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In times of crisis

Lying to the media. Shirking responsibility. Cover-ups.

Volkswagen (VW) provided a blueprint on how not to respond to a scandal, after the company was caught using software to defeat Environmental Protection Agency emissions tests last year. The company took a pounding, with its CEO resigning and stock price tanking more than 50 percent.

While it’s impossible to prevent all types of crises and scandals from happening to your brand, companies can control how they respond to them. When managed well, crises can be turned into opportunity. To that end, having an ethical crisis communications plan in place is critical.

Still not convinced it’s worth the time and effort? Remember, a crisis communications plan is like health insurance: It’s not fully appreciated until it’s needed. Just like no one plans to have a sudden illness, no company expects to have a crisis.

With that, here are a few principles upon which to build your crisis communications plan.

A cover-up is worse than the crime

While lying may provide short-term relief, it just delays the inevitable (getting caught) and insults the public’s intelligence. A significant erosion of trust between customers and your company is among the most challenging and painful of reputation welts to recover from. VW executives insisted they knew nothing of the defeat devices, but the investigation found as many as 30 of them did. Rather than maintain innocence, they should’ve been transparent about who knew what and when, from the start. It’s difficult to admit a mistake, but it can recoup a level of trust in your brand.

Accept responsibility

If there was an encyclopedia entry for “shirking responsibility”, you’d find a picture of VW executives underneath it. Instead of acting accountable for their wrongdoings, they blamed a couple of “rogue” engineers for the defeat devices. While the public may not agree with your actions, they will have a level of respect for those who take responsibility for them.

Take swift action and authentically demonstrate change

It’s no longer enough to fire a scapegoat and call it a day. That approach only addresses a symptom of the overall cause. And delayed disciplinary action that seems too reactionary to public outcry – think the NFL’s suspension of Ray Rice – deservedly gets ridiculed as well. Instead of taking flimsy, we’re-only-doing-this-because-people-are-upset approaches, companies must demonstrate that new leadership and protocols are in place that will prevent these types of events from happening again.

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