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How Authenticity Can Combat Brand Reputation Crises

Sarah Peyok headshotWords by Sarah Peyok
Leadership & Transparency
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Social networks keep every company on its toes. From viral videos to unflattering photos to sound clips on repeat, there is almost no escaping bad press—because quite often, it’s salacious. The 19th century adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is a myth.

When your crisis communications is a few fries short of a Happy Meal

Take for instance the recent McDonald’s snafu in which two children, ages 9 and 7, joined with the BBC’s War on Plastics program went to deliver a petition to McDonald’s London headquarters requesting the restaurant stop giving plastic toys with kids’ meals. What ensued was video footage of a security officer escorting two teary-eyed children from the office as they attempted to hand in their petition. This is not exactly a way to engender a moment of positive sentiment for McDonald’s.

While this story may have garnered more press for the girls’ mission, it did not shine a flattering light on a highly visible multinational corporation. Earning consumers’ trust and business and maintaining a positive brand reputation go hand in hand and are critical to overall business health.

Dissatisfied customers, on average, tell nine to 15 other people about their experience according to one study. While this is troublesome, it is dramatically worse for a brand caught in a bad moment when the incident goes viral. It has the potential to become a crisis.

A crisis can be defined as a situation that results in disruption of operational processes or influences stakeholders’ perceptions negatively. A crisis may significantly impact a business’s profitability, reputation and long-term operational success.

When your business is faced with a potential brand reputation crisis, what is the best course of action?

Authenticity: Managing communications with affected customers is critical. Authentic communication comes naturally when your organization walks its talk—top-down and bottom-up.

McDonald’s deploys many sustainability initiatives, including improving the corporation’s sourcing, packaging and transportation processes to lessen environmental impacts. What was missing in the plastic toys mishap was authenticity. If an organization promotes that it cares about sustainability, then responding to children who also care about the environment should not be a difficult task.

Perhaps if McDonald’s had responded to the girls’ petition properly, the camera incident could have been avoided.

Burger King was sent the same petition and was not the subject of a doorstep interview. Burger King sent two replies: the first, letting the girls know what was happening with their petition; and, a second, stating the company is considering the removal of toys and ‘development of alternatives” with a goal for a ‘more sustainable toy solution’ being in place by 2020.

Another recent example of positive authentic communication is Starbucks’ response after six police officers were asked to leave a store in Arizona. Starbucks issued an apology to the Tempe Police Department. It was an uncomfortable situation that attracted a lot of media attention in large part due to the aftermath of the arrest of two black men inside a Philadelphia Starbucks last year. This time, Starbucks was far more nimble in its response.

If dedicating resources to developing an authentic culture are ever questioned, note that Belief-Driven Buyers are now the majority across all age groups and all income levels in every market surveyed in the Earned Brand 2018 Edelman study. In fact, communications expressing a brand’s stand have a greater effect on a consumer’s intent to advocate for the brand than communications highlighting product features.

Clear expectations: Letting team members know how to respond to customers, detractors, social media comments and unannounced people with cameras may seem absurd but it may save the organization from a highly publicized embarrassing encounter.

Review and consider the most authentic responses possible. Again, if the organization’s culture is ingrained and authentic, the voice of organization will ring clearer and make crisis communication responses less cumbersome.

Transparency goes a long way here, too. Companies that value their employees enough to share information with them, embolden them because they have at hand the information needed to respond. Knowledge equates to fewer stumbles during crisis communication situations.

Update your communications policies on a consistent basis: Keep your team abreast of developments. Share the information. From front door staff to security personnel to CMOs to CEOs, an inclusive, respectful company culture will elevate any outbound communications in regards to business operations.

If a crisis occurs, it is important that after the storm has settled to gather the communications team to dive into a postmortem:

  • What worked well, and what didn't

  • Points of confusion in the process

  • Suggestions for future process changes

Updating your communication policies also should include the nitty gritty, including the most updated contact information.

As social networks evolve, business reputation management will also advance. A big takeaway here is corporate authenticity. Be mindful of brand management techniques. If you tout that you care about the environment, consider how much effort it should take to issue a response defending the organization’s claims and actions. If it takes a crisis to generate a better response, perhaps reviewing what your company promotes should go under review.

Image credit: Pexels

Sarah Peyok headshotSarah Peyok

Based in the Midwest just north of Detroit, Sarah is passionate about sustainability, storytelling and bringing to light sustainability principles that can be threaded into business strategies and communications. Formerly an editor for CSRwire and freelance writer for many organizations forwarding the principles of corporate social responsibility and circularity, she is excited to be a contributor to TriplePundit. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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