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Monday, September 17, 2012
10 Rules of Crisis Management
By Brian Ellis, EVP/Crisis Communications & whatcanbe Lab
After 10 years in the news business and 20 years counseling clients
how to stay out of headlines when a crisis strikes, I’ve developed 10
basic rules of crisis management.
1. Being Unprepared Is No Excuse. My father was an
officer of the U.S. Army. Although I was never an active Boy Scout,
their motto “Be Prepared” was drilled into my head at an early age. As
I’ve toiled in this industry for the past two decades, it has amazed me
how many companies are totally unprepared to deal with a real crisis.
Most either have a crisis plan that hasn’t seen the light of day for at
least a decade, or the plan is so complicated it would require an army
of engineers to figure it out. Sorry to say, far too many organizations
have found more important items to address, leaving their crisis plans
as to-do items until the day the stuff hits the fan. They say it takes a
lifetime to build a reputation and only a few hours to destroy it.
You’re almost guaranteed the latter, if you fail to plan. Being
unprepared is no excuse; it’s just a reflection of the importance you
place on your reputation.
2. You Know The Threats – Get Ready For Them. In
every crisis training session I conduct, I ask the audience if they can
identify the top five threats facing their company. At first, you see a
lot of heads bobbing up and down, but after a little prodding, they
begin to develop the list. “So if you know the threats,” I ask, “how can
you be unprepared for them?” (See Rule 1.) Crisis management is about
speed. The faster you respond, the fewer problems you will face. In
order to get out of the door quickly, you need to have
fill-in-the-blank, pre-approved, stand-by statements ready to go. I had
one client develop stand-by statements and key messages regarding her
top five threats in an afternoon. It doesn’t have to be time intensive,
but it does have to be a priority.
3. Know What You Want To Say Before They Ask.
Knowing the risks is just part of the battle. Preparing for the
questioning is another matter. The first step in getting ready for any
crisis is identifying your worst nightmare questions. No sugar coating
is allowed, you need to be critical – just pretend you’re Mike Wallace.
If you understand the kinds of questions you’re likely to face,
preparing good key messages is much easier. This exercise should take no
more than 20 minutes for each of your top threats. Within two hours,
you can knock off your worst nightmare questions and develop the key
messages for each of the five top threats facing your company.
4 . Admit That You Are Wing-It-Challenged. In the 20
years I’ve been media training executives (1,000+), I’ve probably run
across one or two who can handle almost anything with little or no
preparation. Based on my math, that means the vast majority of us, or
.998 percent to be more precise, are wing-it-challenged. There is
nothing wrong with being wing-it-challenged. In fact, you are in the
majority. It simply means that you have to prepare before you choose to
stand in front of reporters whose job it is to tear you apart. All it
takes is a few dry runs. Before you face the cameras, have your
colleagues fire some difficult questions at you. You will find that it’s
much easier if you have already heard the questions before.
5. Three Key Messages For Every Crisis. In all of
the years I’ve been working in crisis management, I have come to
understand the true power of the rule of three. As a journalist, I used
it all the time, but it took me nearly a decade to see how it applies to
crisis management. If you remember nothing else from these crisis
rules, remember this: there are three key messages you can depend on in
the first 48 hours of any crisis. It doesn’t matter what the crisis is,
these messages apply:
“We have a plan to deal with …” You really do need to have a plan – that
is why creating a crisis plan in Rule 1 is so important.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to those …” You need to show
compassion for those that have been killed, hurt or simply
“We immediately began our own investigation to make sure that we
…” You need to commit to finding out what went wrong and taking the
necessary steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
For these messages to work, it is critical that you back them up with
actions. Saying you care about your employees doesn’t work if you don’t
demonstrate it. Over the next two weeks, read the quotes from those
facing a crisis and ask yourself if one of these key messages would have
worked just as well.
6. Beware Of The Court Of Public Opinion. Lawyers
play a very important part in any crisis. Their counsel on legal matters
is paramount and should help guide the response. However, there are two
courts in this world, and the court of public opinion is just as
powerful as the court of law. The biggest challenge crisis leaders face
is balancing their decisions based on these two courts. What may work in
one, doesn’t always work in the other. The real question that needs to
be addressed is quite simple – what is the smartest thing I can do to
protect my brand? Winning in a court of law won’t necessarily restore
the public trust you may have lost in the court of public opinion. Both
are important – choose wisely.
7. You’ve Got 48 Hours. The first 48 hours of any
crisis are crunch time. If you are not ahead of the crisis by that
timeframe, it’s likely it will run you over. The reason many companies
fail to manage a crisis properly is because they fail to recognize one
simple fact: when something happens, a communications void is created.
If you don’t fill it, someone will, and the information they share is
often inaccurate or incomplete. Overcoming a negative perception is
nearly impossible, thus the reason to get out there as fast as you can
and as frequently as you can. It’s impossible to over communicate in a
crisis. You can say the wrong thing, but you can never over communicate.
8. Divide And Conquer. In the midst of a crisis,
time flies. A common mistake I see during crisis drills is the concept
of team decisions – for everything. I’m not saying that teamwork isn’t
important in a crisis. But, the truth is, in order to stay ahead of the
crisis, you need to divide and conquer. Once the team agrees on a
direction and the key messages, it’s up to the individuals to execute.
They will need to re-group from time to time, but if each member of the
team remains focused on their core area of responsibility and executes
flawlessly, your chance of success grows dramatically.
9. Get Outside Help. When a crisis strikes, seeking
an outsider’s perspective is paramount. Internal politics tend to take
over in the middle of a major problem as people become more focused on
keeping their jobs, rather than what is best for the company. Good
leaders expect these internal politics and counter them by bringing in
someone from the outside who can look at the issues without bias. This
individual’s role is not to call all the shots. His or her role is to
provide counsel to a team leader – a perspective that few inside the
company can offer. They are free to look at things that many tend to
overlook because of their internal biases. Just because you bring in
outside counsel doesn’t mean you can’t handle the crisis. It means you
recognize your weaknesses and are smart enough to do something about it.
10. Every Crisis Is An Opportunity. Smart leaders
understand that in the midst of crisis, there is opportunity. Don’t be
afraid to seize the moment. Yes, there is risk involved, but that is
true with every opportunity.