Repairing Trust: Reputation Management and Crisis Communications

How do we know what to fix in a PR crisis?

In previous posts, we’ve shared the basic crisis triangle:

crisis triangle

Respond with knowledge, speed, and ownership. But what do we respond to?

To develop a more effective crisis communications strategy, we need to understand trust. When a crisis occurs, it’s generally because of two very broad reasons: something we’ve said, or something we’ve done. We’ve broken trust with our stakeholder audiences – investors, customers, employees – by saying or doing the wrong thing.

The Covey Trust Matrix

Author Stephen Covey wrote, in The Speed of Trust, about the Trust Matrix. The Trust Matrix demonstrates what constitutes trust.

The two major branches of trust are character and competency – what we say or believe, and what we do.

Inside character, we have two “cores” as Covey calls them: integrity and intent.

Inside competency, we have two cores as well: capabilities and results.

What constitutes a crisis in each branch of trust, in each of the cores?

Crises of character

Within integrity, we have three potential areas for crises:

  • Failure to show care for others
  • Failure of transparency, of not revealing pertinent information
  • Failure of courage, to not take an important stand

Many social media crises, such as brands saying something inappropriate, stem from failures of integrity.

Within intent, we have three potential areas for crises:

  • Failure of honesty, acting to deceive purposefully
  • Failure of fairness, seeking to disadvantage a set of stakeholders
  • Failure of authenticity, betraying existing promises

Many financial crises, such as incorrect reporting of financial results, stem from failures of intent. Political crises also frequently fall under failures of intent.

Crises of competency

Within capabilities, we have three potential areas for crises:

  • Failure of skills, the inability to perform work to standards
  • Failure of knowledge, the lack of information to perform work
  • Failure of experience, not knowing how to overcome challenges based on past experience

Many production crises, such as undertrained/underpaid workers creating substandard products, stem from failures of capabilities.

Finally, within results, we have three potential areas for crises:

  • Failure of record, a history of doing bad things that continues to invite scrutiny and magnify present-day failures
  • Failure of credibility, an inability to convince others or be perceived as believable
  • Failure of performance, an inability to generate the promised results

Many service crises, such as employees abusing customers’ trust (or outright abusing customers), stem from failures of results.

A brief catalog of failures

To demonstrate how to evaluate crises, print out the chart above and check off boxes for any given crisis to see what’s gone wrong.

  • Enron failed first in competency when it didn’t generate financial performance, then failed to disclose those results honestly, a failure of character.
  • Kenneth Cole failed a test of character and integrity when it tweeted commerce-related social media content in response to world tragedies, evincing a lack of care.
  • United Airlines failed a test of results and skills when it broke Dave Carroll’s guitar in luggage handling, then failed a lack of courage in its response.
  • Volkswagen failed both a test of credibility and performance in its emissions standards, then failed a test of character by deceiving the world.
  • Dominos Pizza failed a test of skills when its employees made videos of assembling foods misaligned with food safety and health standards.

In each case, using Covey’s Trust Matrix allows us to quickly diagnose which aspects of trust broke, resulting in a crisis.

People and process

When we’re evaluating a crisis, we must determine whether the crisis is one of people, failures of character, or process, failures of competency, or both.

Failures of character require us to immediately and specifically address what’s gone wrong. As a people-related problem, it requires us to either seek forgiveness with earnest, honest appeals, or it requires us to dismiss the problematic people. The recent headlines of major actors, celebrities, and business owners being removed from their posts due to allegations or convictions of sexual harassment and misconduct epitomize dealing with failures of character.

Failures of competency require us to leverage our character to demonstrate how we’ve fixed our processes and how we’ve made amends. When something goes wrong, we need the courage to admit it, the honesty to disclose it, and the authenticity to align with our values and make appropriate, commensurate reparations.

The most serious crises come from a combined failure of people and processes together; Enron’s total destruction as a corporate entity is an example of the most severe consequences of breaking both character and competency.

How to fix a PR crisis

A crisis will always be worse if the failure of either character or competency is integral to the customer experience. For example, Kenneth Cole’s inappropriate social media posts were a flaw of character, but fundamentally do not change the customer experience with the product itself. Thus, while memorable, the crisis did not affect customers’ interactions with their apparel.

In the case of United and Domino’s, the failures of competency directly affected the customer experience. No customer wants their luggage broken; no customer wants contaminated food. These respective crises damaged the trust in what customers buy, and were more difficult to remediate.

Crises of character alone are reparable as long as we’ve dealt with the people behind the character problems. In some cases, it requires dismissal of the person or people involved; in other cases, it requires aggressive ownership of the failure and repeated demonstration of how the person or people involved have changed their character.

Most often, failures of competency occur first and are compounded by failures of character. If we take strong actions to remediate a crisis of competency by leveraging our good character, we mitigate the impact of the crisis as long as we’ve truly fixed the broken process and we’re open and bold demonstrating our repairs.

Once we truly understand where and how we’ve failed, we clear a path to repairing our failures and rebuilding the trust we’ve broken with our stakeholders.

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