The single most valuable and fragile asset of any organization is its reputation; it takes years to build, but only days for it to be irreparably dismantled.

The reputation of eco-friendly personal health products manufacturer The Honest Company, founded by movie star Jessica Alba, is in the hot seat regarding a wave of complaints that its sunscreen doesn’t work.

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The next few days will be critical as to how the Honest brand stands up beneath the withering heat of scrutiny. So far, the company has issued a statement that suggests little relief for its customers. The statement, as told to People magazine, reads:

The Honest Company is committed to providing safe and effective products, and we take all consumer feedback very seriously.

Our Sunscreen Lotion was tested, by an independent 3rd party, against the protocols prescribed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's (FDA) monograph for over-the-counter sunscreen products. The results showed that our product is effective and safe for use as an 80 minute water-resistant (FDA's highest rating), SPF 30 sunscreen lotion in accordance with FDA regulations when used as directed (Shake Well. Apply liberally and evenly 15 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply after 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, immediately after towel drying and at least every 2 hours).

The number of complaints received on our own website about our Sunscreen Lotion constitute less than one half of one percent of all units actually sold at honest.com.

While perhaps factually correct, the statement is completely tonedeaf regarding the crisis --- and, make no mistake, this is a public relations crisis – because it ignores the customer. Understandably, the company might be hesitant to publicly apologize or admit guilt as a protective step to avoid potential legal liabilities down the road. But the reality is that the company may suffer more damage to its brand in the court of public opinion in the short term than it would in the court of law if the organization continues down this path.

Specifically, the last sentence of the official statement weirdly calls out the fact that the number of complaints the company has received regarding its sunblock lotion is "...less than one half of one percent of all units actually sold.” That sentence is ill-advised in that it seeks to minimize the scope of the problem, is dismissive of those who have already complained, comes off as condescending, seems to contradict the Honest brand promise and is not consumer focused at all.

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To be consistent with the "Honest" brand image, the company needs to at least consider the following steps:

1. Be proactive.

The company should issue another statement on its blog or web site, instead of responding individually to media outlets, that says something along the lines of "We deeply regret and recognize this serious issue and will look into it closely including: careful review of the 3rd party safety analysis, protocols and results as well as our own product's formulation...etc."

The company should not be overly definitive at this point because it doesn't know what it doesn't know. What if there is a manufacturing problem or formulation issue? The company doesn’t know so it should leave itself some room to find out.

As of the writing of this article – there is still no statement on the company’s media/press page regarding this issue.

2. Empathize with the pain.

Even though the company doesn't know everything about the cause of the sunburns it does know people are hurting from burns reportedly associated with its product.

While the company can still standby its product, this is where it needs to set up a hotline, email account, Twitter hash tag or Facebook page specifically dedicated for this issue to allow customers to file their complaints and seek product refunds.

This will help the company better understand the scope of the crisis, interact with customers and potentially defuse further negative social media eruptions because it’s actively engaging customers with a bi-directional forum.

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3. Offer a solution.

There is no way to immediately “spin” a crisis into something good. However, The Honest Company is uniquely positioned to offer any customer who files a complaint a free sample or e-coupon of its "Face+Body Lotion" to help soothe the actual sunburn pain they suffered.

The company might consider adding another high-value coupon (maybe $10-$20) to its mea culpa offering to be used for other Honest products.

Not only is that a nice thing to do, but it would give the company an opportunity to capture the email address of “angry” customers and rebuild a relationship with those vexed individuals over time. Ultimately, it would increase the chances of transforming them into happy customers and limiting their negative word of mouth marketing against the Honest brand.

These types of steps are much more congruent with the brand image that The Honest Company strives for and hopes to project. The key is to treat a customer the way that you'd like to be treated; too many companies forget that during a crisis.

I honestly don’t know why that frequently seems to be the case but hopefully The Honest Company is able to course correct and get it right – soon.

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