When I started my career in communications, one of the areas of practice I felt most intimidated by was crisis/reputation management. There is so much riding on a company’s response to a crisis – big or small – and I watched in awe as my colleagues jumped in confidently to help our clients navigate different crisis scenarios without a second of hesitation.
Over the last month, we have all witnessed more crisis response than ever before due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping our country and the world. Companies are shifting into full crisis response mode to both proactively and reactively manage their brand’s reputation and ensure that internal and external audiences are communicated with regularly, transparently and swiftly. At one point a few weeks ago, my inbox had no less than 30 messages from CEOs who were writing to share their company’s response to coronavirus. And while most of the emails had very similar messaging and didn’t necessarily have a relevant call to action, each company was creating a connection with their customers with the hope that it would serve as a deposit into their “trust bank.”
The Trust Bank and COVID-19
What is a trust bank? It is a critical component of reputation management. It is the place where companies deposit, and sometimes withdraw, consumer trust based on ongoing actions and words. Deposits into the trust bank can happen through community engagement, positive customer experience and thoughtful listening and response to feedback. These deposits build customer loyalty and can go a long way toward creating raving fans for your brand. A loyal audience will support you, advocate for you and back you up in times of crisis. The trust bank is a key component in determining how and when brands recover from crises. Ideally, when a crisis hits, a company has deposited enough currency into its trust bank that it will bounce back from an issue quickly and without too much damage.
Conversely, if the trust bank is low or even negative, it can be harder to rebuild a relationship with your consumers. There are some great examples of brands that are depositing into their consumers’ trust banks right now, amid an unsettling and distressing time. Major brands like Patagonia and Nike have announced that they will continue to pay their store employees even while stores are closed. Adobe, Amplify and Encyclopedia Britannica, among many others, are making resources available to educators and students as the country shifts to e-learning for the foreseeable future. Ford Motor and General Electric recently announced that they would work together to produce 50,000 ventilators over the next 100 days, and New Balance, the shoe company, is shifting its resources to produce masks for healthcare workers. These actions demonstrate that these companies are delivering upon their missions and values. They are putting people before profit, sharing plans for helping and then following through with action, all of which are vital to maintaining a positive brand reputation.
On the other hand, we have also seen instances of missteps by companies that have likely resulted in withdrawals from the trust bank. Under normal circumstances, some of these issues, such as poor customer service experience, a company not following through with a promise or a lack of transparency might be more forgivable. But in the current political, social and emotional environment, now, more than ever, consumers are watching how companies respond to COVID-19 circumstances.
If your company finds itself at the center of an issues management scenario – whether it is COVID-19 related or not – there are things you can do to overcome the situation and minimize impact on your brand’s reputation.
5 Principles of Reputation Management
- Take Ownership: If in fact you have made a mistake, the best course of action is to take ownership and admit the misstep. Ignoring or trying to justify it will only upset your audience more. Be authentic in your response, demonstrate vulnerability and show that you are willing to learn from your mistake in order to do and be better.
- Utilize Proper Communications Channels: Decide the best platforms to share your follow-up message. It may be appropriate to draft various forms of your messaging for email, social or even scripts for customer care agents who may be on the receiving end of calls from upset customers. Share messaging and your approach with your internal audience so that everyone is on the same page and your audience receives a consistent message.
- Set the Tone: Consider the tone in your communications. You want to be sincere, authentic and genuine – leaning into your company mission and values is a good start for deciding your tone. Avoid jokes, sarcasm or humor – even if you had the best of intentions by trying to make light of the situation, it could be lost in translation and make things worse.
- Course Correct and Follow Through: Sometimes owning up to a mistake is enough, but in more egregious situations, you have to be willing to take action to turn things around. Clearly outline what you are going to do and then, most importantly, follow through. Along the way, provide updates that show you are making good on your word.
- Rewind: After the dust settles, take a moment to gather your team and look back on the situation. Be honest in your assessment of your approach – what was done well, what could have been done differently, what should be avoided altogether? The answers to these questions should inform updates to your company’s crisis communications response plan. Additionally, think about what you need to do to start rebuilding consumer trust – how can you make deposits into their trust bank?