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When bad things happen to good companies: Reputation and crisis management tactics


April 29, 2020
By Brian Kreissl

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Photo: Grafissimo/Getty Images

A while back, I was discussing the employment value proposition and the concept of employer branding. One of the topics I discussed was overcoming a negative employer brand.

At that point, I touched on reputation management, which is a public relations (PR) concept dealing with an attempt to influence and control an organization’s reputation. This generally requires skilled communications and is best handled by an organization’s PR or corporate communications department.

However, it is important to provide media relations and public speaking training to anyone who speaks on behalf of the organization. Particular care must be taken when communicating with members of the media.

This includes senior executives and possibly HR practitioners when an employer finds itself in the news.

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However, it is important to determine who has authority to speak on behalf of the employer, in what situations and using which channels.

Online reputation management

Another aspect is online reputation management, which is an attempt to influence coverage of the organization online. This can include search engine optimization and paid search engine marketing to push positive content to the top of search results, asking others to take down unfavourable, defamatory or misleading content, issuing cease and desist orders and even legal action in some cases (including defamation lawsuits).

While authenticity and transparency are important in organizational communications, some criticism may be undeserved, untrue or incomplete. In that case, it is important that the organization set the record straight, but even if the criticism or negative coverage is largely deserved and truthful, most organizations will want to move on and attempt to change the conversation.

I believe this is particularly true in the case of a good company where bad things happened. Examples include environmental disasters, largescale downsizings, high profile litigation, product liability or quality issues, alleged criminal conduct or allegations of discrimination.

While many of these issues don’t directly relate to HR, they all impact the workforce in some way.

In such a case, it is important to acknowledge the mistake or lapse in judgement, apologize, tell your side of the story, make every attempt to rectify the situation and ensure it doesn’t happen again and attempt to move on. This applies both online and offline.

Returning to online reputation management, this can be an issue with social media comments. What do you do when people are making negative comments about your organization on social media?

While you could ignore the comments or find a way to remove them, that isn’t very transparent. I personally believe a better strategy is to engage with your critics online and respond to criticism in a fair, honest and transparent way.

Rather than trying to deny there is a problem or be patronizing, insulting or dismissive of people making negative comments, it is better to acknowledge how they feel and treat their concerns as genuine (recognizing, of course, that some people are just haters). Rather than sounding like some corporate automaton or cheerleader, I believe it is best to acknowledge where you went wrong and how you will attempt to do better in the future.

Crisis communications

Crisis communications deal with serious challenges to an organization’s reputation. This applies both to online and social media as well as offline channels. Offline communications are often handled through media relations and press releases.

Some tips and strategies for improving crisis communications are as follows:

  • Work directly with stakeholders to understand and deal with their concerns.
  • Be mindful of important dates, anniversaries, etc.
  • Offer compensation to victims; out of court settlements are often preferable (court cases are a matter of public record).
  • Offer apologies where necessary.
  • Take steps to ensure the same things don’t happen again.
  • Engage in discipline or termination where there was wrongdoing but ensure a proper workplace investigation is undertaken.
  • Recognize that denial is appropriate where there is reason to deny; minimize blame, explain that circumstances were beyond the company’s control (provided that is the case).

From an employer branding perspective, it is important to remember that, while your employer brand may take a hit, negative experiences can actually provide excellent opportunities for some people. Many will thrive in situations where they are involved in remedying a bad situation and helping their employer overcome bad press.

That can be a unique opportunity for talent acquisition and employer branding. Overall, it is important to be real, authentic and unique, deal head-on with criticism and acknowledge it.

Brian Kreissl is a product development manager with Thomson Reuters in Toronto. He looks after HR, payroll, OH&S, records retention and Triform. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or (416) 609-5886. For more information, visit https://store.thomsonreuters.ca/en-ca/home.