The First Impression in a Crisis is Lasting


Rick Lyke

Executive Vice President, Public Relations and Public Affairs

How long does it take to form a first impression of a person or organization? Research suggests it is an amazingly quick—and unforgiving—span of time.

A study commissioned by Listerine of 2,000 adults found a lasting first impression of an individual is established on average in just 27 seconds. Research by the New York University School of Business found that people make 11 judgement calls on you—ranging from your trustworthiness to level of success—in the first seven seconds. And various studies have concluded that customers take just 50 milliseconds after arriving on your homepage to decide if your website is worth further exploration.

What about first impressions formed when potential customers learn about your company through a news report about a developing issue? How about existing customers and key stakeholders who get introduced to your CEO via a press conference in the midst of a full-blown crisis?

When a crisis strikes your organization the clock is not just ticking, it might have already ticked. Opinions are shaped as much by what is believed and perceived as by what is actually happening. Asking for time to gather the facts or investigate the incident won’t slow the process. In a world where people form opinions based on sketchy media reports and misinformation spread by social media, your best defense in a crisis is quite decidedly a good offense.

Here are five steps you must take today, because time is never on your side when storm clouds form.

Make a first impression now. If you don’t think your organization needs to invest in proactive public relations you’re simply wrong. No successful IPO happens without preliminary meetings with analysts and doing the important advance work. Similarly, the time to get to know key media, build relationships with influencers and establish contacts with elected officials is when things are good. Your existing corporate social responsibility efforts can pay dividends when the news about your company turns negative.

Always be prepared. Customers expect instant access to information and for companies to respond rapidly when the news is bad. Consumers accept third-party speculation—even if it contains bad or misleading facts—when companies don’t supply information rapidly. During COVID the companies that suffered the deepest declines in customer and employee satisfaction were those perceived to have done nothing to respond to the pandemic. How quickly can your company distribute core information about your products, people or facilities? Having fact sheets, photography and evergreen information ready to go is vital to gaining early control and stunting the spread of rumors.

Streamline decision-making. Ask yourself how long it takes and how many people have to weigh in before the average decision is finalized inside your organization? Recognize that in a crisis you will have an expanded team at the table voicing opinions and that human nature can lead to conflict avoidance and inaction. Corporate counsel, human resources and finance often tell you what you cannot say or do during challenging situations when the world is demanding to know what you are doing. Getting the team organized and conducting simulations can foster collaboration and reduce lost time when an issue develops.

Establish warning and monitoring systems. A crisis-response team needs to know what is happening and what is being said. Getting the facts and filtering out misinformation can help you shape your response, avoid missteps and manage more effectively. Investing in the right people, monitoring the correct social platforms and having efficient tools to reach key audiences instantaneously cuts down on wasted time and eliminates gaps in responses that can fuel speculation and anxiety.

Understand what truly matters. In a crisis, health and safety are paramount, followed closely by protecting property, jobs, the community and environment. Having a solid understanding of the key performance indicators of your organization and knowing the objectives and key results metrics for your executives can help you understand motivations and concerns as events unfold. Helping everyone to focus on the top priorities in a crisis is a level-setting technique to reduce potential lasting damage.

There are reasons that some brands emerge stronger from a crisis. Managing first impressions during a crisis starts long before the first hint of an issue. Leadership prepared for the challenge, building trust through communications and actions, is essential.

Hey! Our name is pronounced Mōw-rrr, like this thing I’m pushing.

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