Could you Protect Your Reputation in a Crisis?

This week’s decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to prevent compensation payments for BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to businesses that have not suffered "actual injury traceable to loss" has brought the disaster back into the news agenda. But it’s hard to know what did more damage to BP, the actual spill itself or the long-running saga of media mishandling that followed.  The loss of 11 lives and a continuous spill of oil into the Gulf for 87 days was a crisis on a grand scale but it was clear that BP was not prepared for it, did not recognise the seriousness of the situation and could not co-ordinate clear messaging that would combine sensitivity with protecting its brand.

While the Deepwater Horizon disaster is a severe example, it’s a simple reminder to anyone that operates any kind of business of just how quickly a crisis can occur.  Good management and due diligence play an important role in helping to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the first place but acknowledging that they still could plays a vital part in managing them if they do.

In a high risk sector like construction, reputation management should form an integral part of any marketing strategy, including both on-going positive reinforcement of the company’s focus on quality, health & safety and best practice, and a clear plan of action for if things do go wrong. In the event of a serious accident or fatality on site, a delay in producing a spokesperson, an absent or incomplete health & safety policy or ‘off the record’ speculation from a subcontractor on site can all help a bad situation escalate into a terrible one.

It may seem heartless to discuss the company’s reputation in the same breath as a serious accident but these are commercial realities and it is possible to continue to look after your business interests while showing compassion for those affected by any incident. Here are some things you should consider:

  • Make sure your quality and health & safety procedures are well communicated internally and visible externally.  Best practice before any incident occurs is reputation in the bank if something does go wrong.
  • Anticipate the risks.  It may not be feasible to anticipate every type of crisis but if you can demonstrate good risk management you will be well placed to protect your reputation
  • Know the chain of command and have spokespeople who can be briefed quickly. This should include contingency spokespeople – your reputation management plan cannot afford to fall apart just because someone is on holiday or off sick
  • Have key messages and positive facts and figures compiled and ready to speed up the process of making a statement and briefing a spokesperson – a delay can be construed as playing for time
  • Be honest – this may not be the time for warts and all disclosures but anything you try to cover up will do twice as much damage when you’re found out (and you probably will be!)