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5 ways to protect your organization's reputation in a crisis

Posted May 4, 2020 9:55 a.m. EDT

While businesses, companies and organizations cannot always anticipate a crisis, they can prepare for one. (Mangostar/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, Sinclair Public Affairs.

Most people could not have anticipated the global effects of the current health crisis that the world is facing with COVID-19. Its impact has been undeniably felt by individuals, families, business owners and health care workers in almost every country around the world.

Amidst this pandemic, many companies and organizations are scrambling to figure out the best way to handle their affairs, communicate with the public, and keep things running during this unprecedented time.

While not all crises are of this magnitude or severity, one thing rings true when it comes to handling a crisis situation, no matter how minor or serious — preparation is key.

"One of the most commonly overlooked aspects of running a business, company or organization is reputation management," said Chris Sinclair, owner and founder of Sinclair Public Affairs, a North Carolina-based public affairs firm that handles crisis management, public affairs and media relations. "As we face the current situation at hand, people are taking notice of how companies and businesses are treating their employees and customers. How you communicate during this time is crucial and protecting your reputation should be a top priority."

As mentioned, a crisis can be something like the coronavirus — an external factor that directly impacts your business. However, a crisis can also indicate a variety of things and usually implies that something has gone wrong with your brand, operations or finances.

When a crisis, whatever it may be, puts your reputation in jeopardy — here are five ways you can actively work to protect it.

1. Leverage social media

If you are a brand, a company or even someone running for political office, you'll hardly get recognition without being active and relevant on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. While these profiles should maintain a professional and user-friendly message, social media usage is encouraged and can even help you manage your reputation during a crisis.

For instance, many airline companies are very active on Twitter. If a complaint by a customer is made on this platform, airlines, more often than not, make sure to engage with the unsatisfied customer, rectify the issue, and gain loyalty and respect in the process.

Additionally, in this age of technology, news spreads fast and is on a 24/7 cycle of updates, tweets, posts, likes and comments. Negative perception of your company or business can become like a wildfire that's almost impossible to contain if you aren't privy to what people are saying about your brand.

"The best way to protect your reputation in this world today is through social media," Sinclair said. "It helps you stay on top of what people are saying about your company or organization. Monitoring that is so important and can help you identify hot spots and immediately address situations in a thoughtful way. If you neglect people who engage with you on social media, you offer up the opportunity for other voices to define your business or organization."

2. If you mess up, own up to it — then move on

If you can, get ahead of the problem by acknowledging it in a timely manner before someone else has a chance to craft a narrative you may not be on board with.

Companies, organizations and businesses are composed of individuals and everybody makes mistakes. The best thing to do when something goes wrong is to own up to it and communicate what is being done to address or remedy the situation.

"The most important thing that anyone can do that is dealing with a crisis whether internal or external, is that they acknowledge it and then communicate the steps that are being taken to rectify it," said Sinclair. "Own up to it and then say, 'Here's the plan going forward.' Communication is so important in a crisis. Facts are so important in any crisis. But if something did happen on your watch, you have to own up to that in a thoughtful way."

This is why it's critical to have an action plan in place before a crisis happens. That way, if and when something goes wrong, you have an immediate course to take after you've communicated with your customers. After you've done this, move forward.

"Don't try and cover up issues or wait for someone in the media to break the story first. Your voice is the first one your customers and members should hear. By owning up to the situation, the likelihood of the issue becoming a crisis decreases dramatically," Sinclair said. "However, after it's been addressed, move on. Don't dwell on it. Instead, show your customers that you're putting in the work you promised you were going to do to solve it."

3. Be strategic, yet honest about about your message

When it comes to bad press, there may be a temptation to skirt around the issue or immediately react. Instead of getting defensive or responding negatively to the first sign of trouble, take a moment to gather your bearings and consider how your customers will view your response.

While a timely response is important and you should never lie, it is OK to take some time to strategically think of how you'd like to craft your message and then deliver it with a clear mind. Sinclair also said there is a way to say "no comment" without saying "no comment."

Additionally, always be aware of your company’s legal perimeters and disclosure rules.

"While you should typically try to respond within 24 hours, you should only put out a statement or message addressing the crisis after you've carefully considered your words and actions," Sinclair said. "Saying exactly what you mean the first time will communicate more effectively with your customers that the situation is under control."

4. Know what people are saying about you

While having social media is a great first step to gaining insight on what customers, fans and the general public are saying about your business or organization, it's not the end-all, be-all option.

Sinclair advises his clients to set up Google Alerts to make sure they're getting daily updates on what people are saying about their business operations or brand.

The more information you have about both your customers and critics, the better equipped you are to deal with and address the commentary — whether it be good, bad or something in between.

"This type of purview can be especially crucial in a crisis situation and can help you get ahead of a problem before it becomes too large," Sinclair said.

5. Stay engaged with your customers and followers

Last, but not least, it's important to stay engaged with your customers, followers and supporters. Whether it's through social media polls, online surveys, customer reviews or highlighting loyal clients, make sure their opinions and feedback are valued and they feel like a member of your team.

"If your customers or members feel like they can count on you to tell the truth, own up to your mistakes, and respond positively to constructive criticism, then you're going to be in a much better place if and when a crisis occurs," Sinclair said. "Staying engaged with your customers and followers increases the likelihood that they will remain loyal and support you in the future, even in the face of a crisis."

This article was written for our sponsor, Sinclair Public Affairs.

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