One can’t go online or turn on the news lately without seeing companies and individuals trying to snuff out reputational fires, most of which they set ablaze by their own actions. Some of their responses further stoked the infernos. Other responses doused the flames and helped salve their burns so reputational healing could begin sooner. Here’s a quick take of cheers and jeers, with lessons for all.
👎 (NFL) Assume nothing stays secret. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with select owners and players to address the national anthem protest controversy, he instructed, “Let’s make sure that we keep this confidential.” We know this from several anonymous sources and a three-hour audio recording recently leaked to The New York Times. Along those lines, it’s been said the fastest way to get a document circulated far and wide is to stamp it “confidential.”
👎 (Charlie Rose) Ensure efforts to repair reputation don’t make it worse. Several media outlets report disgraced television host Charlie Rose is considering a #MeToo television series where he’d interview other credibly accused abusers of women (rumored to include Matt Lauer and Louis C.K.). There are countless ways people (and organizations) who wronged other people can take full accountability, work to make amends and move forward. This tone-deaf idea is not one of those ways and merely re-ignited a firestorm of backlash against Rose.
👎 (VA Secretary Nominee) If you assert a fact, make sure it’s true. When embattled Department of Veterans Affairs nominee Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson hurried past a shouting media scrum on Capitol Hill, he stuck to his talking points and ignored most questions about fast-emerging accusations. Until, that is, he was asked if there is an Inspector General report about him, to which he firmly answered, “no.” Later that same day it was confirmed that a 2012 Navy IG report specifically called for Jackson’s removal from his current White House position and concluded he (and others) displayed “unprofessional behaviors” and their actions fueled a “lack of trust in leadership.” Jackson’s VA nomination was since withdrawn.
👎 (Facebook) Release bad news proactively, transparently and fully – or lose credibility at the very time you need it most. Facebook knew since 2015 that Cambridge Analytica accessed data inappropriately from millions of its customers but hid it from the public. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg eventually was forced to testify in front of Congress, he was on the defensive and lost credibly on the central issue of transparency, which further fueled the #DeleteFacebook movement.
👍 (Southwest) Do right, show people genuine care and earn loyalty even under horrible circumstances. When an engine exploded midair, killing a passenger and nearly dooming the plane, Southwest responded quickly and humanely. A trained employee team deployed to meet passengers individually, helped with travel and offered trauma counseling. The CEO apologized via video and each passenger was given $5,000 – with no strings attached. This close from a Dallas News story sums up their crisis response and the results: “Indeed, just days after experiencing the turmoil aboard Flight 1380 where he helped [another passenger] in the last minutes of her life … passenger Andrew Needum said his next flight would be with Southwest. ‘Southwest is a great company and they took really good care of us,’ Needum, a Celina firefighter, said Thursday. ‘There’s no question in my mind as to who I’ll be flying with again. They really took care of us.’”
👍 (Starbucks) Take risks when it’s the right thing to do. Despite ignoring the central issue of race in its initial apology to two African American men arrested for simply awaiting another associate prior to ordering (earning the company additional criticism for sidestepping the heart of the matter in its first response), Starbucks quickly corrected. They chose to put their CEO into a high stakes national TV interview where he directly addressed the racial dynamics, apologized again and took full responsibility (“We regret that our practices and training led to this reprehensible outcome…”). The CEO then met privately with the two men, committed to creating and displaying a “customer bill of rights,” and announced plans to hold a company-wide training session to address bias, promote inclusion and prevent discrimination in its stores. While risky and controversial (some suggest such trainings don’t work) they are taking strong and well-intended actions vs. the more expedient option of simply apologizing, laying low and moving on.
👍 (KFC) Communicate quickly to set stakeholder expectations and the public can rally to your side. When KFC’s across the United Kingdom recently ran out of the “C” in their name – the lack of chicken angered customers, as the chain was forced to temporarily close hundreds of stores. And yet, PR Week called their response a “triumph” and observed, “Within hours of the initial problems coming to light [thanks to fast and humorous paid/earned/social communications] customers knew exactly what had gone wrong, how it was being resolved and, importantly, when it would be fixed.”
👍 Fireproofing a crisis communications response: The fastest way for any organization to prevent or put out a reputational fire is no different than how we should treat others in our personal lives: Own up to our mistakes proactively. Communicate quickly and as often as needed. Give respect. Words and deeds must show we care. Set expectations. Address tough issues head on. Offer genuine, non-caveated apologies. Take calculated risks. Make amends to those we harm. Take concrete steps to minimize the chance it could happen again.
John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm, a strategic communications consultancy with offices in D.C. and Detroit. He serves as a trusted advisor to corporations, associations and government agencies and leads a range of firm offerings, including crisis planning and response, media coaching, social media support, dark website creation and more. He’s helped clients prepare, respond and recover from crisis situations that threaten reputations, agendas, litigation, revenues, careers and lives.