Reputation Crisis Communication: Beyond What You Know
By: Dr. Princewell Achor
Crisis taxonomy indicates two extremes: avoidable and inevitable or unavoidable crisis. Within these extremes are crisis situations or typologies that describes disaster, catastrophe, emergency, calamity, predicament, crunch, etc.
Similarly, in between these extremes, there are corporate crises such as product failure/tampering, safety standards compromise, problems associated to lack of social media corporate governance, or non-adherence to corporate governance, change in organizational culture, wrong production and technology use.
Corporate crises may also include identity crisis, crisis of confidence, financial crisis, reputation/image crisis, among others.
Avoidable crisis situations as it suggests can be avoided, if necessary proactive measures are taken by those responsible to manage the organization. This calls for assessing and identifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of the organization.
The SWOT analysis will help to identify potential issues or activities that can snowball to crises. It will also help to nip these issues in the bud or put measures to mitigate their impact if they eventually result to crisis.
Inevitable crisis situations are those situations or crises that can occur irrespective of measures put in place to stop them from occurring. Natural disasters (e.g. flood, earthquake, hurricane, etc.) can be predicted and might not be stopped, but their impact on human lives and property can be reduced when appropriate disasters’ reduction measures are proactively deployed.
Whether a crisis is avoidable or unavoidable/inevitable, its management has a reputational effect on the organization. For this reason, crisis managers must adopt reputation crisis communication in order to manage both the crisis and its reputational effect on their organization.
Crisis Communication is a planned and integrated communication efforts or activities deployed in response to crisis situation in order to manage it or mitigate its effect on lives and property or corporate existence of a corporate entity and/or its reputation.
The range of communication activities, tactics, strategies and actions deployed to manage or mitigate crisis situations must be guided by crisis communication theories, principles and frameworks.
There are few crisis communication theories that can be applied or adapted in crisis management and/or management of crisis. Depending on the nature of the crisis or type, a suitable crisis communication theory is adopted.
However, the two crisis communication theories that can be adapted in the crisis handling are Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) and Triple-T Theory also known as transparency, truths, and trustworthiness theories of crisis communication management.
Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) is a contingency theory that is applied to a particular crisis or situation after assessing its peculiarities by the crisis manager. It’s not a best-fit-all method for managing all types of crisis situations, rather its adoption helps in crafting crisis communication action plan based on the peculiarities of that crisis.
Nevertheless, Triple-T theory or model is a normative guide/approach to reputation building and for observing public relations mutuality principles during crisis periods. As a normative and prescriptive theory, Triple-T describes or establishes a set of rules or standards of behaviour required for building mutual relationship and understanding.
The components of Triple-T theory or model are transparency, truth, and trustworthiness. The trio make up the mutuality principles required in modern public relations practice, reputation and crisis communication management.
Elements of transparency include integrity, respect for others, openness, sincerity, participation, accountability, and responsibility. Each of these elements is important in organizational crisis communication and management.
It does not matter whether the crisis suddenly occurred or had been predicted, rather what matters is that organizational responses to crisis are kept open. Denial and secrecy might compound issues; own up if you are the cause of the crisis and take responsibility for your actions and the damage it might have caused.
How do you treat stakeholders affected by the crisis? Do you treat them with respect, or do you take them for a ride? Answer to these questions matters in the course of handling the crisis. Stakeholders that matter in a crisis situation should be reached out to. Cogent reasons why crisis occurred should be subtly explained, while their support at this critical moment should be solicited.
Ignoring the key stakeholders affected by the crisis or those that can influence crisis handling decisions/mitigation processes, portrays the organization as not being sincere.
Showing regrets or being remorseful during certain crisis situations builds stakeholders’ trust and confidence. And this portrays the organization as a responsible entity that feels the pains of those who are in different ways affected by the crisis.
The processes or measures agreed on for managing or mitigating the crisis must be kept open to avoid suspicions. If need be, let key stakeholders be involved in the implementation of strategies agreed upon. The stakeholders’ participation will add to the credibility of the crisis management process.
Truth is fundamental in any crisis communication cum management. Therefore, it must be applied, rather than pernicious propaganda in managing reputation crisis. Though some crisis communicators warn against telling the whole truths in certain situations to avoid spillover effect. They advise denial and telling half-truths.
There’s a caveat to this approach: deny only when you are sure that your organization is not directly the cause of the crisis. But I’m of the opinion, that, subtle truth telling approaches should be used in such a way that frayed nerves are calmed to allow reason to prevail.
Trustworthiness is not a chance game, it’s a virtue that must be earned and built over time by living a life of integrity and sincerity. Trustworthiness is one of the elements for measuring organizational reputation. Organization’s actions or behaviour towards its stakeholders determines how it’s perceived by the stakeholders.
There should be a mutual trust between the organization and stakeholders affected by the crisis or those who are involved in mitigating the crisis.
Dr. Achor is a PR expert, consultant and a political marketing communicator