The fallout from the recent United Airlines fiasco reminded me of a 12-step process for recovering reputation and restoring credibility, released a few years ago by global PR firm Weber-Shandwick.
I won’t re-cap all 12-steps, but here are five that resonate strongly in light of recent events, along with some extra comments from me.
Take the heat…leader first
Weber-Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross suggests a single corporate leader, usually the CEO, must serve as the official spokesperson in troubled times. The CEO can stabilise an unstable situation and set a tone that may ultimately define the crisis.
That works well when the CEO or organisation leader is savvy enough to listen to good advice, respond promptly and take responsibility for the situation. As we saw in the United Airlines case, a stumbling, inconsistent response only adds fuel to the fire.
This is a reminder that your best work in crisis response happens well before a crisis erupts. Know who your spokesperson or spokespeople will be, and make sure they’re trained and able to face the inevitable barrage that will come their way when things go wrong. Paramount is a willingness to respond early and accurately gauge the mood of the market in the response.
We also need to recognise that the business leader has fallen in the overall credibility stakes. This year's results from the Edelman Trust Barometer show regular employees are now considered to be highly credible compared with the CEO. This tells us that while we need to ensure the person at the top is well briefed and responds effectively, we must also put equal - if not more - effort into keeping everyone across the business in the loop about the crisis response. Everything they say to their family, friends and broader network will impact general perception of the situation.
Many organisations are only starting to come to terms with this "inversion of influence" and the fact that "people like you and me" now have a major impact on business reputation.
Analyse what went wrong and right
Weber-Shandwick points out that by studying the company’s mistakes, along with those of others, the organisation can avoid falling into the same trap again. While this might sound obvious, in my experience it’s rarely put into practice.
After a negative situation has passed, there's a tendency for everyone to want to get back to day to day operations as quickly as possible and put the bad stuff in the past. Often, there is a reluctance to pause and study the various elements of what went wrong so lessons can be learned for the future.
There can be many reasons for this, and one might be that management of the business is cautious about uncovering mistakes that could fall at their own feet. A business's willingness to perform an honest post mortem after a crisis is a measure of a culture of resilience.
Right the culture
Speaking of culture, Weber-Shandwick reminds us that in many cases, the company’s culture was what really failed the organisation in the first place. Having been called in to address many an issue and crisis, I’d have to agree with that. Businesses are very good at shooting themselves in the foot.
I don’t have scientific evidence behind this, but I reckon about 90% of major issues stem from inside the organisation itself. Someone makes a mistake and it goes unrecognised or ignored, or if it is discovered it's covered up or addressed badly and is left to fester until it erupts further down the track. Getting the inside of the business right can be a task for the “too hard” basket, but organisations can pay a terrible price if they ignore it.
Even though reputation is made up of what other people think of you and your business, it’s actually an inside job. You can influence your reputation by making sure you know what the business stands for, and always communicating and acting in alignment with that.
Build a drumbeat of good news
Weber-Shandwick acknowledges that recovering reputation after an incident or crisis doesn’t usually come from one event, but rather from a series of tiny steps that slowly generate positive momentum. It’s important that every organisation has a focus on building its "reputation reservoir" - and not just because something has gone wrong.
This involves ensuring you have impeccable relationships with the key people and organisation who can impact or be impacted by your business. It’s making sure that everyone in the business is committed to what the organisation stands for, and that any small problems are addressed immediately so that issues can't fester and grow.
It also entails generating positive stories about the business through social and traditional media, but many businesses try to jump straight to this and neglect the earlier steps. We’re well past the age of spin; we can no longer get by on window dressing. Our organisations need to have real substance and authenticity, and based on that we can then generate positive news.
Minimise reputation risk
This sounds like a no-brainer and it’s amazing that even in the digital age many businesses neglect this step. Safeguarding the organisation's reputation is no longer the sole domain of the communications or PR department. Everyone in the business is your reputation ambassador, and as Weber-Shandwick says, “minimising reputation risk is now everyone’s responsibility.”
We all need to have eyes outside the business so we know what’s going on in our external environment, along with a strong awareness of what’s happening inside the business. That way, if anything starts to go amiss it can be immediately addressed.
While the United Airlines case has given us all plenty to comment about, every business and organisation runs the risk of becoming embroiled in a negative issue. In United’s case - being a large international brand - it could be argued that people will forgive and forget and get on with using that service because there may not be a lot of choice. As The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently, "history is not the friend of the consumer", and that “consumers have a collective short-term memory when brands have a near monopoly. They figure time heals and unfortunately it does. People forget, they’ll end up seeing a deal online and they’ll pull the lever”.
That might be true of consumers, but reputation damage can have other impacts. It will be interesting to see in future whether United is able to attract the best staff or if potential employees choose to go elsewhere. An issue of this scale also means that the market is likely to be unwilling to forgive so readily if anything else goes wrong with the airline.
Rather than debating whether a multi-national can restore its reputation and credibility, we’re better off reminding ourselves that the work needs to happen before an issue arises. There are many actions we can take to minimise our reputation risk.