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The Road Less Traveled in Crisis Communications

Theranos.  Wells Fargo.  Mylan.

We know them as three of the latest companies to take a beating in the court of public opinion.  They made reckless mistakes.  They’ve been called on by regulators to answer for them.  And none have been able to move past them.  Why?

They took the road too often traveled — silence followed by excuses.  As any crisis communications strategist knows, there’s a far more effective path forward.  One that defines what you stand for before others do it for you.  One that aligns your motives with consumers’ interests.  One that demonstrates you always strive to do the right thing — even when no one is watching.

There’s a proven trajectory that enables any company, organization, or individual to achieve those outcomes and restore trust with those who matter most.  Here are four key phases for effectively managing a crisis:

1) Acknowledgement.  We all make mistakes, some far bigger than others.  But we can’t move past what we don’t acknowledge.  Companies must take responsibility first before anything else — and that starts at the top with the chief executive.  Without acknowledging the problem and the company’s role in it, consumers and voters are sure to tune out the rest of your message.

2) You.  Early on, it’s critical to demonstrate accountability.  Highlight what you are proactively doing to address the crisis to ensure it never happens again. Focus on the facts and figures that will be most credible with consumers — how many responders, how much coordination with government agencies, etc.  And highlight any ways you’re going above and beyond what is required by regulators.

3) Us.  In this phase, the goal is to fully align your motives with consumers’ interests to put them back on your side. That means highlighting ways you’re working together with consumers to address the crisis. Are you conducting town halls to listen to — and learn from — their needs?  Are you working to rebuild businesses that have been impacted?  Are you providing them with free resources to ensure they have peace of mind?  Highlighting ways you need each other is a critical step to get from playing defense to offense.

4) Progress.  Once you resolve a crisis, your communications work is NOT complete. Update your customers on the progress that’s been made. Focus on what you said you would do, and how you delivered. By highlighting how you’ve fulfilled your commitments and how you’ll continue to do so moving forward, you’ll earn stronger trust with your customers. That trust gives you leverage in proactive brand communications down the road.

Let’s face it, gone are the days of the perfect American hero.  The modern hero is fallible and relatable. They’ve owned their flaws and become stronger for them. It’s why today Americans love controversial figures like Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and even convicted felon Martha Stewart.

It’s no different in corporate America. Look no further than companies like General Motors, Jet Blue, and Domino’s that have been able to make tremendous comebacks in the face of crises. They acknowledged their past mistakes (some more directly than others) and demonstrated that they’ve learned from them.

Who can forget the Domino’s ad campaign admitting that their pizza was “the worst” and promising wholesale change? It made a measurable difference in their ability to rebuild trust and restore their reputation.

It’s companies who don’t proactively hold themselves accountable in times of crisis that stand no chance in today’s court of public opinion.


Phillip Morris is a vice president at Luntz Global.