By David Walker

In business, reputation is everything. If you don’t have the trust of your clients and key stakeholders, then your business won’t last long – it’s that simple.

In today’s world, news travels fast, and brand reputations can plummet in the blink of an eye. Even one person’s opinion can deal a catastrophic blow without proper crisis management support. Take the example of Kylie Jenner’s tweet back in February that wiped $1.3billion off the value of Snapchat at a stroke by suggesting that the social media app was no longer relevant.

When a PR crisis hits and the issue becomes public knowledge, then your company will find itself standing at a crossroads – down one route lies reputational damage and a dead end of liquidation, bankruptcy and insolvency; down the other lies a potentially long period of difficult trading, but ultimately, the seeds of recovery.

In recent times, we’ve seen some high-profile casualties, with the likes of Volkswagen engulfed by the diesel emissions scandal, United Airlines suffering wide condemnation for its appalling manhandling of a passenger, KFC doing the unthinkable and actually running out of chicken, and Ryanair announcing months of cancellations affecting hundreds of thousands of passengers.

However, all have continued to operate and, fundamentally, have survived the initial storm of controversy and reputational damage, though the effects will continue to undoubtedly be felt for some time to come.

Tomorrow's chip papers

It’s a media cliché but it’s true – today’s headlines are tomorrow’s chip papers. For example, Samsung has firmly put its explosive Note 7 problems behind it. It has since racked up record sales with its Note 8 model and continues to go toe-to-toe with Apple.

As Samsung knows, key decisions that are made in the immediate aftermath of the crisis can be pivotal to both brand reputation and long-term fortunes. In fact, having a clear, pre-emptive crisis communications strategy in place long before the crisis hits can pay dividends when it actually starts to unfold, including designating media-trained spokespeople and preparing statements for anticipated scenarios.

No company is immune from problems, no matter how big or small, and simple recognition of that fact, with crisis planning that results in decisive action, can separate the survivors from the victims.

So how best to go about rebuilding reputation in the wake of a PR crisis? Here are a few tips:

  • Immediately seek to understand how the crisis hit in the first place – this data gathering stage is crucial to how you react and go forward. It is also vital to providing the basis of your response to any media enquiries, and will inform your entire approach to it. You must have all of the facts at your fingertips if you are to successfully navigate your crisis, while carefully sorting fact from fiction.


  • If it’s clear that you are at fault, then swiftly acknowledge it and take ownership of it. Sorry doesn’t have to be the hardest word – in business, an unreserved apology can make all the difference. Those that fail to accept this simple truth and attempt to deflect blame or even hide from it will only prolong and worsen their predicament, and harm their business reputation further. Using phrases in your statement such as “absolutely committed” and “we recognise that there have been unacceptable failures” can help to underline and reinforce the apology.


  • Don’t simply roll over and accept blame if it’s not your fault. Just because someone is demanding an apology doesn’t make them right. And don’t issue a half-hearted apology because you think it ticks a few boxes or makes you seem warm and fuzzy. Perceived weakness and virtue signalling can be equally damaging for a brand, so don’t be scared to stand up to your detractors as part of your crisis management strategy – or to call out ‘alternative facts’.


  • Mistruths published by news outlets arecausing reputational damage? Seeking retractions or damages should be your last resort. Instead, pursue a more collaborative approach by contacting the journalist who wrote the story to politely point out the true version of events and ask them to correct it going forward. This will serve to promote media trust and foster better understanding in the long-term


  • Be consistent. Your initial statement to the media and any subsequent ones must have a clear thread running through them. Perform any dramatic U-turns and it will become immediately obvious that the crisis is getting the better of you, or worse, that you’ve blatantly misled your customers and key stakeholders, and may be continuing to do so. In the immediate aftermath of the passenger ejection scandal, United Airlines worsened its situation with wildly differing statements.


  • Reputation is in delivery, not promise. If you make a public pledge to perform better after a crisis then that’s all well and good, but you must then explain how you’re going to do that before delivering on it. And if you promise something in your crisis communications, then be absolutely certain that you can fulfil it. Failure to do so could prove one crisis too many for your business to survive.


  • Ensure that the issue is fully resolved and won’t happen again. Only then can you honestly say that you have learned from it and can have the confidence to continue operating, while facing your key stakeholders with a credible united front that speaks of a resolute approach to recovery. The rebuilding process must start from within and successful internal communications that rally the workforce will be key to that. Remember, employees are your greatest ambassadors and must be bought into the change process.


  • Embrace change – view the crisis as an opportunity to effect lasting improvement that will reap future rewards, rather than a weighty burden. Heed the crisis management advice you were given and stick to it.


  • A carefully considered content strategy should represent a major part of the recovery process. Once you’re on a more even footing, the development of engaging and informative content that illustrates the positive steps you have taken since the crisis will help to show transparency and authenticity, in turn returning the company to a position of loyalty and trust. You should start to build up a bank of case studies and testimonials, and invite online customer reviews, while engaging positively on social media and reaching out through insightful blog posts.


And remember, effective crisis management is not simply a job for your comms team. They will guide you on the principles of what to say and how to say it. But ultimately it’s that old cliché that actions speak louder than words which will see you through with reputation intact.

Don’t believe me? Then take the advice of billionaire investor Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

For help and advice call our crisis management experts now on 0800 612 9890.