No executive team builds a business by thinking of the day when everything is going to go wrong.
Instead, they rightly think about what the company is, what it aspires to be, and what it stands for. They build a strong brand identity.
But know it or not, what they’re also doing is constructing the harbor for any number of storms that may come their way.
The best indicator of whether a company can make it through a crisis is the strength of its brand identity. Brand strength creates a foundation that enables leaders to confidently speak to the company’s mission and values.
According to PR News, 60 percent of companies have current crisis plans, with more than half reporting that their marketing departments have a significant role in that plan.
That’s a good start. PR executives know that timely and thoughtful communications are key in a time of crisis, so it’s important to have marketers on the response team. But the marketers’ most valuable work will happen long before anything goes sideways.
Identity above all
Plenty of bad things happen to good people, and to good companies. As long as actual human beings run businesses, those small-percentage possibilities will always exist.
Employees or executives will embezzle. Recalls will undercut claims of quality. Cyber criminals will strike. Divisions or product lines will fail. Customer disputes will explode into high-profile lawsuits.
There is no shortage of crisis public relations firms to help draft a plan and conduct a vulnerability audit. But those PR firms and audits rarely consider the importance of having brand discipline.
When crises occur, the wisest question isn’t, “What do we say?” If your marketing team has laid the foundation with a strong brand identity, you’ll think first of who you are and why you exist. From there, creating a statement in a time of crisis will flow naturally. Some invented examples:
“We are the state’s leading technical school, and we care deeply about our students’ futures. What happened on campus today concerns us all and our hearts are with the victims.”
“We are passionate about building wealth and protecting the interests of our clients. We will cooperate fully with law enforcement to ensure no individual’s actions impact our customers.”
“We are one of the metro area’s biggest family-owned companies, and our employees are an extension of our own family. We are saddened at the loss of one of our own today and are making sure we do everything we can to support our whole corporate family.”
Brand identity as a moral compass
Of course, crisis communication is more than a simple two-line response. The above statements are only a collection of words, and not difficult for any public relations officer to draft on the fly.
But having a strong brand identity does more than ease the flow of words.
It paves the way for the proper actions.
You can’t say the right thing unless you do the right thing. And when you do what you believe is right—indeed, what your established brand tells you is right—it becomes so much easier to talk about and defend your actions.
Take the commercial lender whose founders set and pursue the goal of becoming the largest by-volume lender in the state. They make that their mission. They aggressively pursue top loan officers. They flood the right B2B marketing channels, letting potential clients know they’ll work harder than anyone to secure them loans. And they succeed.
Then one day, one of their executives is found to have been issuing fraudulent loans in return for kickbacks.
What is it about the company that will determine whether it will continue to succeed, or whether the scandal will spell the end?
Certainly, the size of the scandal counts. How high up was the executive? How widespread was the fraud? How high profile is the coverage of the matter?
But beyond the elements of the scandal itself, much depends on how the company established its reputation before anything appeared to go wrong.
Did the company promise to never be beat on a rate? Or did it promise to treat every customer like family? Did it emphasize being the biggest? Or did it emphasize fighting for the small business? Words matters.
When the scandal unfolds, it’s too late to try reputation building. In the eye of your key publics, your bed is made.
Good companies double down on their brand identities
Twenty years ago, a rash of engine failures struck top-selling sedan and minivan models in the United States. Toyota Motors North America had just sold its 10 millionth vehicle in the country. Riding high with a reputation for stellar quality vehicles, it had just spent most of the past decade singing its tagline, “I love what you do for me.”
Many Toyota owners took for granted how well the vehicles ran and neglected to get regular oil changes. Arguably, the company’s strength caused the crisis.
Still, Toyota quickly issued a letter to more than 3 million vehicle owners, emphasizing the company’s stellar reputation for quality, encouraging customers to get oil changes at manufacturer-recommended intervals, and assuring them that engine failures not due to extreme neglect would be taken care of at the dealer.
A look back at sales numbers and stock prices indicates that Toyota kept moving forward quite well in the years that followed. (Not ironically, “Keep moving forward.” was its next successful tagline.)
Toyota isn’t alone in a list of companies that looked in the mirror and doubled down on brand identity to make it through a threatening situation. Johnson & Johnson’s ordeal with cyanide-laced Tylenol in 1982 remains the crown jewel of crisis responses, tackling the unimaginable situation head on with sincerity, sympathy, and necessary sacrifices. In another automotive example, Tesla, in 2013, used quick communications and transparency to appeal to owners and investors after a viral video showed an anomalous accident in which a Model S burst into flames.
Building your fortress
There’s no playbook that fits every possible crisis. But companies that come back from scandals prove time and again that proper care of brand identity means a lot in important moments.
As Kristopher Jones, CEO and founder of leading digital marketing agency LSEO, wrote in Forbes, “Branding helps you show potential customers that you’re an established, credible business. You can use this to tell people very early on what they can expect from your business.”
That includes in times of crisis. Your branding establishes trust and credibility – every iota of which you’ll need when your company becomes vulnerable.
Maybe thinking about the day when everything goes wrong isn’t such a bad exercise for executive teams after all. Looking at your brand identity through a different, darker lens is actually essential.
Consider questions like:
- What is your brand saying today that will give you credibility tomorrow?
- What’s the worst that can happen tomorrow that could potentially exploit holes in your messaging today?
- What crisis would most directly undermine the promise your brand is making to your stakeholders? And what if that crisis happened?
While it’s not a bad idea to have an experienced crisis communications agency on speed dial, they’ll still need a solid foundation to work with.
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