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Let’s Talk: Expert strategies for rebuilding trust post-crisis

In the aftermath of a crisis, rebuilding trust is a paramount challenge for businesses and individuals alike. 

Navigating the path to recovery requires more than just damage control; it demands strategic and thoughtful approaches to restore confidence and uphold a positive reputation. In this discussion, we delve into expert strategies designed to guide you through the intricate process of rebuilding trust post-crisis. From transparent communication to proactive measures, let’s explore the actionable steps that can pave the way for a resilient and positive resurgence. 

Join us in this insightful conversation as our experts unravel the intricacies of trust rebuilding and empower you with the knowledge needed to emerge stronger from challenging times in this week’s edition of Let’s talk.

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Sally Branson, Crisis Authority and Reputation Specialist, Managing Director at The Sally Branson Consulting Group

Sally Branson, Crisis Authority and Reputation Specialist, Managing Director at The Sally Branson Consulting Group

“Don’t believe the gurus – There is no quick fix when things are bleak and hard in a crisis.

“Resolve and repair takes willing work and authentic communication.  A modern crisis calls for modern crisis management. Stakeholders and consumers expect to be treated with respect; good communication is the basic tenant of respect. Old-school crisis management relied on spin – those days are long gone. It’s 2024; we expect more.

“Authentic leadership resonates in a crisis. 

The real work of reputation management isn’t done in the acute phase. How a company acts in a crisis should just be a matter of executing a process. Why? Because all the nitty-gritty of a crisis – regardless of what it is – should be planned well in advance during times of calm. Who will be the spokesperson? What will we say if we don’t have answers? What is our timeline for a response? How can we make sure the people most important to our business know what’s going on?

“Every business is almost always in a state of pre- or post-reputational crisis, it’s just the scale and level of damage that differs. Just as important as the pre-crisis planning, though, is the post-crisis phase, where lessons are learned. It’s when a business reviews what worked, what didn’t, what needed to be improved.

“There is a saying, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste”. Time and time again, I’ve seen businesses and reputations grow from what they learned in their darkest days.

Even the most strategic of leaders can falter if they don’t have a clear path of action, steps to take, and a plan that is in place and ready to go, regardless of the crisis.  Rebuilding isn’t easy, but we need to make sure the response to a crisis, doesn’t become bigger than the crisis itself is – we can learn this lesson from watching the big players who failed these tests in 2023.”

Paul Edgington, Principal Partner at Structured Innovation

Paul Edgington, Principal Partner at Structured Innovation

“A leader’s response during a crisis can make or break a business and career. When a crisis hits, it’s the CEO’s chance to shine, or to burn. Here are four key strategies to shine:

Alignment is crucial. Misalignment between top leaders can turn a crisis into a disaster, except when the Board has decided that the CEO is to blame and should be replaced.

Avoid hiding behind intermediaries. CEOs should not delegate crisis management to PR firms or communication specialists. Take personal control of the situation, ideally with the leadership team by your side.

Speak honestly and directly, avoiding excuses, legal jargon, or corporate language. Address the issue openly, show empathy for stakeholder concerns, lay out a clear action plan, and offer reassurance. Communicate effectively and authentically; it’s the right move, even if advisors caution against it.

Maintain an ongoing dialogue. Rebuilding trust doesn’t mean endlessly revisiting the crisis. Discuss the issue, then pivot to positive developments. Show the organisation has learned, improved, and is delivering tangible benefits to customers.

“CEOs and leaders must show they are not just moving on and hoping people forget. Stakeholders value courage, honesty, and a commitment to continuous improvement. This is the path to regaining and maintaining trust.”

Mollie Eckersley, Operations Manager ANZ at BrightHR

Mollie Eckersley, Operations Manager ANZ at BrightHR

“Rebuilding trust with your clients and prospective clients after a crisis is no easy task, but it’s not impossible either.

“With the challenges that businesses face in the current landscape, building resilience and adapting quickly to adverse circumstances are necessary skills for long-term survival. When a crisis does occur, the first step is to take accountability and maintain transparency. Showing your clients the efforts you’ve taken to rectify a misstep is often just as valuable in the trust-building process as actually fixing the misstep.

“Listening to client feedback and incorporating their needs into your product or offering is another great way to maintain a positive reputation, regardless of whether you’ve experienced a crisis. This is relevant to all businesses, whether you’re engaged in the tech space, selling products or offering services. At the end of the day, showing your customers that you’re committed to improving their experience with you builds loyalty and keeps your clients coming back to you.”

Danica Bunch, Australian Award Winning Strategic PR and Crisi PR Specialist, DanicaB PR

Danica Bunch, Australian Award Winning Strategic PR and Crisi PR Specialist, DanicaB PR

“After a crisis, rebuilding trust and maintaining a positive reputation requires a strategic approach that addresses both the immediate aftermath and the long-term perception of your organisation. Firstly, engage in open communication; acknowledge the issue and express genuine remorse where necessary. Transparency is paramount. Outline the steps taken to rectify the situation, ensuring these measures are visible and verifiable. Next, leverage your existing relationships with media and stakeholders, providing them with timely updates and access to key figures within your organisation. This creates a narrative of accountability and responsiveness.

“Next, evaluate your crisis response to identify any shortcomings in your approach. Implement improvements and communicate these changes to the public, demonstrating a commitment to learning and betterment. Reinforce your core values through consistent messaging and actions aligned with these principles. To regain trust, actively participate in community initiatives, showing a dedication to the well-being of those impacted by the crisis.

“Consistently monitor public sentiment through social media and direct feedback, adapting your strategy as needed. Remember, trust is rebuilt through sustained, consistent effort and a demonstrated commitment to your stakeholders. Over time, a proactive and transparent approach can restore a damaged reputation, turning a crisis into an opportunity for growth and renewed trust.”

Ashley Watkins, Vice President ANZ at Trend Micro

Ashley Watkins, Vice President ANZ at Trend Micro

“As cybercrime reports are consistently on the rise, businesses need to prioritise cyber preparedness now more than ever. As we enter a new year, building a strong response plan in anticipation of an incident, centred around proactivity and transparency before, during and post-incident, could make all the difference in a potentially reputation-ruining incident.

“Step one should be critically evaluating your data policies and your cybersecurity culture. Assess whether you are retaining unnecessary customer data that could be detrimental if exposed, and ensure that your team undergoes rigorous cyber awareness training to avoid common pitfalls like falling victim to phishing emails. Address fundamental cyber hygiene concerns and, given the typically limited IT resources of SMBs, consider leveraging a managed detection and response (MDR) service to monitor networks, servers, emails, and endpoint data.

“In the unfortunate event of a cyber attack, implement a systematic response plan.  Investigate the anatomy of the attack and understand the who, what, where, when and how. Moreover, effectively communicate this information internally and externally as this will help build confidence in your ability to be transparent and take necessary action. Also, take this information as a learning to improve your response plan and further bolster your resilience. As a leader, invest in collaborative efforts with the broader industry, sharing insights, learnings, and best practices to strengthen your cybersecurity culture and solidify your commitment to collective cybersecurity endeavours.”

Nina Thomas, Founder and Director at Harmonic Advisory

Nina Thomas, Founder and Director at Harmonic Advisory

“If you haven’t already, take responsibility and apologise meaningfully. To rebuild trust, the people who matter to your business need to know you’re sorry for what happened and that you’re taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“Develop a strategic response to prevent any knee-jerk or emotional reactions that might create further problems.

“Talk with your key stakeholders – face-to-face. Reputational repair starts when you acknowledge the crisis, take responsibility and show how things are going to change. This means walking the talk.

“Face-to-face communication with the people who matter most to your business should be an absolute priority, even if it means getting on a plane. Looking people in the eye goes a long way to rebuilding trust and has the power to save your business.

“Yet, I’ve seen more Chairs and CEOs shy away from this than I can count. Imagine you’re a customer, investor or employee attending an EGM, AGM or town hall and the CEO and Chair are standing at the door to greet you and listen to your concerns. It’s disarming, brave and shows they are committed to change.

“Finally, keep communicating. This doesn’t mean continually apologising, it means keeping the lines of communication open so you’re listening and people can see change. Eventually, they will start to trust you’re doing the right thing.”

Darren Reid, Senior Director of Asia-Pacific and Japan at Carbon Black

Darren Reid, Senior Director of Asia-Pacific and Japan at Carbon Black

“The first step to rebuilding trust after a crisis is to take responsibility for the situation and acknowledge the ways that people have been affected. This means offering sincere apologies and actively seeking solutions to rectify the issue. Secondly, while all the information surrounding the situation may not be immediately available, it’s important to maintain regular and transparent communication with those who have been affected. This means being honest about what went wrong and sharing new information when it comes to light.

“Taking responsibility, being transparent, and communicating regularly help to reassure stakeholders that the company understands their concerns and is addressing the issue, which is critical to maintaining a positive brand image and earning back trust after a crisis.”

Kathryn Goater, Co-CEO and PR Director at Media-Wize

Kathryn Goater, Co-CEO and PR Director at Media-Wize

“One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is neglecting to analyse the specific risks that may affect their business and interests.

“While the timing of a crisis might be unexpected, that doesn’t mean you can’t be ready for one.

You may not be able to avoid a crisis, but being prepared means you can rebuild trust and not have your reputation tarnished.

“Be proactive and continuously identify potential risks and scenarios that could harm your brand’s reputation. You can map the risks on a matrix where you assess the likelihood and impact of each risk. Risks that are highly likely and high impact need strong communication plans.

“During a crisis transparency and accountability are paramount. Trying to hide information from the media or customers, not taking responsibility and not owning the agenda and neutralising negative sentiment by clearly demonstrating empathy is a recipe for magnifying the issue and making it take longer for it to subside.

“Adopt an open and honest approach to address the situation. Avoid withholding information and don’t give vague responses that can fuel speculation and damage your credibility. Communicate promptly and proactively through multiple channels, such as social media, media releases, and direct communication with stakeholders. Take responsibility for any mistakes or shortcomings and outline the steps being taken to rectify the situation.”

Ben Jones, Head of Cyber Security at Mackay Goodwin

Ben Jones, Head of Cyber Security at Mackay Goodwin

“Following a cybersecurity crisis, the first step to rebuilding trust is to maintain open, honest, and frequent communication with stakeholders. We saw the results for companies like Optus and Medibank, where the companies’ responses were not transparent or timely.

“To avoid a PR disaster and rebuild trust, businesses should inform affected customers about the breach as soon as possible, providing regular updates about the investigation and recovery process.

“Companies should also accept responsibility for the breach. Genuine apologies can go a long way in rebuilding trust. More importantly, these apologies should be followed by concrete actions to rectify the situation and prevent future incidents.

“Outlining to your customers the measures taken to mitigate the risk of future breaches is crucial and will demonstrate a your commitment to cybersecurity and customer safety.

“Lastly, all companies should practice active listening. They should be responsive to customer concerns, answering questions honestly and providing support where necessary. This demostrates a business values customer opinion and is willing to make changes based on their feedback.

“In essence, transparency, responsibility, action, and responsiveness are key to restoring trust and maintaining a positive reputation after a cyber crisis. To be honest the same principles apply across any crisis.”

Louise Cruice, General Manager at BBS Communications Group

Louise Cruice, General Manager at BBS Communications Group

“Restoring trust after a crisis can make or break a business. Given many organisations will face a crisis, it’s important to have a strategy in place to rebuild once the dust settles. With the right approach, it’s possible to steer yourself and your team through a crisis, emerging with a stronger culture and reputation.

“From a communications perspective, the following steps are critical:

Repair trust with employees.
While some businesses get the initial response right externally, it can take longer to rebuild trust internally. Authenticity is critical now to set the tone for ‘where to from here’ with your team. Salvage morale and trust early with open, two-way communication.

Don’t hold back.
Turning off or ‘dialling down’ general marketing and communications following a crisis could create further brand damage. Fight the temptation to hold on communicating ‘until things improve’. Instead, review planned activities to ensure they are sensitive to crisis impacts on customers and stakeholders.

Think long-term.
Proactively minimise the impact of future crises. Have a long-term crisis management plan to address the same issue, should it happen again, along with all other possible crisis scenarios. After all, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Brenton Steenkamp, Cyber Partner at Clayton Utz

Brenton Steenkamp, Cyber Partner at Clayton Utz

“The ability of a business to manage and deal with cyber challenges pivots on the advice they receive encompassing all aspects of a cyber risk or incident, not just the legal elements. Clayton Utz’s cyber practice offers a multi-dimensional viewpoint, a combination of boardroom advisory, consulting, technology, data analytics, forensic, legal and crisis management.

“Working with a team that provides an end-to-end digital forensics incident response (DFIR) will provide fast and insightful advice in the event of a cyber incident or data breach. DFIR technologist experts can unearth what went wrong, how it happened, what information has been compromised and identify where it is and how to fix it.

“This will not only offer the know how to effectively produce relevant insights for legal teams, clients and regulators and in the context of investigations, but will also offer reassurances that the source of the breach has been determined meaning that tangible steps can be taken to remedy and rectify the issue so it cannot happen again, helping to rebuild trust and maintain a positive reputation.”

Amber Daines, Founder and Chief Communicator at Bespoke Co.

Amber Daines, Founder and Chief Communicator at Bespoke Co.

“Trust is everything in business. Rebuilding trust is a long-term process after a crisis, whether it be something internal like a CEO charged with illegal dealings or an externally driven event like a fatal terrorist attack on a plane.

“Reputations take years to build and moments to crush in a 24/7 media landscape and fuelled by the “always on” social media world where staff, customers and bystanders all have a view on events.

“Companies tend to use social media well to get positive messages out but not so well when problems hit, even though most customers will turn to social media when trouble strikes. Too often companies develop their social media profile but through the lens of acquiring customers rather than protecting their brand. In a crisis situation, you have to be very thoughtful about what is going out and make sure you are not clashing with your other communications like running shiny paid ads or fancy events.

“The brands that have a positive and solid legacy can survive and thrive again after scandals if they take stock and really turn their attention to doing better consistently- it starts with listening and taking on all feedback to regroup.”

Luke Dean Weymark, Co-Founder and Co-Director at Compass Studio

Luke Dean Weymark, Co-Founder and Co-Director at Compass Studio

“Lead with actions, not words. If something goes wrong publicly and you need to own up to a mistake, do it. But keep in mind that how you put in place real change is what you’ll be judged on moving forward. If you get called out for greenwashing, don’t just go dark or change the creative in you ads; you’ll need to address systematic and operation change win back that trust.

“Once you’ve taken ownership of any mistake, you need to rebuild the trust of consumers and stakeholders. You need to make real change and go as far in the opposite direction of what got you in hot water in the first place. Got called out for greenwashing? Become the greenest, most sustainable brand in your industry. Cybersecurity breach? Invest in the most secure systems you can and build your marketing around trust, safety and consumer advocacy.

“Look at Thankyou, who pivoted out of their number one product in 2013 — bottled water — after criticism of how they were contributing to waste. Now they’re one of the most recognisable brands on shelves and highly respected for their commitment to doing better, even if they’re reaping the rewards years later.”

Roxy Sinclair, Director at Sinclair Communications

Roxy Sinclair, Director at Sinclair Communications

“A business will be defined and judged, not by the fact a crisis occurred in the first place, but by how it handles itself in the hours and weeks following.

“The time for crisis planning is not during one. Taking a systemic approach to anticipate potential worst-case scenarios, before they occur, and developing proactive strategies for use in their unfortunate event, can drastically reduce detrimental impact on the brand.

“To retain trust and loyalty in the wake of a crisis, businesses need to:

Act quickly and show up – The longer you take to react, the worse an issue will become so move fast. Whether by filming a video, speaking to the media or answering the phones, be available and present.

Apologise and take ownership – be honest, show genuine remorse, acknowledge and admit fault and say sorry to those affected. Authenticity and integrity go a long way so make sure you mean it.

Communication is key – outline what measures you’ve implemented to prevent the issue occurring again. Ensure public information is constantly updated so customers can find what they need quickly and easily.

Go above and beyond – Surprise and delight your customers to make them feel truly valued. Give back to the communities in which you operate, embed sustainable business practices, look after your employees and share all your positive news stories.”

Candice Gersun, Director at Reconnect PR

Candice Gersun, Director at Reconnect PR

“It is absolutely crucial to take full responsibility for the situation at hand in order to rebuild and maintain trust. This can be effectively achieved by issuing a comprehensive statement or press release, which should address the issue head-on, ensuring transparency, openness, and empathy throughout. It is imperative to openly address the root cause of the crisis by conducting a thorough and unbiased investigation. This should be followed by the implementation of effective, sustainable solutions that prevent future occurrences. In your press release, as well as on various social media platforms, it is beneficial to emphasize the positive measures your company is actively undertaking to rectify the situation. These actions demonstrate a commitment to resolution and improvement. Additionally, ensure that a well-informed spokesperson is readily available to engage with the media, providing clear, consistent, and factual updates. This spokesperson should embody the values of sincerity, empathy, compassion, and transparency, representing the company’s dedication to resolving the issue and maintaining public trust. It is through these concerted efforts that confidence can be restored and the business can move forward positively. Rebuilding trust can take time and does not happen overnight. Actions speak louder than words. An ongoing PR and social media campaign can illustrate actions that have been implemented.”

Alex St Claire, Account Director at SBM

Alex St Claire, Account Director at SBM

“To rebuild trust and maintain a positive reputation after a crisis, important steps must be taken before the crisis occurs. Pre-crisis preparations include the creation of a comprehensive crisis communications kit and crisis communications training for spokespeople. Conducting crisis scenario rehearsals contribute to a streamlined and effective response.

“It is vital that all staff members are aware of the authorised communication protocols. If, or when, a crisis unfolds, coordinating responses through a crisis communications team and utilising prepared holding statements for initial communication help ensure centralised communication for a cohesive and professional response.

“Post-crisis, provide transparent and timely updates and conduct a comprehensive review of the incident response. By incorporating lessons learned into refined crisis communication processes, organisations can demonstrate a commitment to transparency, responsiveness and integrity. Ultimately, this paves the way for rebuilding trust and maintaining a positive reputation.”

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