Prepare for Trust-Demolishing Disasters

by Jakob Nielsen on March 8, 1999

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen's column on trust and Web use.

Security breeches or PR blunders will happen. You should have plans in place to act immediately to quell scandals before you are smeared across the Internet. The net is the most powerful communications medium yet and it is merciless to transgressors.

Problems can be of many types:

  • Misguided policy (usually instituted by a short-sighted middle manager minding his or her own corner of the business without proper consideration for the long-term impact on the customer relationship). A classic example is the way eroded its credibility by taking payments to recommend books. The immediate (next-day) reaction of Amazon's top executives is a great example of constructive crisis management: the flawed policy was terminated and the damage to the customer relationship was mended by an offer to refund any purchase that had been based on a paid recommendation. Note the benefits of recanting immediately rather than risking further damage by a protracted defense.
  • Privacy violations or security break-ins, whether real or imagined (the press often plays up cases where a cracker succeeded in accessing non-sensitive files).
  • Damaged merchandise, delayed shipments, or any of the other problems known in traditional business.

On the Web, you will even be hit by other companies' problems. When users get scared about the behavior of one website, they will project similar doubts onto other sites. They may not understand whether a problem is due to one specific company or whether it is inherent or generic for the Web. And in any case, once their suspicions are raised, they will start to doubt other sites and reduce their level of trust.

Thus, even though the company with a problem is the one that needs to react the fastest, other sites may still need to mollify their own customers.

Be prepared.

See Also

Design guidelines for the PR section of a website, including advice for using the site for crisis management and addressing credibility-related news and events.

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