No matter how large or small their companies, business leaders who are managing or trying to recover from a crisis need to restore the public’s trust as soon as possible. The failure to move strategically, quickly and effectively can damage an organization’s credibility, reputation and bottom-line.
Consider the challenges faced by Johnson & Johnson with the rollout of their Covid-19 vaccine, Tesla’s efforts to develop a self-driving car and the data breach at Wegman’s supermarket chain.
Trust As A Brand Asset
Mike Campbell, CEO at Fusion Risk Management, said, “Trust is an invaluable brand asset in business. Especially during a crisis, businesses must ensure they keep their promises to customers. When it comes to building customer trust, there is never a good excuse for breaking promises.
“Whether a once in a lifetime pandemic or a ship blocking the most important maritime route from Europe to Asia, how leaders respond to crises can either build or break a business. The multiple global disruptions we’ve witnessed over the last 18 months were a wakeup call for business leaders who now realize they must future proof their [companies] if they want to maintain their reputation as a stable and reliable business,” he said.
Campbell advised that, “Every organization must have a comprehensive operational resilience plan that is robust enough to withstand a multitude of crises in a row. Trust cannot exist without operational resilience – something that has become glaringly apparent as business resilience has been tested more than ever.
“The best way for a business to react is to be better prepared, and that can only be done if the organization is able to model and simulate their business to identify and specifically focus on the vulnerabilities,” he counseled.
Advice For Business Leaders
Be Thoughtful And Transparent
Dustin Sleesman is a professor of business administration at the University of Delaware. He noted that, “A trust-building crisis response is thoughtful and transparent, providing a detailed account of the situation and how the company plans to resolve the matter. It shouldn’t be in the form of an ad hoc tweet, subject to the current mood of the CEO. Public relations departments sometimes get a bad rap, but they serve an important function for organizations – especially in times of crisis.
“Let’s hope that companies don’t start to emulate Tesla by replacing their PR departments with Twitter accounts for their CEOs,” Sleesman said.
Lindsay Singleton is the managing director and social impact communications practice chair of public affairs firm ROKK Solutions. The company recently launched a Social Threat Assessment and Response framework to help companies navigate the new paradigm of enterprise risk.
“First, it is key for companies to focus on what is material to their core business functions. Not everything requires a response, but if it impacts your stakeholders, it very well might,” she observed.
“Vulnerability assessments that only take into account internal issues are no longer enough. Smart businesses are expanding crisis mitigation efforts to include the external issue sets that impact consumers, employees, nonprofits and policymakers. They view social risk as the new enterprise risk, and this shift in mindset is critical for long-term success,” Singleton said.
Employees As Stakeholders
She said that the “corporate vision of stakeholders is also shifting. Increasingly, we see corporate decisions to speak out and respond to external threats being driven by employees. By thinking about their employees as a key stakeholder, companies are actively building trust with those who have the most to offer in terms of long-term profitability.”
Remove Emotions From Responses
Singleton advised that, “companies must remove emotion from crisis response if they wish to maintain solid relationships with their stakeholders- internal and external- and the best way to do this is to apply a framework that brings together a cross-functional team of employees.
“By drawing from the points of view of employees, especially Employee Resource or Affinity Groups (ERGs), companies can create structure where little currently exists and build relationships with their most important stakeholders at the same time.”
4 Essential Skills
Leadership coach Rebecca Maxwell said that, based on her own experience, the essential skills for building trust during and after a company crisis are:
- Believable leadership. Sound like you know what you’re talking about, be authoritative, admit what you know and what you don’t know.
- Communication. Have a clear message and deliver it consistently. If the message needs to change (because circumstances change) explain and present the new message. Think about your audience, what they need to know and what they need to do [and] construct your message accordingly. Communicate regularly even when you have nothing new to say. Communication vacuums create rumors and misinformation.
- Humility. Admit what you know and what you don’t know. Apologize if you need to (particularly in the aftermath).
- Listen and show that you’re listening. Explain what comes next.