Target. Uber. United. What do these brands have in common? 

In 2019, a college student in South Carolina was murdered after entering the car of an imposter Uber driver.  In 2017, United faced public backlash forcibly removing a passenger from an overbooked flight.  And in 2013, a data breach at Target exposed cards and personal information of 40MM+ people across the U.S.

All of these brands faced an unexpected moment in their history that triggered a significant gap in trust with the communities they serve.  Bad press.  Consumer backlash.  Disgruntled investors. Executives losing their jobs. These moments rattled each company to its core. But they all managed to come out on top using smart strategies that included communication, a focus on the customer experience and partners.

In the past, brands treated “trust triggers” or these type of events as communications challenges. PR teams sprang into action, crafting the right message to assuage the right audiences. But the times have changed: While communication is key, without the right strategic shifts and actions underpinning the message, it will look merely like a witch’s hat on Halloween – nothing more than a costume well suited for the occasion.

Here’s what is spooky: These types of events are not uncommon any more.  We see them happening every day.  One that’s particularly close to home right now in the San Francisco Bay Area is PG&E and the California fires. And they are very likely to happen to your competitors.  Or even your own brand.  Be warned!

“Shadows of a thousand years rise again unseen, voices whisper in the trees, ‘Tonight is Halloween!'”

— Dexter Kozen

So how should a brand respond when it encounters this type of event?  The responses of Target, Uber and United help inform an effective path forward:


1. Communicate fast and frequently:

Show your concern, commitment and solutions to the breach at hand. Develop clear, helpful communications that explain what went wrong, how you’re fixing it, and what you plan to do to prevent future occurrences. Following the event, Uber immediately issued a statement expressing its condolences and announced its Campus Safety Initiative. Moreover, communications continued to address this topic over time, including educating consumers of in-app safety features and including safety tips as part of its ongoing customer communications.

2. Update the product and experience:

Prove that you take customer trust seriously. Following the event, Uber immediately launched a “check your ride feature” and created dedicated on-campus Pickup Zones. Uber also developed features that give riders the option to share their location with friends and family and easily access 911 assistance directly in the app in case of emergency. By putting the rider in the driver’s seat for enhanced safety controls, Uber inspires trust and calls attention to its efforts to improve the safety of the platform.

3. Leverage partnerships:

This helps rebuild credibility with consumers after a breach in trust. Partnerships can signal an organizations’ intent and increase effectiveness in resolving an issue. Following the event, Uber announced a Campus Rides Program partnership with the University of South Carolina and made a donation of $100k to International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to increase education efforts across campuses.  Moreover, Uber continues to partner with universities across the U.S., leveraging the success of the South Carolina Campus Rides Program.

Final Thoughts

In an increasingly transparent and connected world, every brand is at risk of encountering a significant breach of trust with customers and the communities it serves.  The trick to surviving (and even thriving!) after a breach is to think and act differently, not only right after the event, but also on an ongoing basis – integrating it into how you run your business and brand. In fact, the most successful brands have changed their DNA to reflect this experience to the benefit of their customers.

Keep this checklist handy… Here’s hoping you never need it, but it’s always better to be prepared than caught off guard.