Everywhere we turn lately, there seems to be a new corporate crisis in the headlines. Some of the largest, most visible and successful companies are being forced to publicly apologize — while feverishly attempting to convince their customers that these unfortunate incidents are only isolated blips — without any implication of systemic organizational issues. United Airlines, Uber, Amazon, Wells Fargo, the Academy Awards, and even Sean Spicer, the spokesperson for the President of the United States, have recently faced public relations challenges that have created significant reputational issues and disruption to their organizations.
So, what’s going on here? Is it arrogance, weak leadership, corporate greed, human error, or bureaucracy? Or is it simply the newfound social media cautionary tale? Make no mistake: There is a connection among all of these communications crises.
The reality is that organizations and people haven’t changed; there has always been corporate dysfunction. While evolving technology has increased the number of brand touchpoints available for instantaneous distribution of damaging content to millions of people, technology is not the root cause of this dysfunction.
The very DNA of an organization is revealed through each and every touchpoint. When interactions reveal weakness, deeper problems within the organization are exposed. In an interconnected world where companies can fall from grace in hours, it has never been more important for leaders to address the common thread that creates corporate crises: a lack of clarity — from the very core of the organization.
Clarity is what happens when leaders take a holistic view of their strategy, people and story — and ensure that there is alignment with each. An outcome of alignment is a sustainable, positive culture with strong leadership. With clarity, employees at every level know how to live out the vision, mission and purpose of the organization and understand the behaviors expected of them every day. This clarity guides the people who make up businesses and provides the reason for all to come together and serve. It is this DNA that is the soul of an organization and which drives decision-making, profits and improves performance.
Finding and leveraging that clarity is the difference between a passenger walking off an airplane and being dragged off. Clarity is the difference between a spokesperson communicating a difficult decision and creating an entirely new crisis. And it is the difference between being revered for your role as one of the leading technology disruptors in the world and being reviled for the way you treat your employees and customers.
The digital economy has forced leaders to prioritize trust, transparency and authenticity. It is no longer possible to explain our way out of crises or dysfunction. We must understand that the most contrite apology statements and countless refunds and discounts will not fix crises that reveal systemic dysfunction.
There are many examples of great companies that have successfully overcome public relations crises with openness, honesty, and empathy. Their names may not be at as memorable. Thanks to the clarity within their organizations, their customers forgave them, and in many cases, the connection with those brands actually improved.
The key to successfully managing any public relations challenge today is to find organizational clarity before the crisis happens.