The recent Southwest debacle proved that in today’s world, public opinion can turn on a dime. Every mistake – your fault or not – is treated with cynicism, digital outrage, and “it bleeds” media headlines. Southwest is the #2 most-trusted airline – or was, until October 8 and thousands of canceled flights. Even worse is the belief that the vaccine mandate caused the flight cancellations, even though Southwest and its pilots’ union publicly agree there was no mandate-related walkout.

The situation was so bad that Southwest CEO Gary Kelly took take time away from growing his company to staunch the bleeding with appearances on Good Morning America and CNBC, and a public apology to customers.  

Today, every mistake can turn into millions of dollars of damage to a company’s bottom line or brand. In 2018, one Starbucks manager’s decision in Philly became a shutdown for every Starbucks store in America. Chick-fil-A angered conservatives when it stopped donating to The Salvation Army (donations which angered the left), and Delta angered all sides when it ping-ponged about Georgia’s voting law. Burger King’s effort to promote female chefs ran into a Twitter mob that forced the multi-national corporation into a full retreat.

But as quick as the public is to judge and attack – we also have short attention spans. United is #3 in the trusted airline survey, despite its CEO blaming a customer when the customer was assaulted on a flight. The company recovered millions of dollars in stock losses within days. Chick-fil-A continues to thrive, including by earning the most revenue per location in the fast-food industry.

Businesses need to recognize that they may be attacked at any time. You may not actually do anything wrong – but when it bleeds, it leads in a social media-driven news cycle. Therefore, businesses should engage in a proactive marketing and branding strategy to build customer trust that will keep revenue coming during and after a crisis.

First, put value to customers before customer values. No liberal goes to Starbucks for accountants, and no conservative goes to Chick-fil-A for mechanics. Most people make purchasing decisions based upon quality, customer service, price, reputation, and/or convenience. Focusing on universal needs and timeless values allows company executives to focus on growth while creating a bastion for crises. Putting value to customers before customer values also protects you from getting the “wrong” answer as values change.

Second, build brand trust well before crises arrive. United, Chick-fil-A, and Starbucks held onto core customer markets even during the worst of their crises. This starts with a surround-sound marketing strategy which includes:

  • Getting press which your target markets trust. This will help drive sales, giving you a bigger customer base and more revenue to overcome crisis-related dips. It will also help people see the good about you before and during a crisis. Quality press includes first-person interviews and op-eds by your spokesperson, a profile about your company or leadership, and inclusion in wide-scope articles, podcast segments, and TV clips.
  • Turning press into website, social media, and newsletter collateral. In the short term, this will improve your marketing outcomes. In the long run, it will build a digital foundation for trust.
  • Building relationships with influencers, such as media voices, industry leaders, and community leaders. Getting these people on your side before a crisis means they will hear you out and may have your back when times are tough.

Third, don’t panic during a crisis. A well-prepared company has customer trust, a positive digital brand, and a limited target market. Silence can be your friend; never punch down or respond to irrelevant haters. The public has a short attention span, so stay focused on what you do best, quickly own up to mistakes, and accurately deflect falsehoods through trusted media.

The bad news about owning a business today is that critics can turn one bad event into a groundswell of opposition. The good news is that the new rules of business branding have a time-tested solution: be the best at what you do, and build trust through company culture, and effective marketing and branding. Your company will grow faster, avoid and deflect critics more often, and bounce back from true crises more quickly.