How do companies get out of a reputational black hole when their backs are against the wall?

17 June 2016, Blog

Another few days and another few examples of the shadow of reputational disaster falling across corporate names both large and small.

Whether it’s BHS finally going out of business with Sir Philip Green’s past decisions – and his latest yacht purchase – coming in for intense present-day criticism, or the decision of an historic Scottish golf club to stay firmly in the past by refusing membership to women –  losing the Open in the process – or a small security firm somehow forgetting the dummy bomb it had left deep within Old Trafford, the result is the same – instantaneous public and media opprobrium, whipping up an existentially threatening reputational and financial calamity for those concerned with virtually nowhere to go.

So what should a brand, and the directors behind it, do in such seemingly impossible situations?

Whatever the reality, a sudden dip in public confidence caused by media reports now very quickly erodes an organisation’s perceived status. Through the echo chamber of multiple media platforms, not least reputation-shredding social media hearsay, the dented image can then rapidly become the perceived reality.

The basic principles of effective crisis management, though, are deceptively simple.

The very essence of success is to actually understand and accept that you do have a bona fide crisis on your hands. Obvious, maybe, but it isn’t always so for those at the centre of such storms.

The sheer bureaucratic scale of large, multi-national organisations means it often takes time for simple decisions to be processed, approved by line management and brought to the attention of directors.

Once the crisis is actually seen for what it is, though, one that’s gaining public traction in the modern media environment, with a lethal momentum to roll beyond effective control without fast, decisive and appropriate remedial action, you should do just that. Act.   

And that means media engagement with openness, explanations and apologies. Within minutes.

Just as security firm boss Chris Reid did swiftly and effectively after the Manchester United farrago. And just as the Muirfield captain attempted to do, with limited success. Whether Sir Philip’s reputation emerges from the BHS saga unscathed is another matter.

To be seen and heard will not only buy you time, it might even win you plaudits.

Common symptoms for firms mismanaging a crisis include apologies – where obvious and appropriate – but which are still seen to be slow, grudging, or not issued at all. Even worse is any perceived sense that legal concerns are being put before those of the public.

There are ways to be apologetic and, critically, to be sympathetic to a situation without admitting formal liability.

In the age of instant consumer opprobrium, the media consuming public want to see that you have a human face and actually give a damn.

With media operating 24/7 across all platforms, time zones and markets, the damage caused by reputational crises badly managed doesn’t die away, it merely gets posted online for posterity. So effective, rapid and open engagement with crafted key messaging has never been more relevant or necessary. 

By Clarence Mitchell

Director of Client & Media Services

JBP Staff Member

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