damaged goods

Damaged Goods: The Top Gun Problem and Crisis Communications

If you’ve been following our blog series on damaged goods and crisis communications, you have considered how to handle a firm or your company during a crisis. Hopefully, the probing questions and recommendations have convinced you that you need a crisis communications plan both for assessing the damage and for controlling the damage.

And just for good measure, in this post, we discuss one type of damage that can arise from poorly managing a crisis—damaged credibility as a result of over-promising. Let’s look at some examples of damaged goods and consider how to avoid over-promising during a crisis.

Damage Caused by Over-promising

As a successful professional, you’ve heard about under-promising and over-delivering. While we understand this principle intellectually, during the chaos of a crisis, our fight or flight defense mechanisms (AKA the lizard brain) can takeover and we’ll do or say almost anything to to change the narrative.

Here’s why over-promising is a really bad idea whether or not your company is in the middle of a crisis:

The Top Gun Problem: Consider what IR professionals like to call the Top Gun problem: “your ego is writing checks your body (or in this case, your business) can’t cash.” I received an analyst note the other day that should be exhibit A for companies that are considering over-promising and the long-term damage to credibility that can follow.

The analyst was discussing a new spin-off transaction lead by a CEO who recently completed another major spin-off in the same industry. Here’s what the analyst wrote:

“We think [Company A’s] management team set overly ambitious, inflated, and sometimes outright untrue targets during the separation…while [Company A’s SpinCo] is doing their best with the hand they were dealt, we think [Previous CEO of Company A] is setting up [the next SpinCo] and potential investors for a similarly hard road.”

Oof. Now that hurts.

In short, a reputation for over-promising can turn your company into damaged goods for future deals. Yes, this all goes back to the credibility issue we’ve talked about before. Keep in mind too that over-promising is one indicator that skilled analysts are looking for as they report back to investors. While it may not be a deal-breaker, over-promising can certainly impact your company’s perceived valuation.

How Not to Deal with Sucky Earnings: Or consider what might happen when a financial advisor, who after conducting several weeks or months of research finds a stock he believes is primed to deliver his clients tremendous gains. While he knows there are no guarantees in the stock market, all evidence points to nothing but growth, so his optimism is high.

If he tells his clients the stock should deliver 15 to 20 points of ROI over the next few months, but knows that 10 to 12 points is more realistic, he has over-promised. Now consider what happens if a crisis occurs and the stock only delivers 5 points or even drops because of an unanticipated supply chain issue. By over-promising he sets himself up for failure.

It can be really tempting in the case of sucky earnings to double-down and over-promise (again) in order to calm investors’ concerns. But over-promising in the first place has harmed your credibility and left the impression that your firm is damaged goods, so you risk digging yourself an even deeper hole if you continue down this path. Remember that nothing happens in a vacuum.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that we rarely have control over all aspects of a crisis situation. So there are cases where CEOs walk into a challenging situation and are forced to do the best they can with what they have. This is completely understandable. However, there is a difference between wittingly and unwittingly overpromising and this is precisely where honesty is a CEO’s best friend.

How to Avoid Over-promising During a Crisis

One of the best things you can do during a crisis is figure out how to avoid over-promising. If you keep the following 5 simple tips in mind, you’ll go a long way toward keeping that lizard brain in check.

1. Triage

During a crisis, not everything can be handled at the same time. Your credibility and how your company comes out on the other side depends on making crucial decisions about prioritizing different aspects of the crisis. When the building’s on fire, it does no good to worry about last month’s financial statements.

Over-promising can occur when teams try to fix an entire crisis by, for example, blaming the victim or scapegoating. Papa John’s recently found themselves in trouble for this when, during an earnings call, they blamed their slow earnings on the NFL’s controversial player protests. Essentially, Papa John’s was promising better earnings after all this “nonsense” ended—classic case of the Top Gun problem.

Triage is one area where hiring an investor relations professional with experience specific to crisis communications can make a huge difference. In the same way that medical professionals arriving on the scene of an emergency know exactly how to sort victims for the optimal outcome, the right professional can help you figure out which problems need immediate attention.

2. Be Transparent

Credibility hinges on performance. And during a crisis, your company needs to outperform expectations just to repair credibility and get back to zero. Repairing the damaged goods reputation is all about re-setting those expectations and re-building the perceptions that have been compromised during the crisis.

The perception of performance hinges on setting appropriate expectations. So, if investors are making demands that you know to be unreasonable, push back. It’s better to be honest from the get-go than to find your company in a jam later on.

Be honest and up-front about issues that you know could arise and get in the way of fulfilling your promise. This will allow you to control the narrative and address issues on your terms.

The goal here is to get to the point that you can set or reset rational expectations for corporate performance.

3. Continue to monitor the situation closely.

Once you have put out your official statement, the work of righting the ship is just beginning. Next you have to put the implementation plan in motion making sure that whatever promises were made actually are accomplished. The absolute worst outcome after a crisis is for a new crisis to develop as a result of mishandling the original crisis.

This is why it’s so important for your crisis communications team to continue to monitor the situation and make sure the promised milestones are being accomplished. If you run into roadblocks along the way, you’ll be in a good position to transparently (see #2) address issues and constantly adjust expectations.

4. Keep Internal Communications Open

This tip is key to making sure your staff or spokespeople don’t undercut you or each other. Unwitting over-promising can happen because well-meaning team members feel pressure to respond to questions from investors or media that they aren’t really qualified to answer. They may try to pass the buck to other departments or make promises on behalf of the whole company, which they don’t have the authority to offer.

It’s critical to maintain an open dialog within your company regarding what can and can’t be done, especially during a credibility crisis. CEOs also need to be mindful of making promises that put unnecessary stress on the entire team. Having strong internal communications is the biggest part of successful crisis communications.

Concluding Thoughts

When a brand experiences a hit to its credibility, there is a strong temptation to over-promise in an effort to deflect criticism or to repair its damaged goods reputation ASAP. But overcoming the appeal of over-promising and trusting your crisis communications plan is more likely to get you the results you’re after.

Follow the above recommendations and the only question left will be what to say when investors realize you’ve over delivered on your promises. Whatever you say, don’t leave the impression that you’re punching below your weight. Say that you always do your best and sometimes your best even surprises you. If you practice skilled crisis communications, your audience will remember how you delivered in the end and this final impression will replace the original crisis as the dominant perception.

Do you have a question about crisis communications? Want to get on our consultation schedule? We’re booking 2018 clients now. Start your year off right!

This is part 3 of our 3-part series on damaged goods and crisis communications. If you missed part 1 on damage assessment and part 2 on damage control, read them here and here. It totally counts as being productive!

Photo credit: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

 

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