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Brands thrive on the reputation they cultivate carefully over the years. It makes the difference between consumers picking one over the other and then remaining loyal. However, brands can, despite their best efforts, face a crisis of reputation following an episode, a rant by an employee on social media, senior management behaviour, or an ad campaign gone wrong. All it takes, in this case, is one viral social media post to send the brand into a downward spiral that quickly unfolds into a public relations disaster. The Indigo airlines incident, where a passenger was assaulted by ground staff, is the most recent in a long list of events that quickly escalated and became a talking point on social media. United Airlines’ forcible removal of a passenger, Pepsi’s ad with Kendall Jenner and Uber’s unending troubles over policy issues all over the world and allegations of a culture of rampant sexual harassment, are some of the other instances this year.

In such reputation crises, it’s not enough to fix the issue; the backlash has to be addressed publicly, immediately and honestly, advise marketing and brand consultants. “The best way is the old way. Be the first to tell the truth. Answer every question a consumer can possibly ask. Answer it before it is asked. When you are wrong, admit it. Admit it fast and quick," says Harish Bijoor, brand strategy specialist and founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. Never wait for an external investigation, audit or social media to spill the beans; always do it yourself. “Acknowledgement of what has gone wrong and an admission of immediate rectifying action is critical. What has to come across clearly and unequivocally is that the brand is being transparent and genuine. No long-winded words, no cover-ups and no trying to deflect blame," says Dennis Taraporewala, managing director, Criesse Communications, a public relations and brand strategy firm. 

Viral brand crisis

Today brands are pushed into the limelight by the beast that is social media—an irreverent and impatient medium that doesn’t necessarily need facts, and that makes it harder to manage public perception. “Social media is not necessarily factual media. In such an environment, every traditional way of managing a brand in crisis goes out of the window," says Bijoor.

That’s why it’s imperative for brands to have a comprehensive crisis management framework within their social media practice. Anjali Hegde, chief executive officer, Ansible, the mobile marketing arm of IPG Mediabrands, outlines certain common practices. “Tracking and identifying types of crisis events for your industry, categorizing them by degree of criticality, establishing a clear escalation metric for each type of crisis, immediate mobilization of teams to craft the right kind of messaging, and quick approvals for go-live are some of the most important facets of a good crisis management programme for a brand," she says, adding that the brands she works with follow a crisis management process that helps them analyse market sensitivity and its impact, which influences their communication strategy for all media.

Bijoor says today brands need to be as amoebic as social media, morphing into the narrative of discontent with ease. It’s tough, especially since the traditional view is that companies can do no wrong, and even if they do, one must defend even the indefensible. “At times, brands might want to get self-deprecating even," he says.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s recent Twitter video, crediting his dog Pidi for his rise in popularity on the social networking site, is one instance of how making fun of yourself can work in your favour on social media. 

Your handling of the situation can help you win back some respect, especially when customers see you’re willing to publicly accept that you are in the wrong -

The golden rules

While the avenues of communication and the speed at which news spreads have changed over the years, conventional wisdom continues to rule the management of a crisis. Anticipate, plan, communicate, and then wait. When a crisis hits, the first thing to do is figure out what the facts are and how much you can communicate publicly. To ensure your organization delivers a clear, consistent—and most importantly—singular message, identify a spokesperson who will answer all media questions and participate in interviews. The most critical aspect of any crisis response is the message you are communicating. “The message should be such that it reaches out to the heart of the customer (to assuage and address the emotion), but it should also have rational parameters and rectifying actions (to assure forward movement on the issue)," Taraporewala explains.

Honesty and openness don't extend only to those on the outside; keeping employees informed about the situation is important if you want work to continue as smoothly as possible. It also stops the spread of false information on social media through unnamed sources. Stonewalling, or refusing to provide information, is the worst move a company can make. At this critical time, frequent updates are important; it’s better to over-communicate than to allow falsehoods to fill the silence.

While your company may not emerge from a scandal unscathed, your handling of the situation can help you win back some respect, especially when customers see you’re willing to publicly accept that you are in the wrong. “Brands need to tell consumers that even they are like human beings. They are fallible as well. They are not perfect," Bijoor explains.

Build up your brand 

Truth and timing can control the narrative from getting out of hand and defining the brand. This is especially true when the crisis is caused by an employee’s behaviour or mismanagement of a situation. At such times, the company also has to make the critical decision of whether it wants to distance itself from the employee/employees who acted out in public, or support their decision.

Pre-empt and sidestep these situations by training employees to deal with tricky customer cases, advise brand experts. “A company must ensure that any entity involved in the creation and delivery of promised value must deliver as promised. Internal checks and reward systems, and managing customer expectations, can help achieve this," says Siddharth Shekhar Singh, associate professor of marketing at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

Social media can play a positive role in forging loyal connections with customers. Some so loyal that during a crisis, such engaged customers prove to be brand advocates. “Over time, the reputation and trust among customers built by a brand acts as a cushion against unanticipated challenges. Many customers themselves become advocates supporting the brand when a crisis erupts. Naturally, all this requires sustained and visible efforts by a brand," says Singh. Hegde reiterates the importance of nurturing brand advocates and adds that advocates create a groundswell of authentic and positive conversations about the brand, especially during a crisis.

Whether it's building goodwill or anticipating scenarios of how things could go wrong, at the end of the day, good crisis management involves thinking long-term. If you plan for a bad day when things are good, you're more likely to come out on top.

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