Do you want to become a respected crisis manager? If so, keep reading.
By Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong APR CCMC CAMT
In 1973 on my second week at work, I had to manage an alleged “kidnapping” crisis. News stations from as far away as Nashville and Evansville convened on the front-steps of the trailer where my office was. For more than 8-hours, we were the center of regional attention by every news media organization in a 100-mile radius, and, of course, by our community and our customers. Newspaper, radio and television stations were camped out waiting for my every word. That may sound exciting, but believe me it was not.
My employer and I survived that crisis and learned from it. The experience that I gained shaped the way that I have handled a crisis situation ever since. At that time, I worked for a large federal agency: today my firm works with small businesses, large corporations, universities and government agencies. Our job is to ensure that they have adequate plans to handle any crisis in advance. In order to do this, they must have trained and respected crisis managers within the organization.
It seems as if it were only yesterday that we were all engaged in learning how to deal with a 24-hour news cycle. Today, it makes no difference if you are a “Mom and Pop” convenience store or a Fortune 50 company. When a crisis occurs, you become the focus of the news and social media, and of your employees, customers and the community. You become a 24-hour news story. How you handle a crisis makes the difference in whether you resume work and prosper, or ultimately are perceived negatively in the public’s opinion. Being perceived negatively is not a good thing and can lead to litigation or even bankruptcy.
With the onset of citizen journalists, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube, the proliferation of blogs and smartphones, innuendoes, gaffes and just out and out blunders can achieve viral status in minutes. Don’t believe me? Just ask Vice President Joe Biden!!! Remember when he said, “This is a f#@%ing big deal” in describing Obamacare?
Protecting your brand and reputation in a global environment requires a multifaceted strategic plan of action that starts within the organization and is executed before brand/reputation damaging occurs.
The proverbial “seat at the table”
How many of us who have worked in management have wanted, and often fought for, that “proverbial seat at the management table?” Having to fight for a seat as a crisis manager may seem ironic these days since all polls show that that the public wants executives, managers, and especially government officials to be more transparent and more engaged. The public expects officials to have communication and crisis management skills, and they want them to actively seek communications and crisis management counsel.
Although most recently the President has said that “…there is not a smidgen of scandal…” in his administration, the polls show that his own behavior has not served him well as a crisis manager.
President Barack Obama and his administration would be wise to follow the advice and counsel of one of his often mentioned heroes, President Abraham Lincoln. “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
I have always counseled that when you make a mistake and you know you have, simply own up to it; be contrite and humble, apologize, and be very clear that you are doing so.
Then immediately commit to fixing that mistake. The public, be they the American people or your customers or clients, will respect you for such behavior and will most likely be more forgiving.
A study that the public relations firm SpencerStuart and Weber-Shandwick conducted in 2010 found that “whether management says so or not, when a crisis occurs, management is expecting corporate communications crisis managers to be proactive internally, to coordinate key stakeholders, and to develop and implement a communications plan.”
In the more progressive organizations, crisis managers within the communications group have begun to rise in the ranks to executive positions. Some companies even have their own Corporate Communications Officer (CCO). These communication executives, who often serve as the organization’s crisis managers, must understand the business and its financial operations. They must serve as confidants, coaches and cheerleaders.
As Renee T. Walker, an Accredited Public Relations (APR) professional says in The Strategist Summer 2012, “…being adept at each of these roles can help crisis managers manage the often competing agendas of the executive team.”
No, mam it is not just about the facts
Just because we may have the “facts” as best we know them during a crisis, and we can manage the media to some degree, it does not mean we have the management or the public’s support. Knowing the “facts” also does not necessarily demonstrate transparency or promote integrity and social responsibility. We might have a “seat at the table” as far as the public and management is concerned; however, we have yet “to win their trust.”
It is one thing to say, as the current Presidential administration has said for more than 6-years, that “we are the most open and transparent administration ever”. It is another thing entirely to actually exhibit the behaviors that back up the rhetoric.
The public will expect you to “walk your talk.” This is where a veteran and experienced crisis manager and communicator within the organization becomes exceptionally valuable. Such veterans understand the importance of navigating their way through the “court of public opinion”, while staying out of the “court of law.” By doing this, they protect their organization’s reputation/brand while managing potential litigation.
As one of my colleagues who is currently the Director of Public Relations at one of the nation’s largest utility once said, “…this requires a delicate balance and the ability to work with a legal team as well as the communications team.” Such an experienced crisis manager/communicator is greatly coveted for their knowledge and experience. This knowledge and experience will enable them to address the potential impacts on revenue, stock value, reputation, competition, market share, and executive compensation.
When in doubt, go on the offense
Invariably, when a threat is perceived or an attack on the organization occurs, our organizations and their executive leadership either want to stand and fight (we will sue the bastards) or run away from the situation.
In behavioral psychology, we simply refer to this as the “fight or flight” response, the throwback behavior to our early days as cavemen. We see this all the time. Our organizations either “ignore the issue,” hoping it will go away, or aggressively attack the accuser to deflect the issue. Resorting to the time honored and terribly ineffective “no comment” invariably makes the organization appear guilty as charged!
Failing to feed the media the information or ignoring the situation by not commenting just increases the public’s interest and objections. All of these responses ultimately result in heightening the negative reputation/brand and in preventing the organization’s voice from being heard in the media and marketplace.
Sadly, many of our friends who are lawyers don’t understand that it is important to “manage the court of public opinion”, even if the organization is likely to end up in the “court of law.” When you don’t manager the court of public opinion, you can and often do lose in the court of law! I have often advised my clients to “do the right thing” because when the public sees you trying to do so, they will be more understanding and lenient in their judgment.
Ms. Walker says that a well-planned and well-executed offense enables the organization to insulate its reputation/brand. This offense will support its future litigation strategy, demonstrate its values, and show compassion and empathy along with integrity in the media as well as in the court of public opinion.
Remember that “kidnapping” that I handled in 1973?
My organization came out of the media spectacle and the crisis with the respect of the public because we immediately stepped to the plate with a thoughtfully tailored offense:
- We reassured the public that, “we were cooperating with all the law enforcement agencies to ensure the incident was resolved as quickly as possible.”
- The safety of the victim, the alleged kidnappers, our customers and employees were of paramount importance to us and would not be compromised.
- We understood and empathized with the parents of the victim and assured them we would reunite them as soon as possible “once the situation was under control.”
- We assured the media that “we would be open and transparent and forthcoming with verifiable information as soon as we could”, and we asked them to not speculate or use information other than that provided by us since it could place the victim and the investigation in jeopardy. They did honor this request by the way because we “walked our talk.”
- We updated the media (and therefore the public) every 60-minutes, even if we had no further details.
“The Art of War”
‘Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought,” said Sun Tzu author of The Art of War. Organizations with a well thought out and executed internal/ external plan of action, as well as a communications protocol for a crisis situation, will ultimately successfully manage the crisis. However, just having a plan is not enough. You must develop a mutual trust with the executives and leadership before you can successfully, as the crisis manager and communicator, direct the response of the organization during the crisis.
Tenet – something accepted as important truth: an established fundamental belief.
There are seven basic tenets that a crisis manager and communicator must follow in order to help an organization successfully survive a crisis:
- You must become “a coveted advisor.” A coveted advisor understands the organization from many different perspectives. He or she must understand the culture and strategic alliances within human resources, the legal team, operations, supply, transportation, and others. Only then will he be able to ensure that they can help management navigate their way to the end of a crisis. A coveted advisor provides good counsel before, during and after the crisis and has developed sufficient rapport and respect to “speak the truth even when it hurts.”
- You must know those people who can “influence the situation.” Within any organization there are those people who can exert significant influence during a crisis due to their title, their position, their skills of persuasion or simply because they are “natural born leaders.” To be a successful crisis manager, you must know who these people are, how they operate and what motivates them.
- 3. You must build “strategic alliances.” You need to know the more influential people within the organization, and you must also build mutual trust, respect and relationships with them. A strong support system and informational, intelligence gathering network is essential to be successful in handling a crisis.
- 4. You must become “partners with your legal team.” A strong, respectful and supportive relationship between the communications and legal team can literally be a game changer when building strategy during a crisis.
- 5. You must “understand the rules of engagement.” Before engaging in the management of a crisis, you must understand how and who within an organization makes the decisions. Who shares information? Who secrets information? What is the reward and penalty system for each? What are the organization’s values? Once you understand these rules, you stand a better chance of successfully managing the crisis.
- 6. You must implement a “positive and affirmative response strategy.” The going always gets rough with emotions running high during a crisis. The exceptional crisis manager will always maintain composure and objectivity, make careful decisions, and always consider the short and long term implications of those decisions. Managing that always-delicate balance between the legal and communications teams is also imperative. It is always important to help your executives understand what the media is doing, what the media’s needs are, and what the “media speak” is really all about, in terms they can understand.
- 7. You must ensure that “expectations are realistic and aligned with outcomes.” Crises are challenging. The expectations of your management must be realistic and based on the circumstances of the crisis. Those expectations must be directly aligned with the organization’s strategic priorities, basic tenets, values and philosophies.
Ms. Walker notes that often the right response in a crisis will seem counterintuitive to the leadership team. However, if you have become a coveted and respected crisis manager, you will have come to know and understand the influencers within the organization, and you will have built strategic alliances with them. Then and only then will the leadership team heed your advice and counsel.
To paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln, during a crisis is not the time to try and fool any of the people.
Sources: www.ldarrylarmstrong.com; The Strategist Summer 2012
Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong is a crisis and emergency communications and management consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1.888.340.2006. Dr. Armstrong is available for speaking engagements and conducts training workshops. Visit his website at www.ldarrylarmstrong.com where you can find even more free resources including the FREE white paper The 11 Steps in Crisis Communications.