Crisis Management: Can you be trusted to be forgiven when things go wrong?

For the last few decades, the practice of “crisis management” has meant big business for public relations companies who come in and help organizations when their brands have been tarnished by scandal or catastrophy brought on by bad company behavior. Organizations are fearful that their brand reputations will be tarnished, affecting their stock price, and sales—both in the short and long-term. Think about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, Wal-mart’s recent bribery scandal in Mexico, Toyota’s unintended acceleration issues, or JP Morgan Chase’s overnight loss of corporate billions. In each case, consumer trust and brand loyalty were put into question.

In each of these examples, issues of brand forgiveness were critical. How much consumers already trusted these brands BEFORE crisis, and how organizations acted DURING the crisis affect how quickly these brands are forgiven AFTER the crisis.

BEFORE CRISIS:

Brand trust is something that is earned, and is a constant work in progress. It must be generated and cultivated long before a crisis arrives at your doorstep. Consumers want brands to be responsible, transparent, and authentic. You may think you’re acting a certain way, but nothing else matters than whether consumers believe you are what you think you are. In other words, perception is everything and you need to live up to consumer’s standards, not just your own.  If you are wondering what level of trust you have with your customers, you might want to ask yourself these questions:

Do you have the confidence to engage in an honest dialog with your customers, and make change based on their input? Do you have the resilience to deal with crisis should it hit? Can you ask honestly, and transparently for forgeveness? Can you listen and follow the advice of customers?

DURING CRISIS:

Once crisis hits, a brand’s success in getting through the crisis relies on the brand trust you’ve developed plus how you respond during the crisis. You need to be perceived as sincere, willing to follow-through with a change in process or policy, and be trusted that this won’t happen again.

Long before the first Prius went accelerating out of control, Toyota had a brand reputation built around Quality. When their crisis hit and challenged this perception, they not only relied on their history, but when the executives (and Toyoda family members) stepped out and apologized for letting quality deteriorate, and outlined steps where they’d improve quality, brand loyalists returned. Yes it took them awhile, but because people wanted to trust them (based on their reputation), they were willing to forgive. The opposite was true in the BP disaster. The company was bucketed in with other oil companies and deemed untrustworthy. Then, during the crisis they appeared to only be looking out for themselves. Finally, they started an ad campaign communication all the good they said they were doing to make the Gulf and its residents and environment whole again. Sadly, it was too little too late. There was no trust before the crisis, then they reinforced negative perceptions during the crisis. It is questionable when/if they will recover a positive brand perception.

AFTER CRISIS:

If an organization is guilty of bad behavior, all you can do is hope for forgiveness from consumers. If you’ve previously, actively managed behavior that built a strong positive brand perception, forgiveness will come sooner than had you not. And, if you behave honorably, authentically and transparently during the crisis, your bounce-back rate will quicken as well.

The overall message here is—manage your brand well. Be good citizens out in the world, and be honest and humbly ask for forginess when crisis strikes.  If you have the confidence to engage in an honest dialog with your customers, and make change based on input, you will go a long way to building trust. Embrace your imperfections—that shows vulnerability!

If you swallow your pride and feel comfortable admitting mistakes, and taking active steps to correct your errors, your crisis will be more of a bump in the road rather than a giant sinkhole—and more of a challenge than a crisis.

For further reading, check out these articles on how Toyota, Walmart, BP and JP Morgan Chase dealt with their crisis of confidence. 

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