Companies go through various levels of crises daily, most of which never make it outside the comfy walls of their corporate offices. But what happens when your crisis becomes the news of the day, week, month or year?
Most days, there is a long line of people that would gladly step into Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes. Since the start of the year, that line has gotten a lot shorter. While Facebook is no stranger to crises, the latest data privacy issue it faces is easily the most challenging when it comes to brand reputation. When the experts came out in droves it was really no surprise that the public, unsolicited advice being given to Facebook and Zuckerberg included the typical buzzwords: Transparency, Discipline, Consistency, Preparation. I remember hearing the same advice for Wells Fargo last year…and Pepsi, United, Volkswagen, JetBlue, BP, Uber and the list goes on.
Crisis communications 101 will tell you to be transparent, consistent and disciplined in your approach. And preparation is the key to executing your plan. But there is so much more to do and understand if you truly want to protect your brand from irreparable damage…Anyone know where Lehman Brothers, Merry-Go-Round or Arthur Andersen are today? All faced brand and financial crisis not too dissimilar from others – see the list above. So why do some companies survive while others fall into the abyss?
Companies that have come out the other side recognize that there is no hiding and you cannot address just one audience and assume no one else is listening. Today, a company’s brand reputation is more important than ever. So, the question executives should ask themselves and their communications team is not How do I survive (Tony Hayward, Martin Winterkorn, Noel Biderman, and Sanjay Kumar to name a few)? They should be asking: How do we protect the brand? In fact, they should have ALREADY asked the question before a crisis materializes.
Let’s use Facebook as an example. When news about Cambridge Analytica broke, Facebook’s initial response was…well, nothing. Not a word. They just didn’t appear to know what to do. This was a bit shocking considering they had known about this for years (literally) and should have prepared, practiced and been ready to respond immediately. Facebook simply failed. I have worked with some of the most well-known brands in the world with some of the best communications teams ever assembled. One similarity among the best is they all have a well thought out crisis communications plan. Where was Facebook’s plan? What were they thinking? Did they really think this was going to blow over?
When they did finally respond (five days after The New York Times and The Guardian broke the news), Zuckerberg showed very little contrition and painted Facebook as the victim. Consumers were not empathetic. The next day COO Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the slow response and admitted they could have done better. Unfortunately, she too tried to paint Facebook as the victim and repeatedly placed the blame on “Bad Actors” rather than truly owning the issue. And there was a lingering question of: What aren’t they telling us?
It wasn’t until three weeks later when Zuckerberg went to Washington D.C. to testify that he truly owned the incident. He humanized the situation. He was well prepared and messaged. He was cool and calm under pressure. He showed contrition and empathy. Rather than saying Facebook was a victim, he admitted the company’s fault and acknowledged they needed to do better.
His very public testimony allowed for the opportunity (over 10 hours of opportunity) to demonstrate how complex data protection can be and how little our elected representatives understand. We’ve all been there…trying to explain the internet to our parents or grand-parents is possibly the hardest thing anyone can be asked to do. All of a sudden, we found ourselves feeling sorry for Zuckerberg. And you know what came next, consumers began to forgive the company and the movement to abandon Facebook faded away and the stock rebounded 15%.
Everyone should take notice and learn from Facebook.
First, develop a plan. Every company has a business continuity plan; why not an actionable crisis communications plan? Those that take communications seriously and want to protect their brand, must identify different crisis scenarios and develop response plans that can be put into action immediately.
Second, your message must start with an apology. Your stakeholders do not want to hear excuses or see deflection. Painting yourself as the victim will not align you with key audiences; it will weaken your brand reputation and erode confidence. You don’t have to fall on your sword, but you do need to own the mistake and be empathetic to those that have been impacted.
Third, clearly articulate what occurred, how you will make amends and what you are doing to ensure this never happens again. While contrition is important, what comes next will define your ability to mitigate the risk to your brand reputation and confidence in the executive team. Clearly communicating the actions being taken will begin to rebuild trust. However, that trust will fade quickly if a second or third shoe drops.
Lastly, use all the communications channels available to you. Your key audiences do not want to search for information. They want it pushed to them and updated as needed. We live in an age where a generation has been born with a mobile device in their hand and have immediate access to information. Use traditional and social media, paid and owned online channels, and skywriting if need be. Get your message out there so you can control the story rather than have others with limited information spread disinformation.
Mitigating the impact of a crisis on brand reputation and executive credibility may seem like a daunting task but through exhaustive preparation, proper management and decisive actions companies with comprehensive communication strategies and strong fundamentals will survive and ultimately thrive. Look at Facebook, the line to step into Zuckerberg’s shoes is getting quite long again…as long as there isn’t more to the story.
Ryan Barr is the U.S. managing director of Cognito