Rebranding after a PR crisis? 5 strategies to win employee buy-in

Rebranding after a PR crisis? 5 strategies to win employee buy-in


Jo Clarke, Heather Jones

Recovering from — and moving beyond — a reputational crisis can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Whether your brand has made headlines due to real or perceived wrongdoing, been “canceled,” or attracted increased scrutiny because of a merger or acquisition, rebranding is often the best way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

But even if you rebrand, moving on from a hit to your organization’s reputation is easier said than done. It involves more than launching an external PR campaign to rebuild trust with external stakeholders and constituents. To truly turn the page, you’ll need to devote significant time and attention to leading your internal audience through the storm. After all, your employees are the living, breathing representation of your brand. If they lose heart — or, worse, become permanently disillusioned — your short-term crisis will turn into a long-term predicament.

The following strategies, which combine change management principles with tried-and-true rebrand implementation best practices, will help you navigate the road that lies ahead.

1. Be authentic in your crisis response (and about the reasons for the rebrand)

A critical step in managing significant organizational change is to make sure your people are ready for it. But after the turmoil of a PR crisis, many employees will need to adequately process what’s just happened before they can be emotionally ready to embrace what’s next.

To reach internal stakeholders effectively, you and other members of the C-suites should consider how to deliver an authentic, heartfelt response to the situation at hand. Corporate speak and vague statements won’t cut it.

  • If your organization made a mistake, own it and apologize. Lay out the steps you’ll take to make it right.
  • If you’re entering into a merger or acquisition that will take your brand in a new direction, be open about the reasons why. Employees need to see the benefits and advantages of the deal.
  • And if you’re rebranding to repair your reputation in the eyes of external stakeholders, be open about that, too. Share how an aspirational new brand will enable your organization to make authentic, meaningful strides in the right direction.

Above all, make sure the news of your rebrand doesn’t look like an attempt to sweep your crisis situation under the rug and avoid taking responsibility. People are resilient and can bounce back from even the most salacious PR event. But before they get on board with your rebrand, they’ll need to believe that what you’re telling them is true.

Managing reputational damage is challenging, so be mindful to manage your own expectations throughout this process as well.

2. Segment your internal audience and establish appropriate goals for rebrand communication

Tailor your rebrand messaging strategy to specific segments of your internal audience – as you would with any marketing campaign. This starts with truly understanding your employees. What do they care about? What do they need? What makes them tick?

Once you have a clear picture of your audience(s), think through the outcomes you want to achieve with each segment. Do you want to:

  • Empower leaders to cascade messages about your rebrand throughout the organization?
  • Put a stop to unhelpful rumors and speculation?
  • Give naysayers a reason to change their minds?
  • Equip employees to answer questions and concerns from external stakeholders?

All of these are worthy goals that require their own set of messages and talking points. If you can, look for ways to connect the dots between how reaching each goal also helps meet the audience’s core needs.

Managing reputational damage is challenging, so be mindful to manage your own expectations throughout this process as well. For example, you may initially think that the overarching goal of your internal communications plan should be to foster loyalty among all employees for your new brand. However, being on board with your rebrand and being loyal to it can mean different things.

You should expect senior leaders to internalize a deeper sense of loyalty to your new brand by nature of their position. But for your other employees, a successful outcome might look different. For this group, helping them accept the change is an important first step. You can then focus on giving them the information and training they need to deliver your brand promise to external stakeholders effectively — even if they don’t feel a deeper sense of connection and loyalty.

3. Give leaders opportunities to ask questions before you share news broadly

As you’re developing your internal stakeholder segmentation strategy, pay particular attention to how you communicate with your senior and mid-level managers. At a minimum, prioritize giving them advance notice of the changes your organization is planning. This will help them process the news themselves before they’re expected to help socialize your messages with their own teams.

Even better, offer leaders a safe place to voice concerns, ask questions, and unravel any points of contention before making announcements to all employees. This is an organic and effective way to prevent leaders from becoming passive or active resistors who hinder your momentum.

4. Engage employees in meaningful conversations and listen to their concerns

No one likes to be dictated to. When you’re leading change during challenging circumstances, it’s doubly important to listen to your people and resist the temptation to tell them what they should think.

Asking good questions and making space for honest, candid conversations can help you uncover, address, and overcome any resistance and reticence your employees may feel.

You can do this by:

  • Holding focus groups to invite interactive discussion and conversation about what your legacy brand means to participants
  • Crowdsourcing feedback about your strategic goals and organizational vision using surveys, chat rooms, and dedicated channels on internal communications platforms
  • Asking employees to share any pain points they’ve experienced living out your brand promise as a result of the reputational crisis
  • Inviting input and advice on how to move the organization forward in a positive direction

Even if you can’t act upon everything your employees tell you, giving them a chance to be heard helps remedy the negative effects of a crisis.

10-step guide: How to turn employees into brand ambassadors

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5. Train employees to live out the values of your new brand (but don’t set it and forget it)

After you’ve laid sufficient groundwork, it’s time to train your employees on the details of your new brand and equip them to live it out as brand ambassadors and champions.

This involves:

  • Explaining all the components of the brand identity (e.g., logo, colors, messaging, etc.)
  • Providing clear guidelines on how to apply the brand to all types of branded assets
  • Automating as many processes as possible (e.g., creating a library of branded templates that everyone can access)
  • Offering in-depth insight into what your new brand represents in terms of its values and ethos

Brand training should not be a one-and-done endeavor, particularly when you’re recovering from a PR crisis. Make it a point to check in and assess how well employees are carrying out all the aspects of your brand in their day-to-day work. And provide timely answers to questions that arise as time goes on.

Keep the lines of communication open with employees even after the crisis has passed

It may take months, or over a year, to close the book on your reputational rebrand. And even then, your work is not done.

To keep employees engaged as advocates for your brand now and in the future, continue communicating thoughtfully after the crisis-related chatter has died down. Talk about the progress your organization has made as you’ve walked this road together. Share positive outcomes that have come about because of your rebrand. And reinforce how important employees are to your new brand’s ultimate success.

When you manage your organization’s change with thoughtful intentionality, you just might discover that the crisis you never wanted was, in fact, a much-needed catalyst for positive growth.