Bolstering defenses ahead of a brand crisis

With several companies dealing with public perception issues, experts say brand building buys time in a crisis.

It seems as though 2018 is off to a rocky start for a lot of brands. Between protests over employee wages, questionable ad decisions, flawed products in wide distribution and allegations of exploitative sales tactics, many companies are experiencing serious brand issues, if not outright brand crises.

Such events put senior executives in the spotlight as the public starts to ask who knew what, and who knew it when. The standard playbook for companies in this position advocates for transparency and clear leadership, but crisis management experts agree groundwork can be laid during the normal course of business that will protect a brand should it hit a rough patch.

Mia Pearson, CEO for MSL Canada, says companies that take a proactive approach to brand building fare much better in a crisis than those who merely react to crisis.

“Truly being a brand-led organization is where it matters,” Pearson says. This means establishing a clear sense in the public eye of what a brand stands for, but also involves CEOs changing how they move their businesses forward.

“I’m starting to see reputation management experts at the table helping executive teams make business decisions,” Pearson says. “There may be good decisions that drive revenue forward, but if there’s a brand or reputational risk, they’ll stop it because they believe it’s not on-brand. Reputation mitigation has become a bigger part of decision making.”

Esther Buchsbaum, president and co-founder of Energi PR, agrees that strong brand positioning is the strongest defense against a perception challenges and that it is up to the C-suite to lead the way.

“You should be more hands on now than ever before,” Buchsbaum says. “The days of doing business with a handshake, acting ethically and with integrity put a lot of good will in the bank. So when the shit hit the fan, so to speak, people cut you some slack. Dove was a perfect example of that a few months ago.”

Crisis experts also agree that internal branding is every bit as important as external branding in managing a crisis. This makes sure every employee is acting to resolve the problem.

“If I work for a company in crisis and a neighbour asks me on Facebook what’s going on, my response could become public,” says Martin Waxman, a reputation management consultant and educator who teaches crisis preparedness. “That’s why organizations need to remember to communicate internally as well as externally in a crisis.”

Pearson agrees that the branding message must reach from the corner office right to the front-line. “As a proactive measure, smart brands are restating what their organization stands for and are training down the line to make sure everyone understands how to behave as an organization… As you train, you’re mitigating risk every step of the way.”

When asked what mistakes leaders often make when positioning a brand around a crisis, all three experts that strategy talked to stopped short of naming specific companies, but said they constantly observe senior leaders ignore some long-standing fundamentals: taking responsibility with quick, transparent, accountable responses.

“It’s important to look outward and be empathetic to your stakeholders, and to be honest and transparent in order to begin to rebuild trust,” Waxman says.

Pearson says the last year has revealed companies’ reticence to offer “immediate acknowledgement of what’s gone wrong and what they’ll do to fix it. It takes courage, and there will be those who advise against it, talking about lawsuits. But the reality is that when you take responsibility early and often, it diffuses the situation very quickly.”

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash