Some people have a certain quality that seemingly allows them to return to the public's good graces after a mistake, while others never recover. Ronald Reagan's presidency was famously deemed "The Teflon Presidency" by Democrat Congresswoman Pat Schroeder as his approval ratings seemed immune to high unemployment rates and the Iran-Contra affair. But for every Ronald Reagan there is a Pete Rose, a Mel Gibson, or a John Edwards who isn't able to regain their pre-failure reputation.
What contributes to this phenomenon? Recent research published in The Academy of Management Journal suggests that it boils down to whether the person is perceived as someone who achieved their status through dominance versus prestige.
The researchers build from existing research stating that "dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank and influence." They suspected that the means by which a leader gained status would impact the degree of backlash upon a failure or scandal. Sure enough, the leaders who were perceived as dominant (using force and intimidation) were judged more harshly than leaders on the prestige side, who use collaboration and education to succeed. While dominant people can certainly get things done, they are seen as selfish as compared to the more benevolent prestige leaders and thus have less goodwill accumulated.
The researchers suggest that in the face of a crisis, companies with dominant leaders may do well to consider bringing forward a more prestige-oriented leader within the company to be the public "face" of the failure.
Beyond choosing the right person to represent the company in a crisis, here are four steps to help you get back on your feet quickly.
Convene a Team
Identify a dedicated team to put together a crisis management plan. Such an event can ripple through a company with effects on everything from sales and brand management to cash flow, so you'll likely need an outside resource with expertise in crisis management to help you think through the fallout and plan for contingencies at every level.
Communicate Quickly and Authentically
Much of Reagan's "Teflon" reputation is attributed to his exceptionally strong communication skills. People sizing up a company in crisis want to see remorse for mistakes made, an authentic presentation of how things will be different going forward, and full ownership of resolving the issue and regaining trust.
Prepare Your Internal Team
Questions will come up from customers, vendors, the public, and more. While having a spokesperson who is prepared to handle statements and questions is important, don't overlook the fact that the rest of your team will also be subjected to questions. Empower them as advocates and give them talking points to underscore the company's commitment to resolve the problem.
It's often easier said than done, but anticipating a crisis (to the degree possible) and having a plan in place beforehand will make dealing with it exponentially smoother. Is the company founder vocal about political leanings or engaged in polarizing activity (think Jimmy John's founder Jimmy John Liataud and big game trophy hunting)? Could the business reasonably be critically impacted by a hurricane or other natural disaster? Are you aware of potential ethical issues brewing with a major partner or supplier? While many crises come as surprises, some may be well enough within sight to warrant early planning.
While your leadership style may have an impact on how quickly you recover from a crisis, or if you recover at all, carving out some time to think through your areas of exposure and to develop a plan to respond will up your odds of coming out on the winning side.