By Aneysha Pearce

2017 was a bad year for some very prominent, high-performing business brands.  From banking to social media companies to airlines, we have seen well-regarded brands take some high-profile blows.  Knowing some of these and comparable organizations from the inside, we know what many in the business community know: you can do everything in your power to prevent bad situations—and should—but sometimes you take a hit anyway.

The social media bandwagon ignites and accelerates across a 24-hour, internet-fueled news cycle to result in, effectively, a zero-tolerance environment for corporate performance and responsibility.  The standard for response is much the same and equally uncompromising: immediate and fully satisfactory or the flames will build and build—the assumption is that any delay is lack of caring or endorsement of whatever happened.

It doesn’t matter if the issue was unforeseen, pure misfortune, or even under litigation with its own communications minefield.  The right (or, at a minimum, least bad) response must be framed and executed in short order.  Recognizing that recent history has proven that these things can happen to anyone, we recommend every business organization of any size or brand prominence:

  1. Create and maintain a stakeholder/brand “threat matrix” which outlines the key players in the organization’s brand and what they value (rows of the matrix) vs. the range of reasonably predictable risks (columns) and the degree of potential impact. Quickly identifying where stakeholders will care/react vs. where they care less can enable rapid response, comprehensive coverage, and thoughtful investment.
  2. Define, in advance, the brand response team, perhaps varying by stakeholder group. Many organizations have a crisis and then assemble the team, losing valuable hours and, worse, investing too much time and energy briefing in latecomers.
  3. Establish a staged strategy by stakeholder, likely including:
    • Management coming to the table in an open and transparent way as to the steps it is taking to ensure this type of situation won’t happen again.
    • A series of visible updates as to how these changes are taking shape across the organization. A strong example of this is what JPMorgan Chase did during the 2009 financial crisis.  Its “Way Forward” campaign addressed its stance on how to ensure the casualties experienced in 2009 won’t happen again. This was a very effective communications strategy that landed JPMorgan its position as the most reputable financial services company at the time.
    • Meaningful investment in corporate giving to the communities/target consumers who were impacted by this situation.

Refining corporate values to raise their commitment to employees/prospective employees, retention, and promotion practices to ensure the right types of behaviors will be rewarded.

It is easy to make these reputation strategy recommendations from the outside, but it is clear: taking the steps outlined above are much better than solely relying on corporate communications spokespeople or, worse yet, leadership saying nothing at all. To date, one of the biggest failings of leadership has been not addressing the issue and speaking openly about the situation. Only time will tell if management will rise to the challenge in the future. One thing is for certain: bad things do happen to good brands, so leadership should be ready to address the issue head on.