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Strategies for managing reputation in times of trouble

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PR perfect pitch
PR perfect pitch by Eniola Mayowa

Managing crises in today’s digital age is a whole new ball game compared to what was done in the past.

Before the rise of technology, it was much easier to control the narrative and keep negative information hidden from the public, especially during times of crisis.

But now, with social media and online platforms empowering everyone to be their own “publisher,” managing crises has become increasingly challenging.

However, amidst these challenges lie opportunities. Despite the complexities of crisis communication in the digital era, brands and organisations can still navigate through troubled waters and come out with a positive outcome for their reputation.

I remember a time when one of the top phone and telecom brands I managed was about to face a major crisis in Nigeria. What happened? The brand had a sales promotion where they were giving away an all-expenses-paid trip to watch a European League football match.

However, due to some issues with travel plans, the brand decided to offer monetary rewards instead of a trip. Out of the ten winners, nine of them agreed to this new arrangement. But there was one winner who wanted more money than what was being offered.

Before we could even consider the winner’s demand, I received a call from a journalist friend who was also a strong ally. The winner had approached his medium and intended a media ‘war’ with the brand.

It was an issue, but it had the potential to turn into a crisis. Without wasting any time, we reached out to the winner and discussed the matter openly and respectfully at the negotiation table. To ensure fairness and protect ourselves from any possible blackmail attempts, we had our legal team present throughout the process.

By addressing the winner’s concerns directly and finding a mutually beneficial solution, we were able to resolve the issue peacefully. This not only prevented any negative publicity but also helped us maintain our brand reputation in the market.

Effective crisis communication involves a proactive approach that includes identifying potential issues, preparing responses, and communicating transparently and effectively with all stakeholders.

As a brand custodian or communication manager, it is important to know that crises are an inevitable aspect of the business landscape; hence, preparedness is pertinent to effective crisis management.

Whether it is a misguided policy, a social media backlash, a product defect, management misconduct, a data breach, deceptive communication, or a high-profile executive scandal, how a company handles a crisis can significantly impact its reputation and long-term success.

Effective crisis communication is crucial in managing such situations, mitigating damage, and restoring stakeholder trust.

It is instructive to note that the foundation of effective crisis communication lies in preparation. It would be an error, which could be very costly, for a business to start planning for crisis management in the middle of a crisis.

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Organisations should develop comprehensive crisis communication plans that outline potential risks, response strategies, and key communication channels; establish a dedicated crisis management team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities; identify potential crisis scenarios and evaluate their impact on the business; conduct regular crisis simulations to test and refine response plans; and craft key messages and focus areas that can be used for different crises.

During a crisis, time is crucial. Delays or withholding information can make the situation worse and damage trust.

Effective crisis communication requires swift action to address the crisis and communicate with stakeholders by acknowledging the issue and providing initial information while gathering more details; being open and honest about what happened and how the issues are being addressed; and sharing the mechanisms put in place to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

Consistency of communication with all identified stakeholders and across all channels is important to avoid mixed messages or misrepresentation.

Crises often have a human impact, affecting customers, citizens, investors, employees, and the broader community.

Managing the emotional aspect of a crisis requires recognising and addressing the concerns and feelings of the people affected by the crisis, demonstrating empathy and compassion, offering a sincere and genuine apology if the organisation is at fault, and providing clarity and offering solutions or assistance to those impacted by the crisis, such as compensation, support services, or refunds.

During a crisis, it is important for organisations to quickly share information through various channels in both digital and traditional media. This means using different ways of communication to reach their audiences in a fast and effective manner.

Examples include utilising press releases, press conferences, and media interviews to communicate with the public and media; leveraging social media platforms, company websites, and email newsletters to provide updates; and interacting directly with stakeholders for external communication.

Internally, it is important to keep employees informed through internal memos, meetings, and updates on the company’s intranet to ensure they are aligned with the organisation’s messaging.

Crises are constantly changing and can develop rapidly. Therefore, it is crucial for organisations to continuously monitor the situation and be adaptable in their communication approach by providing regular updates on the status of the crisis and the steps being taken to resolve it; seeking feedback from stakeholders and evaluating communication strategies accordingly; and monitoring press coverage, social media conversations, and online discussions to understand public opinion and identify emerging issues.

One notable example of effective crisis communication is the Starbucks Bias Incident in 2018. After two African American men were unjustly arrested at a Philadelphia store while waiting for a friend, Starbucks faced widespread criticism and calls for a boycott.

However, Starbucks responded promptly and took several actions to address the issue. The organisation closed over 8,000 stores nationwide for racial bias training, issued a public apology through various channels, and engaged in open dialogue with stakeholders, including community leaders and activists.

This proactive and empathetic approach helped mitigate the damage to Starbucks’ reputation and demonstrated its commitment to addressing racial bias.

Another example is the controversial “Mama na Boy” advertisement by a leading telecommunications company in Nigeria. The ad sparked outrage among gender advocates and ignited a heated debate on gender equality.

The controversy surrounding the advertisement gained significant attention in the media and continued for some time before eventually subsiding when the advertisement was withdrawn from circulation.

Managing crisis Effective communication is crucial for managing reputation and ensuring organisational resilience.

By preparing in advance, communicating transparently and empathetically, leveraging multiple communication channels, and monitoring the situation closely, organisations can mitigate the impact of crises and emerge stronger.

As the business environment continues to change, the ability to handle crises with skill and integrity will remain a defining factor in maintaining trust and credibility with stakeholders.

  • Mayowa, a Fellow of NIPR, is the COO of Stepcraft Nigeria LTD, an Integrated marketing communications firm

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