Dog bites, Falling Trees and Reputational Crisis Management

Written by Chipo Mapungwana

I recently had an unfortunate encounter with two dogs. Two  gorgeous but unfortunately , unfriendly and vicious dogs. The end result was a rather nasty injection , a night’s stay in hospital and a very black and blue upper arm and deep bite marks. I thought that I would be emotionally scarred forever by the memory of my experience, but two days after this encounter, the memory was fading and now, I can safely say that while I no longer like dogs  (yea, yea,  yea , sorry to the dog lovers ) I am no longer having nightmares about  this nasty episode. Which got me to thinking today that this experience is much like the experience that we have when nasty things happen to our reputation, be it individual or corporate.

Reputation or brand reputation is probably the most valuable asset of any company. It is often the largest part of the balance sheet under goodwill. Look at the top Fortune 100 companies.  When people think about a company or their products, it is really the unconscious consideration of the company’s reputation that is at the forefront of their mind. That reputation is what recruits staff, achieves higher prices and keep customers.

A reputation of real value takes a long time to grow – like a tree. And like a tree it takes only a minute to cut it down. But a tree grows and when it is watered, it will grow taller and greater than it was before it was cut down.

Why dogs bite and trees fall?

All it takes is a business crisis and some mishandled management for that dog to bite and for the  tree to fall. Years of reputation and credibility is gone. With loss of reputation being such an extraordinary risk, you would expect companies to be acutely aware of and be planning for events that might damage that reputation. That is rarely the case.

There are a myriad of events that can impact a company reputation:

  • Employee layoffs/downsizing,
  • Financial results below expectations,
  • Poor employee morale,
  • Corporate lawsuits,
  • Discrimination or harassment legal claims,
  • Negative media coverage,
  • Negative customer comments online
  • Damaging rumours,
  • Product defects or quality problems,
  • A computer system malfunction or error,
  • Computer viruses
  • Violent threats or actions by a current/former employee,
  • On-the-job accidents,
  • Loss of a major customer account,
  • Government probes or fines,
  • Boycotts, strikes
  • Becoming a takeover target

How to avoid dog bites and  falling trees

For most companies, it is possible to identify high priority, high risk events that can be mitigated and be planned for.

You should start by identifying and assessing the main reputation risks within your company. Where is your business (and your career) most at risk of a crisis? Many of the crises can be averted before they occur with some forethought.

It is obvious that the best way to manage a crisis is by averting it. Avoid a crisis around company results by setting appropriate expectations. If morale is poor – investigate the causes. They will almost always be significant to your company performance.

Don’t put your head in the sand – crises happen! What will be needed when that crisis occurs and of those things which can be done now? Most importantly, does everyone who is going to be involved in managing and communicating about the crisis know what their roles are?

Many companies have little idea that a crisis has occurred until after the event. As companies grow more mature and larger, a resistant culture develops which expunges evidence from the outside world, or does not credit it with it appropriate importance. The most obvious example is customer complaints which often reach hurricane scale before senior management pay real attention. Management often respond to the symptoms of a crisis rather than the causes of a crisis.

You need to identify the real crisis quickly and not be distracted by the symptoms and then take the first, important steps to manage it. Managing a crisis requires a deft ability to resolve the causes of a crisis and also communicate your way out of the symptoms.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate during a crisis. Ask yourself how will you communicate with your employees, customers, suppliers, the news media and anybody else, when your crisis occurs? Who will be responsible? Who will be your spokesperson, is that person(s) trained to do the job at it? What key messages will you communicate? What is the role of the CEO? Should he remain above the fray or should he show his engagement.

Monitor and analyse the results of your crisis management, recognise what is working and what is not and adapt your strategy. Be proactive. By conducting public relations activities during the year you can build up the goodwill and support of those stakeholders who are important to your business. You can shape people’s attitudes towards your business and ensure that they are likely to support you and give you the benefit of the doubt when a crisis occurs? What can you do to make them feel better about the company? Who will ensure that gets done?

Don’t let a mismanaged crisis destroy your most valuable asset. Start the planning process today and you’ll sleep better tomorrow.

And I will avoid dogs at all possible cost. But meanwhile the scars are healing and the bad dreams  are no longer so bad.


About chipomaps

A brand reputation, marketing and new media trainer and consultant. Constantly curious, constantly learning.
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