Every corporation will face a reputation crisis at some point in time. Whether it’s a communication misstep, a social media fueled crisis, or a major problem with a product or operations, most corporations will face some sort of crisis during their existence. Some corporations become defined by their crisis, becoming the poster-child whenever another company faces a PR disaster. Others come back, but the rare few come back stronger – with the crisis long ago buried. The question becomes: how do companies not only regain their pre-crisis reputation equity, but how do they built it up to withstand the next crisis? 

A review of APCO Worldwide’s vault of more than 15 years of corporate reputation research reveals the 6 steps to rebuilding reputation. 

1. Get aligned (with stakeholders’ expectations)

When the initial crisis subsides, it’s time to begin the process of advancing the company’s longer-term reputation. APCO subscribes to the belief that a company’s reputation is defined by the extent to which it meets stakeholders’ expectations, and a crisis signifies a major misalignment. Understanding the expectations stakeholders have through digital and primary research and aligning communications (and the business) to meet these expectations will help the corporation re-fill the reputation coffers and serve to mitigate future risks.

2. Begin from strength, not weakness 

Our research shows that coverage around a crisis or negative event should not be considered a barrier to engagement or communication. To the contrary, going quiet often raises suspicions even further. This is an opportunity to “lean in” with carefully considered transparency. Communicating on the company’s credible strengths is the best place to start and it’s through the process in step one where a company finds that credible platform.

3. Just be more ethical, right? 

After an issue surrounding a lapse of judgment, trying to convince audiences about company ethics is a risk in and of itself. Seeking the moral high ground in the face of a recent crisis may appear self-serving. The truly ethical thing to do is to “own” the mistake to the extent the company created it. Don’t preach ethics, instead, be clear about the infraction and the specific steps that will be taken to remedy the situation. Integrity is earned through action.

4. CSR efforts are important – but it’s time to think bigger 

Expectations for how a company “gives back” to society are changing exponentially. Recent research conducted by APCO Insight shows that expectations are high for companies to address some of the most salient social, environmental and political issues of our time. Expectations are moving beyond traditional corporate social responsibility and after the initial crisis subsides it’s a good time to re-think what your company’s role in society should be. Much has been written about the purpose driven company – driven to do good for employees or customers – but our research indicates that the best companies will take the role of “societal shareholders.” Societal shareholders are companies that factor society into their everyday business decisions: driving a positive impact on society will become core to what they do.

5. Demonstrate that the company is aligned with the values of employees 

They are your most important advocate and can help put an approachable human face on an otherwise distant corporate entity. Many companies bounce back successfully through the advocacy and support of employees, suggesting the company is closely aligned with what matters to this audience. To build up the company’s reputation externally, it is very important to demonstrate (not just talk about) the company’s commitment to employees to the external world. Our research finds that how companies treat their employees is becoming emblematic of how the company is run. We can mitigate reputational weaknesses with initiatives that show how the company is on the side of employees. This, in turn, motivates employees to rally for the company. The best spokesperson in all of this: it’s employees of course.

6. Monitor and be prepared

In today’s fast-pace world, the convergence of social media, live-streaming capabilities and increased expectations for how corporations should act amplify the risks facing corporations. Staying ahead of future crises through real-time monitoring of opinion sentiment and traditional & social media allows for companies to spot and course correct to prevent a major PR disaster. When a crisis does hit, have your game plan ready – be prepared for rapid response with a reputation playbook that takes all of the preceding steps into account. 

Building a strong reputation isn’t about winning a beauty contest. Our decades of experience indicate that there is a direct link between reputation, ensuring your company’s license to operate and most importantly business performance. A strong reputation can be among a company’s greatest assets, mitigating the storm of a crisis and paving the way for enterprise success.

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Katie Sprehe

Kathleen Holzwart Sprehe, senior director with APCO Insight, has extensive experience conducting opinion research in more than 50 countries around the world. Read More