10 Rules of Crisis Management
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 inconvenienced.
“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.