in mind as you navigate through trying times.

Reputations are won or lost in a crisis. Why do we have to remember that? In the moment of crisis, we tend to forget. Whether you win or lose, reputation is far more within your control than you think. Crisis is the moment of choice… where your destiny is determined one way or the other.

It’s common for bad things to happen to bad people, but bad things happen all the time, even to good people and organizations. When these situations present themselves, everyone is afforded a moment to make a decision without severe repercussions. However, what you do next is what counts.

Manage the Moment of Decision

Crisis management is the management of the choices we make and criteria we use to make them. You need to ask the right question in the moment of choice. So, what is the wrong question? What should we do? This question, in some form, is the incorrect but common first thought. Why is that wrong? The answer is simple—you put yourself in the mental frames of “me” and make choices of self-protection. You end up doing or saying things that make the problem worse.

Another one is, so what should we say? Just like above (self-protection,) you end up saying things that comfort yourself or the organization you represent. Every crisis is a business problem much more than it is a communication problem. You can’t communicate your way out of a business problem. You must manage your way out, then communicate. People and organizations behave their way in, so they must behave their way out.

Crisis Response

Crisis response is a simple formula. It is basically what we do plus what we say. If done thoughtfully, we make it through with better potential outcomes. If you ask the right questions, the appropriate solutions will make themselves apparent. The goal in any crisis is to maintain or restore TRUST in those that matter to the institution. It is always easier to maintain than restore trust. It is also far more expensive to restore broken trust in the long run. We always say fire prevention trumps firefighting and, in most cases, a smoldering potential crisis can be prevented from escalating into a crisis at all with the proper counsel and plan of action.

The Right Question

So what is the right question? What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation? In order to determine what is reasonable, you have to evaluate the situation. Reasonable people don’t expect to know the reason in the moment. There is, however, a common expectation with every stakeholder that you care.

The single biggest predictor of loss of trust, of your reputation’s harm, and loss of competitive advantage in a crisis is the perception that you don’t care.

Foundational Strategy in Crisis

Timely demonstration that you care during and beyond a crisis is crucial, and the persistent demonstration that you still care for as long as the expectation exists is necessary. It is common for media and, in today’s world, social media to try and scope the story. You have a limited amount of time to communicate to maintain control of the message. Silence is never golden.

Silence can be can be toxic for three reasons:

  1. It can be perceived as indifference or as affirmation of guilt
  2. It allows critics, adversaries and media to define the crisis, your motives, and your actions
  3. It challenges and invites critics and opportunists to rally public opinion against you

But what about when lawyers say “You can’t say that!” Keep in mind that every crisis is a business problem before it is a legal problem. There are ways to navigate around the legal challenges that crisis management experts can assist you with.

Five Steps to Handle a Crisis

There is no better way to manage a crisis than working with an expert who understands how to mitigate exposure, but here are five steps to consider during the process:

  1. Acknowledge – Express awareness of the event or issue.
  2. Empathy – Express empathy if there are victims or potential victims.
  3. Values – Express what the organization cares about.
  4. Approach/Actions – Describe how you will address the crisis and specific steps already taken in response to the event or issue.
  5. Commitment – Outline planned next steps for the organization and potential next steps for stakeholders.

Silence can be deadly, so make sure to take control of the situation. Whoever is first to define three things – the crisis, the motives, the actions – controls the interpretation of the event. They day of the 24-hour news cycle is long gone. There are millions of self-proclaimed reporters with smartphones all over the country ready to video and post what is happening in real time or shortly thereafter.

Crises are manageable if you have a plan in place. Just like insurance, you may never need it but I will come in very handy if you do.



Chuck Norman, APR
Author: Chuck Norman, APR
Chuck Norman is our Owner & Principal.

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