However you consume your news (television, radio, online), it’s hard to tune in and not a get a vivid, often visual, example of a “message” gone wrong. Just ask: United; Tesla; Kanye; Starbucks; H&M; Nordstrom; Facebook; Danielle LaPorte; Uber; L.L.Bean, to name a few.

In the recent past, the above referenced have come under fire for either something they did or said, or how they responded to the behavior of their employees. None of which was aligned with what they want to be known for.

For all of the above, the goodwill they built up with their loyal customers and/or fans was diminished, with each losing a bit of trust and credibility. Likewise, their leadership took a hit; they loss sales; and some are even contending with a depressed stock price. Not only were customers riled up, but so, too, was the media.

These companies and brand “personalities” learned the hard way that fixing a customer backlash is perhaps far more difficult than preventing one in the first place.

Backlashes are often tense, emotionally-charged, high-anxiety moments. Usually for good reasons from the perspective of the observer; unequivocally so for the person/s offended and directly tied to the crisis in question.

May your message – aka what you want to be known for – never encounter a backlash of the magnitude of the companies and personalities referenced in this piece. May your trustworthiness, credibility, leadership and vision never be called into question. But humans being humans, at some point, you are bound to have at least one or two brushes with a dissatisfied “client” (e.g., boss, board of directors, investor, client, etc.).

When it happens, will you be prepared? Will you have a plan for how to respond?

What can go wrong?

Is not a question we’re often trained to ask. The nature of the question is often equated with being a pessimist or inviting failure. This is unfortunate. Because when you consider what can go wrong, you put yourself in the powerful position of taking proactive steps to mitigate what might go wrong.

So, it is great, smart even, to focus on cultivating your message and to invest time being strategic about how and to whom you sell it. But to overlook the importance of knowing how you might handle things if something goes awry – whether it is directly your fault or not – is imprudent. It’s akin to avoiding the question: “What could go wrong?”

Luckily for you and me, we can thank the aforementioned companies and brand “personalities” for giving us a blueprint of what to do, as well what not to do, when your message encounters a backlash.

  1. What happened?
    This may seem odd, but acknowledge the facts of whatever triggered the crisis or backlash. And when doing so, be sincere and empathetic, not defensive.
  2. Acknowledge those who are impacted.
    Backlashes occur because someone (or several people) got hurt – emotionally, physically, or both. Closely tied with acknowledging what happened, is building rapport and treating those who have been impacted compassionately. Remember, people want to be heard and they want to know you hear them.
  3. Act decisively.
    Don’t rush, yet make sure your initial response is quick, thorough and calm. Even if all it is is doing #1 and #2 above with a timeline for what can be expected next from you.
  4. Make amends.
    In whatever way is appropriate, make things right for those that are affected/offended. Don’t let your ego or need to be right (even if you are) get in the way.
  5. Make sure your actions match your promises.
    Nothing else needs to be said.
  6. Stay on social media*.
    If ever there was a time to stay engaged regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel, now is the time. Sure, for a host of reasons, certain conversations may need to be taken offline. But this is not the time to ghost your peeps. Use your various platforms as an opportunity to be as transparent as you possibly can about the status of things and what you promise to do next. Plus, staying engaged is a great way to “listen.” (*Clearly, social media is more relevant if you’re the CEO or owner of the company. But the sentiment applies even if you work as an employee and the matter is between you and your boss or your board: stay engaged using the means of your organization – even if that is just email or intranet.)
  7. Get help, if necessary.
    If you need help navigating the backlash waters, get help. More than likely, you’ll be able to correct most of the “wrongs” you’re likely to encounter on your own. But in those instances where you feel you’re losing control of the narrative or the process of making things right, hire a professional. Your message is much too important to be permanently derailed by something that could, if managed properly, be a temporary misstep or setback.

Look by no means is the above intended to be a comprehensive list. In fact, you likely could add to it based upon how you have reacted to news of the latest company or person who found themselves on the “wrong” side of an issue or matter important to you.

Actually, that is a good place to start: When you think back on those incidents, what riled you up, specifically? What was your response to how the company or person handled the matter? If you were in the company’s or person’s shoes, what would you have done differently?

Whatever your answers, use them, along with the suggestions herein as a template for what to do when you bump into a backlash.

Notice I didn’t say, “if”!

That’s because if you have a message that’s big enough and a career that’s long enough, it is bound to happen at least once.

Gosh, I hope neither you nor a representative of yours will ever say or do anything to encounter a backlash on the scale of the companies and brand “personalities” referenced. But let’s face it: Whatever it is that you want to be known for is something that will make you stand out and apart from others. Not only is that enough to invite occasional naysayers, it is also enough to attract people who might become disgruntled with you and what you stand for – after working with you.

And when it comes time to responding to the backlash, may the suggestions offered herein help you do so in a poised, grounded and confident manner. Likewise, may they also remind you to be mindful of cultural and social nuances. Something a few of the above completely missed the mark on.

Whatever it is that you want to be known for requires a certain amount of bravery. So does how you choose to respond when you address any backlash. Be brave, my friend. Be brave!

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