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Crises: through chaos to calm - maintaining untarnished reputations


Eva Maclaine is a communications strategy, reputation and change management specialist and CIPR International committee member. Here, Eva reflects on the chaos that can hit an organisation when a crisis develops, and the steps needed to ensure the calm for it to function well.


Reputation – good or bad – is a matter of perception.

Unfortunately it takes only one ill-considered action and a reputation can be lost in a flash. And then there is often little left.


So what causes the chaos around a poor reputation? Often it's caused by external events – think weather disruption to holiday makers, security breaches in organisations, a false rumour about a company fuelled by social media. All can be difficult to handle.


But far more difficult are those crises caused by internal actions. There have been enough examples in recent times and they can have devastating effects and can even lead to the organisation failing and breaking up.


Chaos in recent times

Internal crises are usually either caused by poor decision making or by disruptive actions of individuals working within. Poor decisions were certainly at the heart of the infamous announcement by Center Parcs, “as a mark of respect” for the late Queen, to close its UK sites on the day of her funeral, potentially leaving hundreds of stranded guests part-way through their holidays. The resulting outcry in all media quickly led it to review its position.


On the other hand, chaos can also be caused by the actions of individuals working for the organisation. London’s Metropolitan Police, accused of being institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic, may not survive the fall out. It remains to be seen whether another organisation – the CBI (the Confederation of British Businesses) – will survive the turmoil of rape allegations and sexual harassment. When the news broke and the allegations surfaced, 50 large businesses immediately suspended or cancelled their membership.


These examples will certainly become PR textbook examples of how not to handle a crisis. But what can we do to ensure we can avoid the crises in the first place, avoid the chaos and navigate the still, calm waters of a well-run company?


The dangers of over-hyping

First, beware of building a reputation better than reality. Pumped-up reputations, neither grounded in reality nor authentic, are worse than useless. Sooner or later they will be caught out and the fall out will be even greater. The VW emissions scandal is a notable example. The company had an impeccable reputation until it was exposed for cheating emission tests to improve results.


Our digital world brings with it special problems where a lie knows no boundaries. As Mark Twain observed: “A lie can travel half way around the world while truth is putting on its shoes.” And with digital this is even more true.


Aiming for calm

Professional conversations all too frequently revolve around reputation management but the focus should actually be on integrity, true values, strong leadership and solid purpose.


Several foundations will help secure a good reputation. A good product or service must always sit at the heart of the company, but good governance, sound financial performance, strong committed leadership and a contented workplace all contribute to its reputation.


Companies are no longer simply money-making machines, geared only to satisfying their shareholders. Given the short-term demands of shareholders, it is especially important that we focus on companies’ long-term needs. A positive culture and strong values are fundamental to successful organisations. These need to evolve and be nurtured from within the organisation. Successful companies who communicate with all their stakeholders are then better prepared to face any challenges.


A good reputation leads to increased trust in companies. It attracts support from customers and other stakeholders. It drives support and success for the business. Reputation management is about communicating these to everyone in order to build trust and safeguard the organisation’s reputation.


What are key things to look for when building a company’s reputation?


As ever, listening is hugely important - to all our stakeholders. To do this effectively we also need to measure perceptions. Do the research, listen to customers, lead focus groups, conduct surveys. Only then will you have a real understanding of a company’s reputation.


Having listened, don't be afraid to speak up. PR is not a cure for all ills. As PR practitioners we have to consider all possible consequences of any actions and be bold enough to bring them to the attention of senior management. Resist a sticking plaster approach. If something doesn’t work you first need to fix it. At our best we are there to advise the management on the risks of any actions and to suggest optimal courses of action.


Today running a company is more complicated than ever. With a fractured geopolitical situation and unrest erupting in many continents, we as PR professionals are faced with new challenges. The days of corporate neutrality are over. It invites people to assume that you don’t care about what is happening in the world. Gen Z is now far more careful about working for brands they do not respect or those they consider are harming society. We now expect more from our companies and we all have to step up to that challenge.


Brands must be transparent when informing the public about their actions in response to current and emerging societal issues. By including stakeholders in the process and providing regular updates with hard data, clear metrics and quantifiable results — even when those results fall short of expectations — companies can build trust in them along the way.


Lastly, act with integrity and make sure that filters through your whole company: that will breed trust.


Hubert Joly, ex-McKinsey and a former chairman and CEO of the US based Best Buy, says organisations should be made up of people working together with a common purpose in pursuit of the same goal. “If you can create this environment where there’s connection of purpose and people can be themselves, then magic happens.”


Eva goes into more depth on this issue in a recent episode of the Redefining Communications podcast. A version of this blogpost was previously posted on LinkedIn.

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