• Jordan Sherman

Rebuilding your brand's reputation after a crisis

Recall last week we discussed our tips to protect your brand reputation. This week, we tackled the worst-case scenario: your brand has been hijacked and reputation tarnished. You'll read or hear reference to us discussing your Brand Protection™ Team. To help you get started in determining who will be the best fit for that team, we've attached a free downloadable one-sheet for you below

How to Determine Your Brand Protection T
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Topic 1: Assemble Your Brand Protection Team


If you recall, last week, we talked about reclaiming your message if it’s been hijacked. Sometimes you can iron out a communications challenge with just a conversation. Sometimes, the damage takes more effort to repair. For the purposes of this blog, your brand is no longer dealing with an issue. Your brand is dealing with a full-blown crisis. Remember, an issue is a headache. A crisis is a heart attack. You need all hands on deck for the latter.



We don’t mean this literally. However, if there is an external crisis and your brand name is being tarnished, you need a response immediately! You’ve heard the expression of there being too many cooks in the kitchen, right? That’s why we suggest assembling a highly specialized group of decision-makers who already know what their roles are in the event of a crisis.

At M&C we offer our clients a Brand Protection Tool, where we help your team analyze the 2-3 largest threats your business or brand faces within the next 6-12 months. We then prepare messaging, releases, media training and anything else that will give you a leg up in the face of one of these “most likely” crisis scenarios. It’s a lot harder to get a response together if there is no plan.


Let’s start with the decision-makers if there’s a crisis. These are likely going to be the people in your C-Suite in addition to any other outside resources you need to bring in. The group will be small so communication is clear for those making decisions and ultimately signed off by one or two people before anything goes out to the public or even employees! This is likely going to be the CEO, president of the company, your lawyer or some combination. This is a part of assigning your Brand Protection Team roles. Who signs off on decisions? Who handles messaging? Who handles the strategy? Who handles media inquiries?


Almost every media inquiry is an opportunity, even if the situation is a crisis. A calm, collected and compassionate spokesperson who is trained to handle the media spotlight will help you start to rebuild trust with your audience through clear, consistent, compassionate and transparent information. Do you have emergency messaging prepared, or materials that can be quickly adapted in the event of an emergency? Who in your C-Suite is media trained? Do you need to invest in media training for your spokesperson, CEO, and another backup spokesperson? Or, are you going to take a tiered approach to media inquires. What does this look like?


The first step could be releasing a statement that’s short sweet and to the point. This acknowledges your business or brand knows there’s a problem and working to solve it Fault is not being admitted here. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, your Brand Protection team is working with your spokesperson on talking points and bridging and flagging techniques.


Once your spokesperson is caught up, they should be able to handle the majority of media inquiries.


Hold onto your CEO to address the public until the severity of the problem requires the CEO to speak. This shows that you’re taking the issue seriously, gathering accurate information, and carefully responding to the situation.


Most of the time, your media-trained spokesperson will be handling inquires. What if they are sick? Out of the country? On another planet? (It could totally happen down the road!) Who’s going to talk to the media? You have to have a backup who can tackle these responsibilities. They should be capable of handling any day to day duties the usual media person would handle


Who else should be in this small Brand Protection group? So far, we have the final decision maker(s) and your spokespeople. This is where planning ahead of time is so helpful. Consider legal counsel.


Here’s an example from an award-winning crisis communications campaign we managed: the Westboro Baptist Church notified our client, a city, that they were going to picket outside the local high school. The city called us for help. We helped organize the response from the city's Brand Protection group which included the mayor, city administrator, city attorney, police department, two sheriff’s departments, the principal, various school officials, school district officials and spokespeople, the public works department (who had to block off roads), and bus drivers and teachers who needed to know what to do in various scenarios.


It’s hard to say how big or small the group should be-- the critically important part is to have a representative from each area of your organization that will need to contribute to solving the problem. Collectively, each person in this Brand Protection team will work to forge a plan to reclaim your brand’s message and refill the trust bucket.


Topic 2: A 3-pronged approach to tactfully reclaim your brand’s message


The responsibility of the Brand Protection team to take control of the situation, calm everyone down, provide accurate information for all the organization’s audiences, and start to refill the trust bucket. Often, you’ll start with social media. First and foremost, which of your social media channels will be the official source of information? Who has access to that login? Do you have messaging ready to go? Let’s walk through some things to think about for each channel.

  • Facebook- It could be a great place to start working on your damage control. But keep in mind you’ll want to avoid sounding superficial. It might mean you should stop or suspend your scheduled content. Advertising a big sale on your widgets when there’s been a terrible accident at your widget factory is not a good look. The online mob is particularly unforgiving.

  • Twitter- Here’s what we know from our Insider Media Relations experience: the media are on Twitter. That’s where they spend time, hear about breaking news events, and will look first for information. We counsel most clients to have an official Twitter channel that will take over providing all information in a crisis situation. This can be as simple as putting up a post on your Facebook, Instagram and any other social channels that your Twitter handle will serve as the only monitored, official source of information for your organization.

  • Instagram- This is a platform to target as you are working to refill the trust bucket but not a platform where you’ll want to engage in the dissemination of any critical information at the height of or just after a crisis. Stick to Facebook and Twitter.

  • LinkedIn- This channel is not the best for getting critical information to the public. However, this platform could be used to help refill the trust bucket, especially if you can use your experiences in a crisis to help educate others so they don’t end up in a similar situation.


Let’s consider traditional media: television, newspapers, and radio! Keep in mind using traditional media to set the record straight does not mean your problems will go away! It takes a lot more than one news article or live interview to refill the trust bucket and repair the tarnish on your brand’s reputation. That will take far more time. However, there are opportunities to use journalists to help tell your side of the story.


  • Television- This used to be the place to talk to the biggest audience. Changes in audience habits have changed dramatically. You might give a television interview to a morning show with 12-thousand viewers, but that story will likely be posted online for a reach of 100-thousand people or more. Your message will be heard, viewed, listened to, read, and accessed on television, the internet, through smartphones, sometimes pushed out as a phone alert. That’s a lot of filters for your message to clear and potentially be muddled. You can see why it’s so important that your spokesperson is media trained, and has clear, consistent, compassionate and conversational message points.

  • Newspapers- Print reporters tend to work on slightly longer deadlines, with slightly more room to tell a story, and slightly more time to do research before they reach you. I say “slightly” because if you’re managing a crisis like a fire, they’re going to be on the same deadline as everyone else, but if it’s an ongoing issue like an investigation or heaven forbid, an oil spill, a print reporter is going to have the time to do some research on your organization, its history, and details like your financials and publicly filed information before coming to you. It’s best practice to research ALL reporters before you walk into an interview with them, get to know their work, their point of view, and anticipate what they might ask. At a minimum, you should get as many details on what they want to talk about and who else they’ve talked to before you agree to an interview.

  • Trade Publications- Depending on what your crisis entails, this may not be a bad area to target to get your message out there once the immediate crisis has been resolved. Keep in mind your audience. If you are preaching to your choir, those who need to hear you and your message won’t. Ultimately it’s a waste of time if they don’t.


The last but one of the most important of the three prongs is your employees or colleagues. Depending on how bad things look from the outside in, that distrust or anger can permeate within the business or brand as well! While employees shouldn’t be speaking to the media making a case for (you have people for that) or against (hopefully not!) your brand, they should be in the loop.


This is where using your chain of command becomes very important. Your Brand Protection team should be drawing up messaging for department heads or managers so they can meet with employees. They’re going to need to know things like: should I report to work today? How long am I going to be out of work? Will the company continue to pay my health insurance if I’m furloughed? These are all questions we’ve helped clients communicate with their internal audiences so their employees feel like a valuable resource and their needs are being met. In addition, hearing from a manager may have a larger impact on an employee because it's someone they know and trust.


Topic 3: A real-life example of brand reputation repair


It was July of 2011 and the farmers harvesting their cantaloupe in Rocky Ford got wind of a serious problem...people were coming down sick with listeria after eating “Rocky Ford Cantaloupe.” Of course, they were totally confused because Rocky Ford Cantaloupe has had a perfect safety record for more than 125 years. But that didn’t stop a farm 100 miles away from calling their melons “Rocky Ford Cantaloupe” and it certainly didn’t stop the media from referring to it that way as well. Major problem.


This is a great example of a brand being negatively impacted through no fault of its own. This is a great point to keep in mind when you’re crisis planning-- what can affect your brand that may be totally out of your direct control. You can’t control the situation, but you can control your response, and if you’ve done your homework to fill the trust bucket first, you’ve got goodwill to draw on to help weather the storm.


They had a serious PR issue. Despite this not being their fault, the large supermarkets were considering canceling orders for the next year, people were continuing to get sick and die from the outbreak. In fact, 33 people died in total and dozens of others were sickened across the country. The state of Colorado decided to take its name off all produce, including onions which were in season, because of the ripple effect due to the listeria outbreak. Any produce coming from Colorado was suspect. A huge economic driver for Colorado was on the verge of going under. No one wanted to be associated with Rocky Ford Cantaloupe.


Before M&C was hired, the state quickly media trained farmers-- we made sure that the member farmers of the Rocky Ford Growers Association were comfortable talking to the media, telling their safety story, and putting a trustworthy face in the public’s mind about who was growing their food.


Then, we worked with CSU to get the latest research on product safety. We developed messaging, not only about what the farmers were doing to promote safety, but also what the public could do in their own homes. For instance, some of the messaging we worked on included how people could wash their melons properly at home giving them a sense of control over the situation. We worked on utilizing others with credibility to bolster our position. We worked with Denver’s top chefs to incorporate the melons in their recipes and call out Rocky Ford Melons on their menus. We also developed personal stories around the farmers and their families to humanize the overall story of Rocky Ford Cantaloupe. Many of these farmer’s families had been growing safe and delicious cantaloupe for 4 or even 5 generations!


We then got started on story pitching. We got everyone from the Governor to the head of public health to the Supermarket representatives involved in promoting the safety messaging and in eating Rocky Ford Cantaloupe in public and in the press. Every year we continue to emphasize how seriously the RFGA takes safety, all the extra steps they employ and how they are certified for their best agricultural practices. We also started a Thought Leadership campaign with then president of the RFGA speaking at conferences where their target audiences attended. Finally, we continued to look for ways to promote not only the safety but the amazingly sweet taste, including delicious recipes you can make at home.


Refilling the trust bucket isn’t just damage control during the event, it's years of repair to your brand and refilling of the trust bucket.


Topic 4: Refilling the trust bucket, steps to take to regain public trust in your brand


The trust bucket is an analogy for the public’s trust in your business or brand. What so many businesses don’t understand is that you need to have filled that bucket before a crisis happens. Anytime you have a crisis, you lose a little bit of trust in the bucket. In the example we just talked about, the farmers never really thought about building their business reputation. The cantaloupe had a tremendous following, but no one really knew about the farmers. When their name was erroneously tied to the listeria outbreak, there wasn’t any trust to draw on. Because the trust bucket was empty, it was totally upended. We had to start from scratch rebuilding that reputation.


However, if your brand’s trust bucket is full or close to it, you’ll find that your loyal customers will pop up to defend your brand- especially online. If you’ve built public confidence before a crisis happens, it will help your organization weather the storm of bad PR.


Think about the trust bucket as your bank account for goodwill. When all of the goodwill is spent and public trust is gone, you have to be very careful in your messaging. Recall last week we talked about the 4 Cs. If your brand is in this spot, you must write to the 4 Cs. Clear, concise, conversational and most importantly here… compassionate.


This looks like acknowledging human suffering first and foremost. Before saying anything else you need to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. Then, you can transition into what you’re doing about the situation. For the Rocky Ford Growers Association, that looked like being clear, consistent, and conversational about all the steps they take to produce the safest cantaloupe possible. They track everything from seed to store. Their fields are independently audited, they adhere to Good Agricultural Practices, and when you see that Rocky Ford Growers Association sticker on your melon, you can trust what you’re eating. They even trademarked the name Rocky Ford Growers Association-- so no one else can call their melons “Rocky Ford” anymore. Talk about band protection!


Now, the Rocky Ford Growers Association has a deep trust bucket to draw from if something happens. They’ve worked HARD for almost a decade to build and fill their trust bucket to protect their brand.


If something happens to your brand, you may feel unfairly vilified, but you have to remember: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Even if something isn’t your fault, if the public perceives it to be your fault, you have to take steps to mitigate and refill the trust bucket. It’s not as simple as saying “See, it wasn’t our fault, now let’s get back to normal.”


This is where your Brand Protection team comes in. This group of people outlined in Topic 1 will be your strategists in coming up with a plan to refill the trust bucket after the crisis is over. Your Brand Protection team must be able to work toward messaging that is going to reach your target audiences This will benefit your brand leaps and bounds as you work toward the ultimate goal of preparing your brand.

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