On the surface, Chinese ride-hailing service behemoth Didi Chuxing seems to have read the playbook on crisis management.

When it came under a barrage of criticism after a driver in its carpooling service, Hitch, raped and murdered a female passenger last Friday, it said and did what you’d expect a responsible company to do.

It deployed what industry calls the 3Rs of crisis communications. It expressed Regret — Didi extended their condolences to the grieving family and professed deep regret for their shortcoming; Reason — They humbly and touchingly admitted that the unfortunate incident happened because they prioritized growth over safety; and Remedy – They fired two high-profile executives, indefinitely suspended Hitch nationwide, and reprioritized safety in their entire operations.

The 3Rs are sufficient in most instances to neutralize criticism and allow the company to get on the road to recovery. This, however, did not happen. Instead, the criticism of Didi carries on unabated and is starting to look worse by the day.

“Cheng Wei, Liu Qing, are you human? Your apology is even more disgusting, no shame can describe you, you have such a frenzied publicity for yourself, Didi has only one way to go, direct bankruptcy.”

“I will not use Didi alone anymore, too scary” #UninstallDidi#

What went wrong?

Didi’s problem seems to be one of doing too little too late.

This was the second rape and murder involving a Didi driver, after the first took place a mere three months ago in May.

Back then, Didi issued a similarly touching statement promising improvement in its security services. After briefly suspending its carpooling service, Didi introduced a new feature restricting early morning and late night rides to be available only if the driver and the passenger are of the same sex.

The company, however, ignored the more pressing issue at the heart of its security problems: egregious mishandling of customers’ complaints.

Both of the murders involving Didi drivers were preceded by customer complaints of sexual harassments by the drivers. The two were not isolated cases, either. Over the past four years, Chinese media have reported at least 50 sexual harassment and assault cases.

These complaints were met with slow and unsatisfactory responses by the company, eventually leading to the death of its two passengers.

Rather than rooting out its systemic issues, Didi had resorted to quick fixes and, as it said in its statement, “prioritized growth over safety”.

Only now that it’s Didi’s second strike out at protecting the lives of its customers, is the management starting to ask the right questions, including whether they have the right values.

The question is whether it will be enough to redeem the company’s reputation. And even if it is, how long and how costly a process it is going to be.

It’s a brutal reminder of how fragile trust is for companies. Once broken, you can easily lose the goodwill of your stakeholders, guaranteeing an uphill battle to win them back. Often you have only one shot at it and if you stuff up it is difficult to recover.

That’s why in this day and age, having a strong corporate character is extremely important. You need to clearly define what values your company stands for and articulate them consistently across your touchpoints. You also need to make sure that these values are upheld or they become meaningless words.

Devoid of strong values to anchor a company they can easily lose their way, as Didi so painfully found out. It may be time for many companies to put back values in the drivers’ seat of their corporate behavior. 

Written by Sr. Consultant Marsha Imaniara and Associate Ambarwati Dwilo, Maverick Crisis Working Group.

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