If you own a business, you already know the importance of reputation building. The brighter the spotlight on your brand, the happier consumers will be. Of course, one regretful mistake could knock your business off its pedestal faster than you can imagine.
Your communication efforts, actions, and recovery plan are essential for making a comeback after a public mishap. But wouldn’t it be better if you could avoid those situations in the first place? There’s much to learn from companies with ruined reputations and steps you can take to bolster your public image.
What Not to Do: 3 Examples of PR Nightmares
Big corporations are no strangers to bad press. Unfortunately, not all publicity is good publicity, with some brands facing severe implications for their public relations (PR) failures. The following three companies deliver a master class of what not to do when making mistakes and reacting publicly.
BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be remembered as one of the worst environmental hazards ever — and British Petroleum’s (BP) worst PR nightmare. Over 87 days, an oil rig on the sea floor leeched 3.19 million barrels — 134 million gallons — of oil. The spill covered 43,400 square miles, spanning 1,300 miles of coastline, and killing 11 crew members and numerous wildlife.
BP’s response? The company fervently tried to pass the blame onto others for the incident, while the former CEO Tony Hayward made insensitive remarks to the media. Initially, BP was adamant the ecological damage was moderate. It also ramped up advertising throughout the clean-up stages.
Considering the industry’s risks, BP should have been better prepared to handle the situation. Ironically, Hayward let much of the PR team go just beforehand to cut costs.
Bud Light–Dylan Mulvaney Controversy
More recently, Bud Light came under fire when they used trans advocate and influencer Dylan Mulvaney in an ad campaign, setting off a frenzy among the brand’s more conservative followers. However, several missteps afterward damaged Bud Light’s reputation more than the ad itself.
Rather than squash the backlash from its dwindling subset of intolerant customers, Bud Light waffled by offering vague apologies and statements.
Nearly 85% of consumers say companies should take responsibility for their actions, especially regarding diversity and inclusion. Brands cannot make everyone happy — Bud Light’s response merely alienated even more customers.
Balenciaga “Child Pornography” Campaign Scandal
For some reason, Balenciaga thought running an ad campaign with a child in S&M harnesses was a good idea in late 2022. Another one of their controversial ads displayed a page from the U.S. v. Williams Supreme Court decision — a case about child pornography.
Following two public apologies and the removal of both ads, Balenciaga filed a lawsuit against North Six, Inc. and agent Nicholas Des Jardins — the production company and designer who created the set for the campaigns.
The filing did not impress customers, who proceeded to call Balenciaga out for shifting blame. Shortly after, Balenciaga dropped the lawsuit. Unfortunately, the brand will likely always be marred by its actions.
6 Ways Businesses Can Boost Their Reputations
Reputation building is a challenging task for companies. As demonstrated by other well-known brands, one wrong move could cost you positive public opinion and revenue. Follow these six steps to protect your business from a preventable downfall.
1. Be Transparent
Remember when BP chose not to come clean about the ecological damage of the oil spill? Companies must be transparent with consumers when things go wrong. Otherwise, customers could turn their backs on you.
Transparency fosters loyalty. Forty-six percent of customers are willing to pay more for brands they trust. But transparency is more than owning up to faux pas. It entails being transparent about products and pricing, your company’s sustainability efforts, and product availability.
2. Deliver Superior Customer Service
Customer service is equally important to transparency. Meeting your customers with empathy and kindness facilitates a deeper brand-to-consumer bond. Suppose something goes wrong with your product or service. Providing excellent customer service can smooth things over and retain loyalty.
Always be willing to go the extra mile for your customers, including giving them a discount, refund, or replacement. You can also gauge your efforts and make improvements by offering a customer service feedback survey.
A number rating or scale survey will force customers to reflect more on their experience, while open-ended questions allow them to explain their reasoning.
3. Get Involved in the Community
Acts of kindness go a long way with customers and should be a part of your reputation building strategy. Customers have grown more socially conscious over the last decade, from climate change to racial justice issues. When companies donate to different charities, customers feel their dollar has a greater impact on more critical matters.
According to the 2022 fourth-quarter report from the U.S. Small Business Chamber, 66% of brands donated to local charities, 64% donated items or sponsored community events, and 56% offered discounts to teachers, veterans, medical workers, and other special groups.
4. Treat Employees Like Gold
How you treat your employees matters just as much as how you treat customers — and consumers are watching closely. Many companies have received backlash for poor handling of return-to-office mandates and layoffs in 2023. Unluckily for them, the public has received a glimpse at what really happens on the inside and has responded with disfavor.
Publicly bashing employees or demonstrating a lack of respect will turn people off from your brand. When Elon Musk took over Twitter — now X — he immediately slashed 3,700 jobs and forced employees to work around the clock with little regard for their well-being.
Now, 73% of human resource specialists say they would never consider a job at X, while another 59% say they would have quit a long time ago. Musk’s actions prove how fair treatment plays into job satisfaction and retention as much as it does customer loyalty.
However, human resources and users aren’t the only ones walking away. In July 2023, Musk revealed a 50% decline in ad revenue since he acquired the site.
5. Engage With Customers
Engagement is an excellent way to build trust with your customer base. Companies achieve this in many ways — the most essential channels being social media and reviews.
Sixteen percent of customers expect businesses to reply within minutes of leaving a comment or direct message on social media. Another 69% want a response in 24 hours or less.
Replying to reviews is another great way to demonstrate your responsiveness. Customers will even want to see how you handle negative feedback by what you write in your replies.
Just remember that social media can be a double-edged sword. Many brands have put their foot in their mouth with offensive, tone-deaf posts, drawing ire from consumers. Always take a measured approach by gathering all the information, choosing your words carefully, and owning the situation.
6. Brainstorm a Strategic Communication Plan
Some of the biggest brands ruined their reputations because they weren’t prepared to respond to crises. Don’t be one of them.
Work with a team of PR professionals who can navigate media and public outcry at a moment’s notice. Generating risk assessments, contemplating various scenarios, and writing down a strategic action and communication plan is critical.
A Good Reputation Equals Brand Success
There is much pressure for companies to always be on the ball. Amid today’s business landscape and cancel culture, there really isn’t room for messing up. Maintaining a good reputation will help you build customer loyalty and increase revenue in the long term.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.