How to safeguard your reputation in a crisis

A reputation is easier maintained than rebuilt. Here is a guide for reclaiming trust and authority after a catastrophe and keeping critics from seizing the narrative—to your detriment.

Reputations are won or lost in the moment after a crisis.

In midst of your response, it’s easy to forget to protect your status and trustworthiness. Whether you win or lose, your reputation is far more within your control than you might think.

Crisis is the moment of choice—where your destiny is determined one way or the other.

When these situations present themselves, everyone is afforded a moment to make a decision without severe repercussions. It’s what follows your decision that matters greatly.

Manage the ‘Moment of Decision’

Crisis management is the management of the choices and criteria used to make them. You must ask the right question in the moment of choice.

Crisis management is the management of the choices and criteria used to make them. You must ask the right question in the moment of choice.

  • “What should we do?” This question, in some form, is the incorrect but common first thought. You put yourself in a selfish mental space and causes choices to be made out of a desire for self-protection. You end up doing or saying things that make the problem worse.
  • “What should we say?” This question is also incorrect. You end up saying things that comfort yourself or the organization you represent, instead of taking action.

Every crisis is a business problem much more than it is a communication problem. You can’t communicate your way out, but must manage your way out, then communicate your actions to your audience.

[ Free Download: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.]

Crisis Response

Crisis response is a simple formula: what you do plus what you say. If done thoughtfully, an organization will make it through with better potential outcomes.

The goal in any crisis is to maintain or restore trust, and it’s always easier to maintain than to restore. It is also far more expensive. PR pros always say fire prevention trumps firefighting, and in most cases, a smoldering potential crisis can be prevented from escalating into a crisis at all with the proper counsel and plan of action.

What is the right question to ask?

If crisis communication is all about asking the right questions at the right time, what is the right question? Here is one:

What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?

To determine what is reasonable, you must evaluate the situation. Reasonable people don’t expect to have all the facts immediately in the wake of a crisis event. There is, however, a common expectation that an organization cares about all effected stakeholders.

The single biggest predictor of loss of trust—including reputational—is the perception that you don’t care.

Silence is never golden.

You have a limited amount of time to communicate to maintain control of the message. Silence can be toxic for three reasons:

1. It can be perceived as indifference or as affirmation of guilt.

2. It allows critics, adversaries and media outlets to define the crisis, your motives, and your actions.

3. It invites critics and opportunists to rally public opinion against you.

This is true even when lawyers say, “You can’t say that!” Keep in mind that every crisis is a business problem before it is a legal problem. There are ways to navigate around the legal difficulties that crisis management experts can assist you with.

Five Steps to Handle a Crisis

Here are five steps to consider while managing any situation:

1. Acknowledge – Express awareness of the event or issue.

2. Empathize – Express empathy if there are victims or potential victims.

3. Share values – Communicate what your organization cares about.

4. Offer actions – Describe how you will address the crisis and specific steps already taken in response to the event or issue.

5. Promise commitment – Outline planned next steps for the organization and potential next steps for stakeholders.

Silence can be deadly, so make sure to take control of the situation. Whoever is first to define three things – the crisis, the motives, the actions – controls the interpretation of the event.

The day of the 24-hour news cycle is long gone. There are millions of self-proclaimed reporters with smartphones all over the country ready to record and post what is happening in real time or shortly thereafter.

Crises are still manageable, however, if you have a plan in place. Just like insurance, you may never need it, but your investment will come in very handy if you do.

Chuck Norman is the principal and owner of SA Communications. A version of this article originally ran on the SA Communications blog.

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