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Crisis Communications: Getting Back to Basics

We’re only a month into the new year and 2011 is already turning into a crisis bonanza.

We’ve gotten to know Taco Bell’s president Greg Creed (at left in an appearance on Good Morning America) and the company’s beef recipe following a class action lawsuit. Toyota has had its recall of the month. The list of trust troubles at Johnson & Johnson has one former marketing staffer telling The New York Times that, “it looks like a plane spinning out of control.” And folks are calling for boycotts of Chick-Fil-A after one of its restaurants agreed to cater an event hosted by an anti-gay organization.

So it seems like a good time to take a step back and revisit some of the basics of crisis communications and reputation management.

We asked three experts on the topic to share their thoughts on some of the key steps to respond to a crisis and rebuild trust. Their responses are after the jump.

Greg Vistica, founder and president of Washington Media Group. The firm recently ended its relationship with the government of Tunisia. It had been hired to improve the country’s reputation.

“Brand value” is difficult to assess but easy to lose. Often, companies, organizations and institutions go to great lengths –and expense– to create or enhance brand value, only to see it washed away in a crisis.

The first critical principles of crisis communications are: To the maximum extent possible, get all the facts, and get them out—-don’t let the story drag on and on; be honest and as transparent as possible. Present one’s case with confidence (not arrogance), and with empathy toward those who may have been hurt or adversely affected.

Remember that brand value is both real and abstract, and it is predicated on the public’s (consumers, shareholders, employees, regulators) perception of an organization’s products, services, performance and values.

Rick French, chairman & CEO of French/West/Vaughan. The firm has worked with Philadelphia Eagles player Michael Vick among others.

A brand facing a crisis should start by admitting its mistakes, apologize for the erosion of trust that has occurred, and tell the public what it will do to rectify the situation – and then actually follow through on the promise. The public is generally willing to forgive a company that hasn’t acted with malice, tried to shift the blame elsewhere or attempted to understate its culpability. If any of those behaviors have occurred, rebuilding a company or brand’s reputation becomes much more difficult and infinitely more expensive.

Steven Behm, associate U.S. director of crisis and issues management at Edelman. The firm recently released the 2011 Trust Barometer.

Reputations are a perception-based measure of the general public’s belief in an entity’s commitment to do the right thing.  In a crisis, reputation is the currency by which organizations either borrow or default on in order to afford an ongoing license to operate.  In most cases, the public expectation of companies today is that the issue will be addressed head-on and that measures will be taken to ensure the crisis never happens again.  That said, the opportunity gap to invest into a reputational bank of goodwill becomes exponentially more costly during and after a crisis if there isn’t a foundation of trust at the start.

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