Picture this: the organisation of which you are CEO, has been the victim of a data breach and customers’ personal data has been compromised. In the face of mounting media condemnation of you and your organisation, corporate affairs beseech you to respond to the rising media coverage and to make a public apology.
There is no suggestion that anyone other than the criminal hackers acted willfully. Certainly, more could have been done by the organisation to protect the customers’ data however, that statement will always be true. The safeguards the organisation had in place were compliant with the prescribed risk tolerances set out by the organisation’s risk committee.
Putting all of that aside, as CEO you reluctantly acquiesce, publicly accept responsibility, and apologise. Two things follow; your personal brand is forever scarred, and the apology does nothing to quell the mounting velocity of public opinion. If anything, the apology is perceived by some as confirmation of the organisation’s ill-intent to protect customer data. Now there are calls for your resignation.
The corporate affairs advisers have no empirical basis for what to do next but clench onto their textbook view that if the CEO had not apologised, the absence of a statement of repentance would worsen the brand damage. However, based on actual data of weekly brand tracking along with relative sales performance, the damage arising from the “breach of trust” lasted for five quarters and statistically, the apology did nothing – zero, to stem the negative publicity or alter brand metrics or sales.
Why is Repentance Not Enough?
In this and most instances, an apology is often not what the market is seeking. Pierre Rosanvallon coined the term “the age of pervasive distrust.” Rosanvallon discussed the birth of a coalition of minorities among citizens who are disillusioned and disaffected with the establishment. Add to that, the omnipresent social media which has enabled the aggregation of these minorities. Disillusioned, this aggregation of the disaffected has placed organisations under heightened surveillance. The disaffected are not seeking an apology. They are seizing on the opportunity to vent their collective disapproval.
Some readers may be quick to reject this dystopian view and instead, solely blame mainstream and social media for fueling the societal undertone of distrust. In the case of social media, content only has currency if it circulates and given the endless choice, what circulates is what aligns with the audiences’ preferences and beliefs. The mass-disaffected are looking for a place to express their distrust. Algorithmic social media does an excellent job at finding it for them.
Eventually, other things capture their attention and forgiveness and forgetfulness enable the brand to return to its past state. Some brands particularly those associated with proven malfeasance never fully recover. In our experience, depending on the severity, standard recovery takes upwards of 18 months.
Handling a Coalition of Disaffected
Now that the coalition of disaffected have been characterised as a vengeful mob, perhaps a different lens should be considered for how to manage the market’s response to a breach of trust. Inspiration has come from two sources. The first, from an 1890 poem that describes a stockman taking control of a mob of wild horses. Second, from an article from 1885 on how to quell a mob
First, a stanza from the poem.
And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
In this case, the stockman allowed the mob to first “run out of steam” before he turned them around. In essence, he remained watchful of the angry mob until they were depleted, and only then did he represent the brand. You would agree, rightly or wrongly, this is the most common and contemporary practice for an organisation attempting to manage the fallout from a breach of trust today.
Come Out Swinging!
Rather than allowing the matter to run its course, is there a more offensive approach? Perhaps the alternative can be found from the 1885 article.
One determined man, with fearless front and undaunted courage, has been of more service in preventing a riot than scores of dilly-dallying mayors and governors who read the riot act and begged and besought the rioters to disperse.
Upon whomsoever devolves the duty of suppression, let this be his first effort: check at the very beginning; allow no tumultuous gatherings, permit no delay; a few stern, resolute words; if these be not heeded, then strike resolutely, boldly, let there be no hesitation.
In some instances, a more assertive approach to managing an angry mob may need to be considered. In practice, the alternative is to launch a hailstorm of counter punches delivered by an aggressive legal department and public relations practitioners.
Being at the coalface of managing a major breach of trust is most likely, the most stressful event of your career. Thankfully, not many executives are subjected to the experience more than once which is a blessing as well as a challenge for knowing how best to respond.
All in All
CEO’s and marketers’ first encounter with the wildfire destruction of brand arising out of a trust crisis is almost always their first such outing; there is no dress rehearsal and no amount of role playing can prepare you for the sometimes unbridled, vitriolic, personalised attacks. When it comes to a public apology, the CEO is personally worse off, whilst the corporation fares no better, despite the heartfelt apology.
In the heat of the media barrage, opinions differ on what to say, when the acute phase will abate and if the brand damage be lasting. The question remains, should the brand weather the storm or in boxing parlance, “come out swinging”?
1The breach of trust we are talking about here is not the organisation embarking in criminal activity.
2At this moment in time, globally Forethought is helping five brands with significant trust issues. Only one of the five involves alleged malfeasance. The other four are not of the brands’ own making and include data breaches and category contagion damage caused by a competitors’ behaviour.
3Rosanvallon, P., & Goldhammer, A. (2008). Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust (The Seeley Lectures). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4‘The Man From Snowy River,’ A.B. "Banjo" Paterson, The Bulletin, 26 April 1890 http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/patersonab/poetry/snowy.html
5‘How to Quell Mobs,’ Fitz John Porter, The North American Review, Vol. 141, No. 347 (Oct 1885), pp. 351-360, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25118535