Step up and speak out when crisis strikes

The actions of a single employee can damage your brand in an instant. Smart organizations are ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

Organizations with tens of thousands of employees aren’t typically known for speed and agility when it comes to making decisions.

Corporate bureaucracy often bogs down a company’s ability to react swiftly and decisively to an issue that requires immediate attention.

Unfortunately, when an issue has the potential to erupt into a full-blown crisis, speed is of the utmost importance.

That’s exactly what happened after an employee of Sonoco , a U.S.-based packaging company, was accused of racially profiling a black woman at a private community pool. The Sonoco employee approached the woman, asked for her ID and eventually called the police. The incident was filmed by the woman, the video was uploaded to YouTube, and it quickly garnered millions of views.

The ugly footage immediately drew widespread condemnation and sparked calls for the man’s employer to respond. Sonoco did so by quickly firing the employee, but it didn’t stop there.

Sonoco had a crisis communication plan in place. It swiftly put out a well-written open letter from its CEO . The message—which is still on the company’s homepage —hammers home Sonoco’s commitment to diversity and covers three steps that all companies in crisis should take:

  • Confirm that decisive action has been taken, such as firing the person responsible for an incident.
  • Draw attention to the organization’s values and what your business stands for.
  • Issue a sincere apology on behalf of the organization.

If Sonoco had ignored this incident, dithered, made excuses or just waited for the backlash to die down, it would have protracted and inflamed the crisis. Instead, it responded right away, apologizing without reservation and preventing serious, long-term damage to its brand.

Don’t dither

Sonoco’s saga should be a poignant reminder that companies today must prepare to be accountable for employee actions—inside and outside work.

ABC and Disney learned this lesson not long ago after sitcom star Roseanne Barr sent a racist tweet. This was another master class in swift, decisive handling of bad employee behavior. As Variety reported:

“Roseanne ‘s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said in a statement.

Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger voiced his support for the cancellation, tweeting , “There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.”

There’s no easy or cookie-cutter way to handle a crisis response, but one thing’s for sure: A slow, plodding internal review or a refusal to comment are almost guaranteed to cause further reputational damage. Respond swiftly, apologize sincerely and err on the side of taking responsibility.

A version of this post first appeared on the Provident Communications blog .

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