“A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.” Joseph Hall
When Apple launched the iPhone 5 in the Fall of 2012, it took the opportunity to unceremoniously dump Google’s Map app as the default and instead launched its own mapping software.
It was horrible.
Bizarre satellite images, misplaced city locations, and incorrect driving directions, all contributed to a reputation revolt by Apple’s fanatical customers and the media alike. Just as it appeared that “Mapplegate” would undo the reputation Apple had built for launching only the best software, CEO Tim Cook took a page out Steve Jobs playbook and published a sincere apology to the company’s web site.
That apology was the equivalent of throwing a bucket of water on a simmering ember. Cook was sincere, transparent, and acknowledged that Apple had fallen short with its own maps app. He even went as far as recommending competitors’ navigation apps as a stopgap until Apple could improve on its own offering.
Have some empathy
When you let down your stakeholders, be it a botched product launch or a lapse in moral conduct, it’s important to act quickly and with empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. It shouldn’t be hard. You’ve likely experienced a situation where the product you bought was a dud or a contractor you hired took shortcuts in their work. When you make a mistake, it is all too easy to get defensive, hide behind mitigating circumstances, or worse, blame anyone else but yourself. Playing a game of rhetorical chess with your detractors only prolongs the reputation attack and ends up costing you more in the long run.
Instead, when facing a reputation crisis remember these three simple words.
Most stakeholders who attack your reputation want just one thing: an apology. They want you to agree that they didn’t deserve to be treated poorly by your customer service team. They want you to acknowledge that when they made a good faith purchase you should have taken care to make sure your product wasn’t faulty. And they want you to admit that you shouldn’t have posted a lewd photo of your private parts to the internet. Most online reputation attacks happen because at some point you not only let a stakeholder down, but you didn’t apologize for doing so.
If you’re going to resolve this attack quickly, then you had better apologize quickly. Not one of those “we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused” non-apologies, but a sincere, heartfelt apology. Whether you need to include a refund, gift card, or some other financial compensation will depend on how badly you’ve messed up, but at the very least you should apologize. Saying “I’m sorry” has repaired many damaged reputations.
When your cable goes out in the middle of the Super Bowl, the last thing you want to hear is, “we are aware of the situation and working to resolve it.” What situation? What caused it? How hard are you working? And, will my signal be back in time to watch the fourth quarter—or at least that cute Budweiser commercial?
When you make a mistake, your stakeholders will want to know how in the world you let this happen. This is not the time to plead your case or blame someone else. You need to be honest about what caused the situation, what measures you’ve put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and when the situation will be resolved.
If the first two words focus on appeasing and satisfying a specific detractor—or group of detractors—this last one is something all of your stakeholders will care about. When you make a mistake it leads to greater scrutiny by those that have decided to give you a second chance. You can bet that Tiger Woods, BP, and Apple are all on a shorter leash, now that the world is aware of their respective Achilles’ heel.
After you apologize and explain the steps you are taking to prevent a further occurrence, you then have to live out your promises. You start by actually looking at what caused the issue in the first place and taking steps to prevent it from happening again. Improving your maps software or taking steps to prevent another catastrophic oil spill may be costly, but not as costly as making the same mistake twice and losing any remaining credibility.
Delivering the message
When it comes to responding to a reputation crisis, there’s only one hard and fast rule on how it should be delivered: from the top. While it may not always be practical for the top executive to reply, it should be your goal. If not, then the response should come from someone that appears to have enough authority so as not to appear disingenuous.
The channel of delivery will vary greatly, depending on the number of stakeholders affected by the issue at hand. If a single customer is unhappy then a direct email or tweet might suffice. If the attack is more widespread then you may wish to publish a blog post and then share that across your various Centers of Influence.
One thing you should probably avoid is conducting the conversation on a platform where you are not the host. Resolving an issue by going back and forth in a detractor’s blog comments is not wise. They could delay your response, edit your words, or not approve your comment at all. Instead, wherever possible, look to move the conversation to your web site, blog, or social profile. Hosting the conversation allows you to direct interested parties to your official response.
What will it cost you?
When facing a reputation crisis most people will ask, “what is it going to cost me to resolve this attack?” That’s actually the wrong question to ask. Better is to ask, “what will it cost me if I don’t resolve this attack?”
The information highway is littered with reputation roadkill—companies that delayed their response or tried to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Instead of admitting their mistakes and taking the financial hit needed to correct their blunder, they instead tried to sweep things under the rug. As a result, their reputation never fully recovered.
You’re going to avoid making the same mistake. How? By understanding the lifetime cost of a persistent detractor.