Reputation Versus Expectations in the Autonomous Vehicle Industry

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Reputation Versus Expectations in the Autonomous Vehicle Industry
By Jonathan Bernstein & Grayson Brulte

The severity of reputation crises is inversely proportional to the expectations stakeholders have about the organization or individual in crisis. [Jonathan Bernstein]

One of many reasons for close integration of crisis preparedness and operational planning is that as soon as you have made any significant operational decision, each impacted stakeholder – internal and external – is poised to have their expectations set. First by you, and thereafter by a growing number of mentions in traditional and social media and even mundane offline word-of-mouth. If something about your product or services fails to meet those expectations, dismay ensues – and the bigger the gap between expectations and reality, the greater the distress.

Ironically, this tenet regarding expectations disproportionately favors those whose reputations are not stellar to begin with.

Take the tobacco industry. Or Big Pharma. No one expects much from them as consumers other than the substances needed to feed tobacco addictions or the pills that can allegedly fix all our woes. No one is surprised or shocked when someone dies from cigarette smoke, even if a remarkably rare lawsuit is filed. Likewise, few are surprised when a medication is belatedly proved to be unsafe, even if they do get angry over it, because of the pre-existing poor reputation of the overall industry with regard to consumer safety.

On the other hand, let’s look at how the public reacted when Lance Armstrong turned out to be a cheat. Or when one of the world’s most reputable accounting firms turned its collective head when some of its partners were enabling the destruction of people’s futures in the infamous Enron case? Armstrong was disgraced and banned from his sport. Arthur Andersen went out of business – in the Court of Public Opinion, not in a Court of Law. In both cases, expectations had been very high – and the amount of anger associated with that type of reality gap invariably results in more protracted and viscerally angry reputation-damaging reaction.

History has provided the autonomous vehicle industry with a footprint of how not to react to a potential crisis. It is important that the industry as a whole understand the trials and tribulations other industries have faced during moments of uncertainty.

Let’s look at what happened when the Wright Brothers were pioneering the art of flying.

On Thursday, September 17, 1908 Orville Wright took Lieutenant Selfridge, a West Point graduate who was one of the army’s most knowledgeable aviation specialists for a flight. After a few minutes, the plane crashed and Lieutenant Selfridge perished in the crash and Orville Wright was seriously injured. Orville’s passenger that day was supposed to have been President Theodore Roosevelt.

This unfortunate accident did not slow down The Wright Brother’s determination. Instead, Wilbur Wright grabbed the bull by the horns and continued to test, build and modify planes.

While The Wright Brothers faced uncertainty after the crash, they did not let an unfortunate accident turn into a crisis that would derail all of their efforts and an entire budding industry. Instead the brothers went on to change history forever.

Hopefully the same thing will happen today. The big disadvantage innovators face today is social media and the spreading of false rumors that can derail a project and lead to a crisis. In 1908 it was never reported that President Theodore Roosevelt was supposed to be the passenger.

In 2016, this bit of news would have been leaked, causing a potential crisis to unfold. This is why it is very important for cutting edge innovators to have a crisis response plan in place, ready to be activated if a major incident is to unfold due to an accident of an autonomous vehicle.

Accidents will happen and innovators will have to be prepared to react not purely from emotion, but from a predefined plan to ensure the incident does not take on a life of it’s own.

About the Authors

Jonathan Bernstein is President of Bernstein Crisis Management, with more than 30 years of experience in all aspects of crisis management — vulnerability assessment, planning, training and response.

Grayson Brulte is the Co-Founder & President of Brulte & Company and Co-Chair of the City of Beverly Hills Mayor’s Autonomous Vehicle Task Force.

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