Reputation Matters: Withstanding a Reputational Crisis

reputation-matters400The CEO of Scouts Canada is seen running away from reporters asking questions about past youth leaders’ sexual abuse of children. A social media hashtag designed to promote positive images of New York City police officers is instantly appropriated to showcase police violence.

These are just two examples of the types of crises organizations can face that can have a lasting impact on their reputations. Examples like these offers valuable lessons for how to respond effectively (or not, as the case may be) to an attack on your organization’s brand. They also highlight the importance of a plan to protect your brand’s reputation before a challenge even happens.

Let’s start with protecting your organization’s good name. As Carlye Christianson and Melanie Lockwood Herman of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center write: “When difficulties arise, a good reputation can also serve as a retaining wall that affords your nonprofit the ‘benefit of the doubt.’” Maintaining your organization’s reputation starts with doing good and behaving ethically.

Taking a passive approach to reputation management—that is, waiting for a crisis to happen to discover how little influence your organization has—poses a bigger risk than taking active steps beforehand to strengthen your reputation. A fundamental question all communicators should ask is, Can our organization stand up to intense and constant public scrutiny in the event of a crisis? If the answer is no, it’s time to change your approach.

Listen, watch and track

An active approach to reputation management involves monitoring, seeking feedback and objectively assessing public expectations and views. Communicators can accomplish this by:

  1. Identifying risks and threats in seven areas: human resources, operational issues, regulatory issues, community and donor issues, corporate malfeasance, and service errors.
  2. Auditing their organization’s digital footprint to see what is being said about the company and by whom.
  3. Using opinion surveys and/or focus groups to identify specific areas of weakness and risk.
  4. Developing strategies to reduce or eliminate any threats. There are several things you can do to identify potential threats. The most important one is to monitor and listen to what people (non-clients included) are saying about you. You can then develop appropriate responses that will prevent an issue from turning into a problem, or you can be prepared to offer accurate information that will eliminate confusion or set the record straight.
  5. Supporting ongoing education for staff, especially those at the front lines.

A good example of the last strategy comes from the Department of Justice in Victoria, Australia, which used videos like the one below to explain the key elements of their social media policy to government staff.

Managing a reputational crisis

What happens, though, when a crisis strikes suddenly? How does your organization move forward and make good on its promises to be accountable?

If your organization is at fault, you need to own it. Ducking responsibility means more damage later, and possibly the risk of legal action. If you didn’t cause the problem but it affects how you do business, address the issues you can control.

In the June 2014 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, Karen A. Cerulo and Janet M. Ruane reported that in their study of celebrity apologies, those that put the victims first were more successful than those that evaded or justified the approach of the offenders. Scouts Canada, for instance, was successful in rebuilding the organization’s reputation after this incident because they admitted they had failed in their responsibilities. They opened new lines of communications, including accepting interviews, posting video statements, and distributing a special bulletin on a regular basis dedicated to updating parents on the changes they were making to prevent similar events from occurring again in the future.

Once a crisis strikes, whether it’s sudden or builds over time, there are some key steps communicators can take to rebuild and repair a reputation as quickly as possible:

  1. Acknowledge the problem; don’t hide it or your senior leadership away.
  2. Apologize, sincerely and with heart.
  3. Involve your management (both board and staff).
  4. Take action to fix things.
  5. Tell everyone how you are fixing it.
  6. Analyze the problem so the situation doesn’t happen again.
  7. Commit to change.

The Boy Scouts have as their motto “Be Prepared.” It is perhaps the best thing a communicator can remember when managing their organization’s reputation.  If you can anticipate and identify your level of risk, then you are already on the path to success. If you create a plan that incorporates the three principles of “do good, make good, be good,” then you will be prepared to deal with most anything that comes your way.

Martha Muzychka

Martha Muzychka

Martha Muzychka, ABC, is a strategic, creative problem solver who helps clients navigate competing priorities by providing effective communication advice; strategic planning, facilitation and consultation services; and qualitative research. Find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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