How to Survive a Crisis

A company’s brand and reputation normally takes years to build, but in just one day it can be put at risk in the face of a crisis. If a crisis isn’t handled properly, it can have detrimental affects on the entire company, from the frontline staff to the shareholders, and sometimes an entire industry can be cast in a poor light. ¬†Last year, we saw one of the world’s leading automobile makers, Volkswagen, put in a negative light due to the installation of software in its diesel vehicles that detects when emissions are being tested and generates false results that met regulatory standards, when in fact these vehicles were pumping out up to 40x the allowable levels of nitrogen oxide (NO2).

Volkswagen initially denied these charges when they were first brought to light, but after US regulatory authorities persisted, they were forced to admit their wrongdoing and the CEO publicly resigned. VW has since launched ad campaigns acknowledging that they were wrong and are actively working on restoring the public’s faith in their company. This may be too little, too late; only time will tell whether VW’s automobile sales will return to the high they achieved in 2014.

Here is where Volkwagen could have done better during this crisis:

  1. By lying and initially denying any wrongdoing, they further damaged their reputation when they were caught. Tell the truth, since lies will only sink you deeper.
  2. All VW customers were affected by this crisis, not just those with TDI models. Volkswagen should have reached out and communicated with all of its customers and apologized. I own a 2011 VW Golf (gasoline model) and while my car dropped in value following this crisis, I was never personally contacted by VW.
  3. Throwing the CEO under the bus, when he apparently had no idea that company employees had tampered with the emissions software, doesn’t solve the problem. Strong leadership is needed to pull a company through a crisis. Strongly communicating that everyone who was involved with the emissions tampering would be fired and putting a greater focus on investigating how this happened would have been better.
  4. The message from the outset should have strongly emphasized that VW will act quickly to address the emissions issue and to make it up to its customers with as little inconvenience as possible. More should have been done to publicly acknowledge how their loyal customers must be feeling, and the uncertainty that those owning TDI-models were experiencing.

Here is how your company can better survive a crisis — no matter whether you are in tourism, food production or another industry:

  1. Plan ahead — work with a PR professional to create a crisis communication plan and ensure it is kept up to date.
  2. Practice — go through and practice carrying out the crisis communication plan, just as ship crews do with rescue drills.
  3. Tell the truth – nothing sinks a reputation like being caught telling lies. Be honest.
  4. Communicate proactively – get ahead of the negative news and ensure you’re the credible authority media go to for the story and not someone else (such as a complainant).
  5. Make things right – assure the public that the situation is being taken seriously and you will do everything in your power to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is during a crisis to bring in a public relations professional to work with you on the messaging and to monitor the public and media’s responses. You need to be able to react quickly, so have a plan in place to act as a road map, which will save you time while trying to resolve the problem.

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