Brand damage can hit any institution, at any time and without warning. When Parktown Boys' High School, in Johannesburg, became the subject of a series of lurid newspaper stories this year, it faced the same crisis of public confidence that would affect any business, NGO or state department.
When a negative publicity storm hits, the instinctive reaction of leadership is to go into denial and close ranks. That is almost certain to make things worse. If the problem is of interest to the media, and there is any suspicion of a cover-up, damage to reputation and brand will increase.
There are four golden rules of crisis management:
- Act quickly - every minute wasted can do more damage to your brand. Though you can never prepare for every eventuality, it's wise to have a crisis management plan in place.
- Admit there is a problem and express regret - and, if necessary, sympathy - if anyone has been hurt.
- Tell the story of what happened, with as much detail as possible. When news of an incident breaks, it often gives rise to rumours. Telling the truth in a deliberate way will calm people and get things in perspective.
- Make it clear that, once the initial crisis is over, you know how to fix the problem. Bad things happen: what counts is how you deal with them.
Parktown has a heritage going back to 1923. After a parent told the press her son had been hurt in an initiation ceremony, stories circulated of alleged assault and bullying.
Headmaster Tom Clarke's response was limited: the Gauteng education department forbids principals to speak to the media. He gave some interviews, but lack of freedom helped the story get out of control.
The school's response was consistent. It admitted some of what had occurred was unacceptable, and said measures would be taken to discipline and counsel staff and pupils.
Brand expert Marc Vogelzang, of Brand Genetics, says: "When the storm surrounding the initiation broke, my initial reaction was, what's all the fuss about? This kind of thing happened to us all, particularly if one had attended a good boys' school."
But his opinion changed. "The boy's mother immediately occupied the moral high ground," he recalls. "Management dallied, and as they were assaulted from across the spectrum of media, they seemed to be floating merrily down the tubes."
Then the school's head boy made a public statement. "He showed leadership, strength, honesty and accountability. By standing up and admitting the mistake, he proved the product of Parktown was to be trusted. He understood the brand values of the school. Strong brands are forgiving of mistakes, particularly when they are honest with constituent consumers."
Once the dust had settled, what had to be done to restore Parktown's reputation? Besides looking after affected individuals, "it's vital that the institution is not disrupted by what has happened. Life must go on, and that sends a signal", says Clarke.
The school used the opportunity to emphasise the school's values and heritage. Communication with boys, parents, potential parents, old boys and others was intensified. Clarke says: "It gave us renewed enthusiasm and intensity in our marketing."
A Sunday Times survey ranking Parktown among SA's Top 100 schools and listing it as one of the leaders in maths and science, reminded people of the bigger picture.
"We went through a hard time, but as long as you don't avoid the issues, adversity can bring people together," says Clarke.