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How to Constructively Approach a Reputational Crisis in PR

By Sophia Halkidou


This article first appeared on the SpinSucks blog




If you’ve led on a response to any crisis, you’ll know the chaos and tension this can bring, particularly in the early hours.


But not every bad thing that happens represents a situation that could threaten the company’s reputation and financial standing. Some issues are simply incidents or criticism from which attention will quickly move away, which means there are different levels of crises.


It is important that those who lead the response to any crisis understand these differences and, thus, how to react.


What Is a Reputational Crisis?


Any event that may pose a threat of any kind to a business should be dealt with promptly and consistently. However, although not all unpleasant events represent a communication crisis, should this be the case, then there are several levels of reputational crisis that will require the involvement of various divisions within a company depending on the nature of the issue.


In fact, in a recent study, PwC classified crisis events into seven categories:

  1. Operational

  2. Technological

  3. Humanitarian

  4. Financial

  5. Legal

  6. Human Capital

  7. Reputational

The reality is that a crisis involving the first six categories could all lead to the seventh, most serious category, a reputational crisis and thus capture the interest of the media and those who use social media.


So, how can we deal with a crisis situation as quickly and as painlessly as possible?


Four Pivotal Questions to Answer


When you become aware of a potential threat, it is important to ask yourself four crucial questions. These will help you to understand whether you are dealing with a reputational crisis or a crisis that concerns a certain other aspect of the company that can be dealt with internally.

  1. Does the incident directly threaten people (employees, customers, consumers, locals, etc.)?

  2. Does the incident directly endanger the lives of animals or harm the natural environment?

  3. Does the incident indirectly threaten people (e.g., long-term health problems), animals or nature?

  4. If the incident does not fall into one of these three categories, then consider asking, “does the incident affect the company’s ethical values, its level of quality and standards ​​or the human rights of employees, citizens or other stakeholders?”

If your response to one or more of those questions is ‘YES’, then your company is facing a reputational crisis or a crisis that needs to be addressed by the corporate communication department.


If, on the other hand, your response was a definite ‘NO’, then the incident can be viewed as a problem that needs to be dealt with, rather than a situation that poses significant reputational risk.


If you recognize the incident falls into the category of being a problem, yet you still find yourself being persuaded by other directors to deal with it as a communication risk, it is worth investigating who exactly this is an issue for. You will often find it could simply be one of the management team or a department head who feels strongly about a particular issue.


Should this be the case, you can be confident your company is not facing a communication crisis, although you should seek an approach that will ease the tension and provide a solution.


Who Will Manage the Crisis?


Many people think a crisis is something they can manage successfully without having any previous experience.


“Since we managed and responded so quickly to the Covid-19 crisis, we can certainly easily do the same in a communication crisis,” right? Hmmm, not necessarily.


Firstly, the Covid-19 issue was not a reputational crisis. And secondly, a reputational crisis should be managed by a specialist.


Are you a crisis communication specialist? If you are, do you have a trained spokesperson who can confidently face the media to get your message across?

If you don’t, a crisis is not the time to find out how to cope with the pressure. Invest in some training during the quiet times to help prepare those who will be representing your company in terms of communication.


The Pandemic Is Not a Good Case Study


What has not been stressed sufficiently so far in the market is that, for most businesses globally, the crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic was not reputational. For many, it represented an operational dilemma. This was not about something businesses had done wrong, it was about how easily and quickly they could adapt to the new landscape.


This is because, on the eve of the first lockdown, suddenly companies had to address issues such as “How effective will home working be?”, “How can the company sell its products when for many the only channel would now be online?”, “How can supply chain complications be managed?” and “Would the company be able to continue to operate effectively?”


And while the crisis during the pandemic may have involved much communication between employees or other stakeholders, this situation did not immediately pose a reputational risk, at least not to the extent that it could be described as a reputational crisis and at least not for the majority of the market.


For those pharmaceutical companies active in vaccines, for instance, Covid may have overall been viewed as a reputational triumph but at the same time, these companies found themselves in the middle of accusations, complaints, and debates addressed by the media and citizens around the globe who were skeptical about the effectiveness and safety of the Covid-19 vaccines.


However, aside from the situation faced by the majority of businesses, the pandemic sparked human rights issues and affected the images of governments and countries around the world and, thus, the Covid 19 pandemic certainly represented a reputational crisis for them.


In the wider climate of tension and pressure, messages of a dual notion such as the “I can’t breathe” slogan associated with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, enabled these campaigns to represent a communication crisis for governments and political leaders with their ability to affect the reputations of the authorities involved.


Be a Crisis Communications Expert


We all want to give our best in any situation we find ourselves in. But, given how complex crisis issues and their management can be, your best may fall a little short.


Therefore, whether the training course you choose is long-term and expensive or of shorter duration and therefore less costly, whatever option you choose will help to ensure you are better prepared.


A crisis communication training course will help you to answer some of the strategic questions that we communicators face in the early hours of any reputational crisis:

  1. Who is best suited to speak to the media or employees about this event?

  2. When is the most appropriate time to speak and why?

  3. What are the key messages we must get across?

  4. Who should be in the crisis team and why?

  5. What steps must the company take within the first two hours of the crisis?

  6. What communication channels will be targeted?


Prepare for a Reputational Crisis


Every company worries about an imminent problem or possible failure in their production chain, whether this involves products or services. When any such issue or failure threatens lives, health or could harm the environment, this could jeopardize the future of both the company and its employees.


A communication crisis event can disrupt the operation of your business, damage its reputation, deal a serious blow to its finances and shareholders, and result in many other losses. In fact, managing a communication crisis effectively and preserving your brand reputation is synonymous with protecting every single part of your organization.


A communication crisis can be one of the most challenging situations for PR professionals to handle, but every company and its communication team must be prepared to deal with such a situation.


To achieve this, start getting ready today.

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