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Front-foot it or cross fingers?

Does anyone else feel like May was crisis month?  The HMC team sure had our fair share of issues and crises come across our desks recently. 

Since issues are on my mind, I thought I’d talk about one subject that comes up repeatedly when working with boards and leadership teams to manage reputational crises, in particular. 

Inevitably, as reputational issues emerge, there are going to be facts and stories that will damage your organisation’s reputation if and when they become public.   

So, how do you deal with those facts?  Do you front-foot them and lift the veil yourself by making them public?  Or do you cross fingers hoping media, staff or stakeholders don’t uncover them? 

From my experience, in nearly every situation the best way to deal with a reputational issue is proactively and with honesty.  I told a client recently, it’s like tearing off a plaster.  Just do it, say it, and let’s deal with it.   

Taking the “front-foot” approach is far from easy - but doing the right thing in life rarely is, right?  The initial announcement will be tough and you’ll need to brace yourself for what comes next.  But the great thing about front-footing a negative situation is that you control the timing, which allows you to prepare for just about anything that comes your way.   

There are four good reasons to front-foot a reputational issue: 

Gives you time to plan 

The best thing about front-footing an issue is that you take control and you can plan when and how you’ll make the announcement.   

Work through what you’re going to say and think about all the communications you need to do.  This might include staff briefing notes, emails to key stakeholders, a media release, social media posts, a website story and more. 

Once you pick the day and time, take the leap.  Then, make sure your spokesperson – your Chair or CEO – has cleared the decks and is ready to talk to staff, take phone calls and do media interviews.  Being available is incredibly important so you don’t look like you are hiding from the bad news. 

Avoids a defensive position 

Social media and the 24-hour news cycle means crises break online at any hour of the day or night.  And when that happens and bad news comes to light unexpectedly, you’ll quickly be put in the defensive position.  And anyone who’s played sport knows it is difficult to ‘win’ when you don’t control the ball.   

If you’re caught unaware and start bumbling around asking your colleagues or advisors, “what should we say?,” there’s never going to be a good ending.  Get on the offensive instead. 

Demonstrates integrity 

Your staff, customers and the community where you operate understand – for the most part – that companies (just like people) make mistakes sometimes.  And, you’ll put a lot of goodwill in the trust bank when you admit you’ve done wrong, apologise to those hurt and show proof of how you are rectifying the situation. 

And don’t forget to circle back at a future date to let people know how the situation has been resolved and why your organisation and your people are better for it. 

Shows you’re not hiding anything 

Public outrage can quickly gain momentum and skyrocket out of control when people think an organisation is trying to hide something.  And when you don’t respond immediately when a negative situation comes to light, people will automatically assume you are hiding something.  Be as transparent as you can be in times of crisis and it will help you weather the reputation storm. 

So, if I’ve convinced you that front-footing is nearly always the best strategy, when is it not the right approach? When individual privacy issues are involved, or when there is a legal process taking place are two such instances which add complexity that must be taken into account.   

In summary, however, remember that crossing fingers is rarely the smart thing to do when a reputational issue rears its head.  Instead, put on your big kid boots and front-foot it.