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The Art of Reputation and Crisis Management

In Strategic Communications by David Waymire

Watching the dumpster fire raging in Washington, the whacky world of airlines, and reflecting on some recent experiences, it occurs to me that crisis management, one of the services we offer here at Martin Waymire, is easy in some ways, and oh so hard in others.

The easy part is the strategy for addressing a crisis:

Own it

Hey, if or your company screwed up, admit it to yourself and your team. Say it. “We screwed up. We have a problem.” Say it. Now. Loudly.

Good. You are on your way to smart crisis management.

Apologize for it

Get out front and give a full-throated, “I’m sorry. We did this wrong. Here is what we are going to do to make it right.” You need to give that all your key audiences: Your team, your customers, and the public in general.

Fix it

Go back to the policies and procedures that guide your company, explore them and the people who were responsible for the problem, and fix them. Make the changes you know are needed to avoid coming back to this again. Because if you do, it will be twice as painful.

Sound easy? Well, it’s not.

In any number of cases, in D.C., in the airlines, and around Michigan, you can see how difficult it is to take even step one of this formula. That’s why many organizations lose reputation and watch the situation spin out of control. And the biggest reason is often ego.

“We didn’t screw up…someone just thinks we did,” is too often the internal default mode for many. Admitting that you or those working with you made a mistake is not easy. Often, a CEO-level person gets a reinforcing message from his or her cabinet, which makes it even more difficult to take that first step. “Hey, we followed procedure.” “It wasn’t our fault, it was someone else’s mistake.” “It’s going to blow over.”

I’m sure that when United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz got the word that someone had been dragged from his plane bleeding by Chicago aviation police and that it was trending on Facebook, it was accompanied by “we followed all our procedures” and “It was the Chicago police who did the deed.”

That led to a statement about “having to re-accommodate … customers.” Re-accommodate?

Which led to further outrage, and a second statement, blaming the victim, calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” More outrage.

Then the third: “A truly horrific event,” came from the CEO’s office, with a direct apology to the passenger.

Finally…owning it and offering the right apology. And then on to changing policies.

Hire a Crisis Management Team

Accepting that you are in deep trouble isn’t easy. But the sooner you do, the sooner you can get out of it. First rule of holes: Stop digging. (A second rule…don’t hand the shovel to a lawyer. Your reputation is almost always far more important than your legal fees or settlement.)

But it’s not always easy to measure the depth of the trouble. That’s why crisis management is an art. What if you give a giant “I’m sorry” when nobody even knows you are on the edge of a crisis? Is acting too soon as troublesome as acting too late?

In the United example, it was easy to see the clouds brewing and the rain headed down the runway. But it’s not always so plain. That’s where the art of crisis management comes in.

At Martin Waymire, we know how easy it is to put the crisis management plan into effect. But we also know how to help executives understand that the crisis is upon them, and they need to act now.

And we can work with the client team to measure whether that crisis might pass without anybody even knowing…preparing for the worse, even as we hope for the best.