In Crisis Management, In the News, Reputation

Trust has taken a beating in the last few weeks for some of the biggest institutions on the planet. Boeing’s handling of the 737 Max crashes; big pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic and continued reports of misuse of customer data have meant trust in our institutions has gone into the toilet.

Why should business people care? If your company isn’t in the airline, pharma or social media arenas, what does this trust violation have to do with you? Everything. “Trust is a fundamental building block of any healthy relationship, whether that’s between individuals or companies and customers. If you can’t trust the company you are doing business with to do the right thing by you, it’s hard to continue the relationship,” cautions TechCrunch writer Ron Miller in a piece called When Brands Violate Trust it’s Tough to Win Back.

Companies that violate trust can expect present and future customers to question whether they want to do business with them. When trust is violated the first casualty is a company’s relationship with their current customers. The second is their ability to attract new customers and eventually that loss of trust shows up on the bottom line.

What can your company do to rebuild trust after a crisis? Here are a few tips:

  1. Understand that trust is a commodity that’s hard-won over many years and easily lost in a matter of hours. In today’s 280-character environment, a single tweet can reverberate throughout the world in a matter of minutes and destroy a company’s reputation. Someone in their basement in sweat pants and a pizza-stained t-shirt can destroy a Fortune 500 company with a single tweet. Crisis manager Eric Dezenhall calls this the “Glass Jaw” effect. He likens big powerful companies to boxers with glass jaws. These big scary guys can be taken down with one well-placed punch at their point of weakness. Corporations, like those glass-jawed fighters, need only be hit in just the right spot (often by “lightweights” on social media) to set off a cascade of plunging trust.
  2. Respond to a trust-shattering crisis like a human; not a corporation – Your first response to a crisis needs to display compassion and concern. Boeing learned that lesson the hard way. After more than a week of near-silence after the crash of a second 737 Max jet, their CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg, made his first substantive public comment. In a statement released on March 18, Mr. Muilenburg expressed remorse for the deaths of 346 people in the company’s 737 Max jets — the accident in Ethiopia, on March 10, and the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia in October. But, for many it was too little too late. Part of the communications problem here was that Boeing’s communications style has evolved to meet the needs of their customers. They are used to talking to businesses. But, in this case, they needed to adapt their language from a business-to-business communications style to a business-to-consumer one. So, instead of responding to issue in engineering-speak, they needed to adapt a more consumer-centric communications style.
  3. Respect, respond and learn from a social media disaster – Last May, Burger King found out the hard way what social media can do to a brand. That’s when a Facebook user took a video from inside a Delaware Burger King showing two rats skittering through a bag of burger buns. The video reaped almost 1 million views and 24,000 shares. It was also picked up by traditional media nationally and internationally in outlets such as The Daily Mail, Men’s Health,, and Yahoo News. The store was closed by the Deleware Division of Public Health Office of Food Protection. After it was cleaned up and re-inspected, Burger King told that the location had reopened after the franchise took “appropriate measures to address the issue and prevent this from happening again in the future.” Adding that, for Burger King “Food safety and hygiene is always a top priority …” Not exactly the best response to a gag-worthy situation. It did nothing to rebuild trust in Burger King’s ability to prevent a similar incident in the future. Subway anyone?
  4. Take advantage of increasing trust in the media – When rebuilding trust, do not overlook the power of traditional media. While trust in journalists has taken a beating lately, there are signs that the public is beginning to come back to them as a trusted source of information. In Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer, 65 percent of the people in the US and Canada said they put their trust in traditional media as opposed to 34 percent for social media. In fact, that same report said that consumers are increasingly more engaged with traditional news outlets. Between 2018 and 2019, there was an eight-point increase in the number of people who consumed news at least weekly (32 percent) and a 14 percent increase in what the report calls news “amplifiers.” That is people who not only pay attention to the news at least weekly but also share or post news content at least several times a month. These amplifiers are now 40 percent of US and Canadian citizens. Only 28 percent say they follow the news less than weekly.

The bottom line is this: Trust is hard-won and easily lost no matter beloved your brand is. Getting through a crisis that shatters consumer trust is only the beginning. After the initial wave of panic that comes with a crisis, executives invariably experience the relief that they survived it. But that’s not the end. The critical next step is the job of rebuilding trust. That takes active and aggressive communications to win it back and regain a positive reputation. That won’t permanently crisis-proof a company. But it can help them withstand the next new challenge that the marketplace throws at them.

A version of this post appeared in the Hartford Business Journal on May 27, 2019.
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