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Trust in crisis

The data has been breached. The effluent is in the water. The #MeToo accusation was made. The product has been recalled. Worst yet, a workplace fatality has occurred. Your company is in crisis. At risk is your most valuable asset: trust.

Canadian consumers dole out a lot of trust every day. We trust that the groceries we buy won’t make us sick. We trust that the bank we use will keep our data secure. We trust that our boss isn’t sexually harassing the intern and that our drinking water won’t become contaminated by an industrial spill. That’s why corporate crises often become such big news stories, because the violation of our collective trust is a shocking thing.

While the first rule of a crisis ought to be not to have one, the avoidable and preventable often still happen despite your best efforts. So, if you trust that your trust will be tested, you can prepare accordingly. While you should of course undertake every effort as a company to safeguard and sanitize your practices to prevent a crisis, do not become lulled into a false sense of security about your ISO or industry best standards.

Nothing is unhackable. No engineering infallible. The unsinkable indeed sinks. Anything that can go wrong will. And when it does, everyone will be watching what you do next. Your customers, employees, shareholders, and regulators will immediately be waiting to see what you will do with the trust they placed in you.

The first step of a crisis is to acknowledge you are in a crisis. Here you communicate three things: what happened, what are you doing about it, and how do you feel? This method applies just as much to a personal crisis, like telling your kids you lost your job, as it does to an oil spill or a mall collapse.

Early in a crisis, you likely won’t have much information to share, but you will need to at least share those three things. And fail to respect that third item at your peril. The difference between a well-managed crisis and a corporate disaster is too often executives overlooking the importance of empathy in maintaining trust.

How you feel in a crisis is what makes you relatable. Your willingness to express yourself vulnerably and authentically will immediately strike a chord with your audience and shore up their trust. Perhaps something like: “I feel devastated that the privileged data our customers entrusted in us has been compromised, and I will not rest until we get to the bottom of this to ensure it never happens again.”

Lawyers and communicators will argue about how much personal accountability an executive should take in a crisis. But ultimately, you must ask yourself: will anyone trust you if you don’t?

When the news cycle changes 72 hours later and the calls from reporters and angry customers or shareholders begin to die down, many companies make the mistake of thinking they have survived the crisis. But a breakdown in trust, a spark of doubt, whether it be with your customers or a spouse, is corrosive. In the aftermath of a crisis, you must redouble your efforts to build, maintain and restore trust. It will not happen overnight. But with a clear plan to consistently communicate, centred firmly around trust and empathy, most companies can overcome virtually any crisis.

What can you do right now? Map out what keeps you up at night. Talk through worst case scenarios with leaders from each of your departments, because they may see threats you don’t. Make a plan for each scenario and drill regularly. Too often plans collect dust on shelves, but they are only as good as the practice you put in. Make empathy your new mantra and think long and hard about what you will say when the worst happens. It’s worth the investment, because the one thing you can’t buy back is the trust you stand to lose.

Melanie Paradis is a Director at McMillan Vantage Policy Group. She has over a decade of experience in crisis communications, public relations and Indigenous consultation. Melanie works with a variety of clients across industries to manage government and stakeholder relationships through crisis and to build coalitions of third-party advocates to help get their most important projects and policies advanced. She joined McMillan Vantage following the successful 2018 Ontario PC campaign as a senior communications advisor to Ontario Premier Doug Ford. For Melanie’s detail profile click here.

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.