Learning from Volkswagen: 4 crisis leadership lessons

By: Brian Pittman
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015

Nearly half (44 percent) of all businesses have experienced a crisis in the past year, according to a Burson-Marsteller survey.

Among the most recent is Volkswagen, still facing what its incoming chairman has called an “existence-threatening” crisis.

The company fired its PR chief two weeks ago and continues to clear the decks as it moves from damage control into the recovery phase.

“Additional surprises caused by previous bad decisions will continue to occur for quite some time,” says Jim Lukaszewski, president of The Lukaszewski Group Division of Risdall Public Relations. “Responding and recovery will need to work together.

“Crises of such magnitude are rare,” he says, “but every company will experience bad news at some level—from layoffs to product failures and recalls.”

What can PR pros do to rebuild trust and ensure a smooth, sustained recovery long after bad news breaks—or even as bad news keeps breaking? Consider the “four C’s”:

1. Candor. Get the truth out as soon as possible, even if you have limited information.

“Remaining silent while waiting until you have the full story—which never happens—is a toxic strategy to your reputation and to the boss’s career,” says Lukaszewski. “There is no way anyone can credibly explain why they remained silent and allowed victims to accumulate while waiting for more information.”

His advice: “Social media allows you to get out there immediately—140 characters now!”

Watch the PR University webinar “The New 10-Step PR Crisis Plan: How to Integrate Digital Thinking into Your Response” to protect your career and company in the era of social media and cyber-attacks.

2. Contrition. Say how sorry you are. Continued verbalization of regret, empathy, sympathy and even embarrassment is a crucial factor in rebuilding trust with consumers, journalists and stakeholder communities over the long term.

Take appropriate responsibility for having allowed the situation to occur in the first place, whether by omission, commission, accident or negligence,” says Lukaszewski.

3. Consultation. It may seem counterintuitive to embrace detractors during a crisis, but Lukaszewski says it’s essential to recovery.

“Promptly ask for help and counsel from victims, government, the community of origin, independent observers and even from your opponents,” he advises.

He also suggests directly involving those most affected to help develop more permanent solutions and acceptable behaviors, as well as to design principles and approaches that will prevent similar problems from occurring.

Lukaszewski offers this advice to companies, like Volkswagen, that face public outcry and legal repercussions due to the nature of their crises: “Find an organization, law firm or political entity that truly hates the company and hire them to do a top-to-bottom, independent and public investigation.”

4. Commitment. “Publicly set your goals at zero,” says Lukaszewski. “Zero errors, zero defects, zero dumb decisions and zero problems. Publicly promise that, to the best of your ability, situations like this will never occur again.”

Here are several ways to live up to those goals over the long term, but you can implement each of these right away:

  • Independently monitor. “Establish a truly trustable, independent monitoring process to oversee and publically report the company’s compliance and behavior for the next decade,” advises Lukaszewski.
  • Empower employees. “Establish and train employees to use a more robust and extensive whistleblowing process to prevent, detect and deter the behaviors and decisions that are currently jeopardizing the company’s future,” he suggests.
  • Get SMART. Create a two-level Social Media Attack Response Team approach to notice and act on telltale crisis signs.

Team One must be prepared to react quickly to initial incidents and social media commentary related to a crisis. Team Two should be responsible for your longer-term response strategy.

“This team will be around for a while and should include staff with Web search skills and those already managing your social media,” says Lukaszewski. “Provide them with key terms, brand names, people names and hashtags to search for on a tough, regularly scheduled basis.”

Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and webinar manager for PR Daily’s PR University. Jim Lukaszewski shares more crisis tips in the PR University webinar, The New 10-Step PR Crisis Plan: How to Integrate Digital Thinking into Your Response .

Learning from Volkswagen: 4 crisis leadership lessons

By: Brian Pittman
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015

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