How to Navigate a Reputation Crisis for the First Time

By Jacklyn Barron

It’s no secret that today’s communication environment is filled with risk — from fake news and unflattering viral videos to volatile politics and divisive social movements — making it more important than ever for brands and corporations to be prepared to proactively protect their reputations. This can be daunting for communications professionals who do not specialize in crisis response.

According to a recent survey conducted by Weber Shandwick in partnership with KRC Research, 60 percent of a company’s market value is attributable to its reputation, with agility and responsiveness to issues as key determinants of reputation.

The chances are that your company or brand will experience some level of reputational issue, and you may be faced with leading the charge on crisis mitigation, whether or not you’ve had experience doing so.

If you find yourself in this situation, it can be easy to become overwhelmed or panicked. But there are a few key principles you can follow to help you navigate the storm.

Put the “crisis” in context.

As soon as you are made aware of a potential threat to your company’s reputation, gather the facts. Determine what’s happened, who’s involved and how far that knowledge has spread. Is this something only internal parties are aware of at this point? Is there one person tweeting about this or is there a large group of influencers posting across channels? Has the media gotten wind of the details?

Within your organization, your business partners and colleagues may have different levels of concern or opinions on how to handle the situation. As the communications lead, it is your responsibility to quickly gauge the situation and put it into context for your colleagues. Is this a small issue that should be monitored or does this have potential to be a much larger reputational crisis that could have long-term ramifications for the company? Is it a manageable situation now, but has the potential to become much bigger? The public relations team’s role is to lead the response team, swiftly assessing the situation, and make strategic recommendations about how to react based on best practices.

Without context and sound communications recommendations, the incident you are managing could become overblown or mishandled because of internal panic and conflicting opinions. Remember that you are guiding and counseling your colleagues, helping them make smart decisions in what can be very stressful circumstances.

Swiftly navigate internal departments.

We all know that things move quickly, so getting the right people involved right away is imperative to crisis mitigation. Who are the key decision-makers and stakeholders that need to be at the table? Is this a human resources matter? Are there legal implications? To what degree does the leadership team need to be consulted?

In advance of an actual crisis, have conversations with the leaders of each function so that you can set expectations around crisis communications, gain a mutual understanding of what goes into the decision-making, and determine what they need from the communications team to make those decisions.

With that intel, put a plan in place for various scenarios that allows you to quickly bring in the appropriate parties that can make decisions and take action. Consider creating a decision tree that outlines how to determine who to bring in to each situation and test it out with a simulated crisis drill. That way, you can make adjustments as needed, and the key stakeholders will feel more comfortable should an actual situation arise.

Identify the escalation points.

With any issue or crisis, there are always potential scenarios that could escalate the situation and make matters worse. Once you have a handle on all the facts, brainstorm what the trigger points are that could cause the crisis to grow.

Could this draw attention from national media? Is the social media content likely to gain traction? Will activist groups get involved? Identifying these escalation points and then doing your part to both protect against them and prepare for them with a detailed scenario plan and holding statements will help you better manage the crisis and its impact.

Don’t forget your employees.

When you’re in the thick of a crisis, it’s easy to stay focused on the external consequences. However, internal communications is a critical component of any crisis response plan. Employees are often your company’s biggest advocates, with 56 percent of employees reporting that they’ve defended their employer from criticism. Communicating quickly and with transparency during a time of turmoil can prevent the spread of misinformation and equip employees with the messages they need to champion your case.

Know what you stand for.

Your ultimate defense in any crisis situation is having strong company values and an understanding of your brand’s greater purpose. This will not only guide the team in making the right decisions, but will also be the foundation to communicating about how your company is responding to the incident. If your actions are disconnected from your values and purpose, there is greater reputational risk.

You will have the most success in mitigating an issue if you have a good story to tell — and to do this, your organization should “walk the walk” not only in times of distress, but also when it’s business as usual. As you think through your reputation vulnerabilities and crisis preparedness plans, be sure to consider your corporate narrative and what you have to fall back on when things go awry.

All of the above tips are important to have top-of-mind once a crisis hits, but the best thing you can do is prepare for a crisis before it happens. The Public Relations Society of America has a handful of resources that can get you started: https://www.prsa.org/resource-library/issue-crisis-management/