By now, everyone has heard about Brittany Pietsch—heck, Gini also covered it—the Cloudflare employee who filmed herself being terminated from the company via a virtual meeting with two HR representatives. As if the video isn’t hard enough to watch, the response from the Cloudflare CEO wasn’t much better. Sure, he hits some valid points, strictly speaking from a corporate communications perspective, but he lacks empathy, authenticity, and, most importantly, transparency.
Less than a week later, baby clothing brand Kyte Baby was under scrutiny for denying a remote work request for an employee who had a sick child in the neonatal intensive care unit. Kyte Baby Founder Ying Liu was forced to make not one but two apology videos because of how poorly the first one was received. Liu received such sharp criticism for the first video that she admitted the first apology was scripted during her second video and decided to go off script for the second take, but the damage was done.
For years communications pros have been talking about the need for transparency in communications campaigns. That has never been so true with crisis responses. It’s time that the executive teams and boards of directors realize that corporate speak, scripted speeches, legalese, and emotionless statements just won’t cut it anymore.
Expectations Are On the Rise For Brands
Expectations have reached unprecedented heights in the evolving landscape of consumer-brand relationships, compelling brands to redefine their communication strategies. As communicators and PR professionals, the responsibility of shaping and managing a brand’s narrative becomes paramount when facing challenges that could potentially affect its reputation.
In an era of information overload and heightened awareness, audiences have become increasingly discerning. They expect more than just polished messaging; they demand sincerity and openness. To make things more complicated, consumers are growing more skeptical of businesses. According to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer, 61% of consumers think business leaders are “purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” But still, there are opportunities for brands to repair the trust. The same report shows that businesses are the most trusted institutions, above government, NGOs, and media.
All this underscores a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, showing that trust and authenticity have become non-negotiable elements in the brand-consumer dynamic. As consumers become increasingly vocal and wiling to express their discontent on virtually any subject, brands are not only expected to deliver quality but also to open their doors to transparency, fostering a genuine connection that goes beyond the transactional.
Meeting these elevated expectations has become a strategic imperative for brands aspiring to thrive in a world where authenticity is the currency of trust. And crisis situations put these values to the test. Audiences are interested in how well a crisis is managed and in the authenticity and transparency demonstrated throughout the process.
CEOs Need to Lead the Charge
When a crisis hits, it shouldn’t just be the responsibility of the communication team to handle the fallout. The CEO plays a pivotal role in leading the charge toward transparency and authenticity. Whether internal or external, stakeholders look to the top leadership for guidance and reassurance.
The role of a CEO extends beyond the boardroom, emerging as a beacon of leadership that sets the tone for the entire organization. A Weber-Shandwick study showed that 77% of consumers agree that CEOs need to speak out when their company’s values are violated or threatened, reflecting a growing expectation for corporate leaders to engage authentically with the public. It also shows that walking the walk on your company’s values is also non-negotiable.
The CEO’s voice carries significant weight and can shape the narrative surrounding a crisis, influencing how stakeholders perceive and respond to the situation. Authentic communication from the top fosters trust and instills a sense of accountability within the organization. As we saw with both Kyte Baby and Cloudflare, those CEOs missed the mark, and now more damage control needs to be done.
By embracing a transparent and empathetic approach, CEOs humanize the brand, and the crisis, demonstrating a commitment to addressing challenges openly and with genuine concern for the well-being of the people involved. CEOs who take a backseat during a crisis risk leaving a leadership void that can damage the brand and lead to a bigger and extended crisis. When leaders are visible, accountable, and authentic in their communication, it strengthens the overall response.
It’s All About People
Amidst the chaos of a crisis, it’s crucial to remember that behind every brand is a community of people – customers, employees, stakeholders, families, and more. Failing to connect on a human level can lead to a perception of insincerity and detachment.
And we get that this is easier said than done. It’s a given that a crisis can be financially detrimental to an organization. It’s the nature of an organizational crisis, after all. There will be damage—full stop. However, the effect of a crisis can extend far beyond bottom lines and market shares. Shock waves can be felt through the lives of individuals directly affected by the crisis, both within and outside the organization.
Failing to center the crisis response around the people affected can have profound consequences on a brand’s reputation, making the financial fallout exponentially worse. Consider the stakeholders whose trust forms the foundation of any successful company. Now imagine abandoning that trust because you failed to recognize the effect on the people your brand needs to survive.
A misstep in acknowledging their concerns and demonstrating empathy can lead to irreparable damage. With so many channels to communicate corporate missteps, the eyes of the global community are fixed on how organizations navigate challenges, and their perceptions can be shaped by the level of humanity displayed during a crisis. By putting people first, organizations mitigate immediate damage and lay the foundation for long-term resilience, trust, and a positive brand narrative.
Forging Ahead With Transparency, Authenticity, and Empathy
Transparency and authenticity are not merely buzzwords in crisis communication—they are the pillars that a brand’s reputation stands or falls. Audiences expect more, CEOs need to lead with integrity, and it’s ultimately all about connecting with people on a genuine level.
It’s imperative that we learn from the mistakes of others. The world is watching as these brands struggle to recover from an initial crisis made worse by less-than-ideal responses. Consumers see these struggles, and their expectations continue to increase because they want more from the brands they support.
By learning from these mistakes and embracing transparency, authenticity, and empathy during a crisis, communicators and PR professionals can weather the storm and emerge with a stronger and more resilient brand.