How to protect your reputation when disaster strikes

Any organization, no matter how well it is run, can face a potential public relations crisis. No one is immune to public or media scrutiny. Some industries are more vulnerable to reputational damage than others – tourism, leisure and the airlines immediately spring to mind. In individual cases celebrities and politicians who build businesses from their reputations can suffer too. But what can, and more importantly should you do, if your company is facing a media or public backlash? How do you protect your reputation?

The way a crisis is handled is what makes or breaks your reputation – as company reputations are either recovered or lost in those moments after crisis breaks.

Whether the crisis was caused by an ill-judged decision, external or internal factors beyond your immediate control, or simply plain bad luck, don’t ever rush to give a knee-jerk response or ignore the issue.

United Airline’s reputational damage

United Airlines’ stock plummeted and it was widely reported that it became the world’s most hated airline in just one day earlier this year. The company was catapulted into crisis mode after live footage of a bloody-faced passenger being dragged down the aircraft aisle by security staff emerged on social media and went viral. To make matters worse the company then issued an apology regarding overbooking. The lack of emotion and regard for customer care fueled further public outrage.

In a released statement, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Munoz’s comments that the passenger in question was “disruptive and belligerent” further damaged the company’s reputation by shifting blame to the victim. After threats of boycott, the company finally issued a more fitting apology, days after the ill-advised initial approach.

But the damage was done, United Airline shares fell by 4 per cent, due to the incident and the company’s poor handling of it. Customer perception of the brand dropped to a 10-year low, with the company’s reputation greatly damaged by its poor reactions.

Can United Airlines rebuild its reputation?

In a crisis like this, the right strategy is to: own up to it, apologise profusely and sincerely, promise to fix it and take all necessary steps to ensure it never happens again.

However, it didn’t go down like that. Too little too late came the promise from Munoz that United would change its procedures. And this incident blew up just as the news about it denying boarding to 2 girls for wearing leggings had started to die down.

What it needs to do is absolutely what it has promised, and more to rebuild trust and its reputation. United needs to evaluate how it treats customers and change more than procedure, but its culture to really show how it puts customers first. It’s true that a crisis is judged as much by how you handle it as what happens.

Pepsi’s controversial ad

Pepsi faced global outrage over a TV ad featuring model Kendall Jenner calming a protest by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. The controversial ad was met with an immediate backlash, branded ‘wrong’ and ‘in poor taste’. It was criticized for seemingly trivializing demonstrations aimed at tackling social justice causes, suggesting protesters and police would get along better with a kind gesture of a Pepsi. People also found it insensitive regarding the Black Lives Mater movement.

In response, the company quickly offered an apology and pulled the controversial ad. In their statement, the drinks company said: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.

“Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout.”

Although the apology was accused of being misplaced, directed towards its star rather than the protestors, the ad was pulled. Through quickly removing the ad from circulation and taking full responsibility, Pepsi helped to soften the blow to its reputation.
Due to the quick response and positive steps the company has since taken, it has helped to rebuild its own reputation. Though this crisis will be remembered in pop culture, Pepsi seems to have come through the crisis through its swift action.

How to handle a crisis

What these and other cases teach us is that you should always have a crisis management plan in place so that you can respond to the crisis in the right way at the right time. While there’s plenty of advice available about how not to react to a crisis, you must also consider how to respond in the right way in these situations.

• Acknowledge the problem and take ownership

The first step that you must take is to acknowledge that a mistake has been made. Let people know that you are aware of it and that you are committed to fixing the issue. Reputations are more likely to bounce back or the repercussions minimised if you talk directly to your audience. Show them that you care about how this affects them and you’re acting on it. The worst thing you can do in a crisis is ignore the problem. Staying silent will not make it go away and can even invite negative speculation about your business, values and practice. The longer you leave your response, the more damage you can do to your reputation. If you need to investigate what’s happened before making a statement, it’s better to acknowledge the issue and do so with a ‘human’ head on rather than appearing to speak from a policy booklet. For example: “We are aware of this issue and are committed to finding out what happened and why and resolving it/ensuring it doesn’t happen again.”

• Share your shared values

This is absolutely the right time to communicate what your organization cares about. By underlining your values, you can focus on the strong ideals and intentions of your company. This goes back to showing how committed you are to providing good customer service by acting on issues when they arise

• Empathise and offer action

If your crisis has victims or could lead to potential victims, express your empathy. This will help the public and media to see that you acknowledge the situation and take responsibility. Furthering this, describe how you will address the crisis and specify steps that you will take in response if you can. Through doing this, you regain some control as you show how you’re handling the situation. It is always best to be proactive to protect your reputation..

• Promise commitment

When you outline your intentions for dealing with the problem, communicate them very clearly. Take deliberate and careful next steps to show progression and stability. By having a plan in place, this helps to prevent rash decisions/premature announcements that can further damage your reputation.

• Take preventative steps

Through taking pre-emptive steps, you can help to limit the damage caused by crises and protect your reputation. As well as having a crisis strategy in place, create and nurture positive relationships with your customers, stakeholders and the press. You can set up Google alerts to monitor brand mentions so that as soon as your company is mentioned online you can respond appropriately. Make sure your corporate governance is intact. Ensure that your teams are trained in how to responsibly use social media, etc.

Protect your reputation

As the United Airlines case clearly highlights, poor reactions to a crisis in today’s digital age are quickly exposed. By taking preventative and considered steps, having a strategy in place, and being careful about how you are presenting yourself, it can help to lessen your chances of facing a reputation crisis. But if you do, ensures you’re prepared and can minimize the impact. Protect your reputation, it will serve you well.