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The importance of authenticity in crisis comms

Anger. Sadness. Excitement. Joy. They’re all emotions that make us human and as the majority of psychologists advocate, it’s important we check in with them regularly to foster positive relationships and help us identify what is, or isn’t, working in our lives.

But sometimes, the negative ones will get the better of us. This isn’t so bad if it happens in front of an ever-forgiving family member, but it’s slightly more problematic if you act out your tantrum in the far less forgiving sphere of social media.

Twitter, in particular, has begun to resemble something of a playground with all the taunts we see flying back and forth, all the more alarming when they’re between high profile CEOs and leaders. Much has been written about Elon Musk’s angry knee-jerk response to cave rescue-diver Vern Unsworth – a reminder that it’s worth taking time out to stop and think before giving the world access to what you’re thinking and feeling in the moment. It’s also a reminder that how you handle the inevitable apology is equally as important.

I’ve run hundreds of training sessions with senior people over the course of my comms career and have always encouraged them to be themselves – whilst keeping in mind the diverse audience they reach and the reputation of the organisation they’re representing.

Authenticity is a key component to building a narrative for a senior leader. When it’s used well, it can drive change and elevate the reputation of the individual and the brand.

Musk issued what could be viewed as an ‘authentic’ apology, in that he admitted he ‘spoke in anger’ and that ‘the fault is mine alone’. The admission that he acted on his angry emotions could have potentially helped his case here – some people will occasionally allow their emotions to get the better of them, even in business. But one suspects that many won’t forget his churlish tantrum anytime soon.

And can we perceive his apology as even being authentic? Many viewed it as another clumsy and kneejerk response to the fact that Tesla’s shares were plummeting.

Compare this to KFC’s now famous apology to its customers. This has proved so successful it’s hailed as an exemplary example of PR crisis management by corporate communications academics.

It came across as authentic because KFC was willing to admit it had made mistakes and let its customers down. It made a concerted effort to repair the situation, providing localised information for customers – and was also confident enough to inject humour into the apology and demonstrate brand personality.

KFC also chose not to apologise through its CEO – perhaps to minimise the risk of any more mishaps. However, some industry commentators claim brands actually have the capacity to bounce back from their CEOs’ sound-offs. Tesla is a case in point – within 48 hours of the PR crisis, its share prices had recovered.

Fortunately for Elon, consumers don’t expect the flawless hero anymore. In fact, it’s potentially rather an alienating, as well as impossible, concept.

We don’t need another hero to foster our respect or allegiance but, in these increasingly turbulent times, we do expect humility from our leaders. Gareth Southgate has received endless praise for his communication and leadership skills, which had a profound and positive impact on the England team’s performance at the World Cup. He fostered a culture of authenticity within the team, through his willingness to embrace his own previous failures and vulnerabilities.

Expert cave-diver John Volanthen, who was part of the mission that successfully rescued 13 Thai schoolchildren, has shown remarkable humility and dismissed the hero accolades bestowed on him.

When he discusses the rescue, it’s clear that he was always thinking about others, rather than himself. Throughout the mission, he focused on boosting the kids’ morale and inspiring confidence – ‘I promised them we’d come back with food provision’. He was never preoccupied with how he would be perceived.

Ultimately, authenticity helps to build trust and faith. WE’s ‘Brands in Motion’ study revealed that 83% of respondents believe brands can provide stability in a rapidly changing environment.

But companies cannot rely on the strength of their products or services alone to foster that trust. They must always consider what impact their spokespeople and messaging – particularly in times of crisis – will have upon a diverse audience base. 

Written by Marcus Sorour, vice president, client services, international at agency WE Communications

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