5 Keys to Restoring Trust: What an Effective Crisis Response Will Be In 2020

Like so many things these days, this article began with a tweet. I was on the tarmac reading an article about Boeing’s latest woes and the purported schedule for getting their planes back in the air. And I wondered just what it would take to get me to feel comfortable enough to actually board and fly on a Boeing 737 MAX. So I tweeted:

If I hadn’t run out of characters I would have suggested that the families of all the victims should be invited to travel (comped, of course) to the Boeing factory floor and have everyone who worked on the plane and/or made a decision that caused the failures look the family members in the eye and apologize.

Moral outrage and the value of an abject apology

That sort of abject apologetic action—one that speaks to our humanity, and evokes empathy—is what is needed these days to restore trust when it is utterly broken. Interestingly, not long after my tweet went out Southwest announced that it would conduct “readiness flights” with senior leadership teams (and not regular passengers) before it put its fleet of 737 MAXs back in service. Southwest’s pilots union however, is balking at even flying the refubished planesClearly the airlines understand what lack of trust implies for future ticket sales. In fact, after years of only operating one brand and one type of aircraft (the Boeing 737 in all its forms), Southwest’s board is asking for a review of Southwest’s Boeing-only policy, a move their pilots endorse.

What the latest round of crises has engendered is what Professor W. Timothy Coombs, perhaps the leading guru of crisis response, calls “the moral outrage reaction.” It’s when a crisis is so appalling, so egregious, that the brand itself is seen as morally bankrupt. And Coombs’ research suggests that, so far, no one’s come up with a good way to repair that sort of extreme damage to a brand’s reputation.

We’ve seen it frequently of late. Most dramatically was MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s description of the internal reaction to revelations in the book “Catch and Kill” (that described the internal politics that caused reporting on Harvey Weinstein to be killed):

“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in this company since I’ve been here. It would be impossible for me to overstate the amount of consternation inside the building around this issue.”

In response, NBC released its employees from any non-disclosure agreements that they might have been under. Which was admirable, but did little to reduce the moral outrage against NBC that surfaced on Twitter.

The reality today is that if you’re going apologize you will need to be incredibly creative in both your actions and your words. Only then will you reduce the number of potential pitchforks at your gates.

Unfortunately, most organizations that face a crisis are too busy trying to salvage some kind of upside to make a truly sincere and humble apology.

In our new crisis environment, typical crisis response may no longer work

Coombs is constantly being interviewed in the news and has written numerous books and papers on how best to respond to a crisis. So I was particularly alarmed at a sentence in a paper he presented last spring at the IPRRC: “Crisis practitioners should be cognizant of the limited effect of crisis response strategies and should consider long-term rather than short-term investments, especially when a crisis can generate strong moral outrage.”

It appears inevitable that crises will continue to become more frequent and more severe. Reasons include:

  • Bots can and will amplify anything negative about you far beyond what we’ve seen before;
  • Anything in your past is of course permanently available and will invariably be dragged up by your opposition or competition; and
  • With all the various platforms available it doesn’t take much more than one pissed-off employee or customer to generate moral outrage.

So what I take away from Dr. Coombs is, no matter how good your crisis plan and how many times you rehearse it, your strategies and tactics may just not work in the future.

In other words, when it comes to handling a crisis, there’s a good chance your brand will be toast, at least for awhile. Part of your crisis response should include accepting that, and planning accordingly.

Five keys to handling a crisis and restoring trust

So how can you prepare for and recover from that inevitable 2020 crisis? Heed Coombs’ advice to think in terms of long-term investments. The only way you may survive is to follow these five steps.

Step 1: Understand your vulnerabilities

  • Conduct an internal audit of your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.
  • Review your record of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
  • Examine your environmental footprint and history. Conduct an environmental audit—and then release the results to the public to prove your transparency.
  • Sit down with legal and HR and review any internal policies that might jump up and bite you.
  • Establish who should respond to what kind of issue. Be realistic when establishing timelines for responding. If your scandal affects the public they will want to know something within minutes if not an hour. Even if you don’t have any answers let them know that you’re working on it.

Step 2: Be proactive

  • Become a B-Corp.
  • Make your ESG Score one of your key metrics.
  • Make sure you have a good quality monitoring system in place that will alert you to any unusual commentary about your organization or brand. Don’t forget to monitor social channels like NextDoor for how your neighbors think of you and GlassDoor for how your employees feel. If there’s nothing there, do a pulse survey to check on the mood of your communities or your employees.
  • Assume that a “scansis” (a scandal-related crisis) is only a tweet away. Make sure you have a good plan in place on how to handle it.
  • Formulate and rehearse your apology and who is going to deliver it.
  • Establish rules and guidelines for how any compensation will be awarded.
  • Think creatively now about what kind of action you will have to take in order to restore trust.

Step 3: Respond faster than the lawyers would like

There is a close correlation between the speed of your response and the subsequent severity of your crisis. Just ask Columbia Gas. In large part because it did not communicate with the affected public or the local city officials, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took away permission for the gas company to exist and put the cleanup in the hands of a rival utility.

Twenty-four hours is an eternity, especially in a 24-hour news cycle. You have at most an hour—if you’re lucky—to at least say: “Something happened. We’re looking into it. We’ll get back to you as soon as we know more.” With that you may have bought yourself another hour or two to come up with a plausible statement.

Step 4: Assume there will be crisis hijackers out there

Your competition no doubt has alerts set up to take advantage of your every misstep, so monitor for them. Tweets and trolling from the opposition can quickly derail your crisis communication plans. Burger King and Wendy’s are famous for making fun of McDonald’s, but pretty much any brand can be trolled. When United Airlines went viral for violently dragging a passenger off one of its flights, Qatar Airways attempted to hop on board the United trolling train by updating its app to include the promise, “Doesn’t support drag and drop.”

Step 5: Be creative about reparations and compensation

Clucking hell. Almost two years ago now, KFC in the U.K. ran out of chicken, and British customers were outraged. KFC responded with this now-classic ad in Metro and Sun:

You may not be able to be as creative in your response, but the farther outside the box you can think, the better. When a flood of pet deaths filled the news, the ASPCA quickly turned to its veterinarians and other experts that are part of its team to dig into the problem. They quickly offered advice to pet owners and actually came up with the cause in fairly short order. Their response was so effective, in fact, the organization actually generated a boost in contributions in response to its efforts.

The key is: Don’t think clever, think empathy. Do something that makes you appear human and in touch with whatever humanity is being affected.

Reach out to and partner with non-profits, with the opposition, with anyone that can help the victims. Your brand may not be credible in the wake of a crisis, so you’ll need to find a partner to credibly carry your message. ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.