When a crisis hits, it’s usually something external, an incident that affects the reputation of the company and has serious public repercussions.
Whether it’s a safety incident, a product failure or a dubious business practice, people’s attention is immediately drawn to the outside world as the crisis plays out and journalists start calling in.
But what about behind the scenes? It’s a challenging thing to face a crisis, especially a major one, and it can have immediate and unpredictable effects on everyone from the most junior employee to the CEO. Stress does different things to people, and stress with reputational and personal consequences even more so.
As a communications professional, what can you do to help manage this, even while the crisis is occurring? Here are three quick tips.
Primum non nocere – First, do no harm
The first thing to remember is what doctors are traditionally taught early in their careers – primum non nocere, or ‘first, do no harm’.
Whatever you do, however the crisis evolves, and no matter what people are telling you, try not to make the situation worse, either now or in the aftermath.
This can be harder than it sounds. When you potentially have injuries, deaths or scandals on your hands, and when senior executives’ careers are on the line, it can be tempting to make short-term decisions that will come back to haunt you and make any recovery a lot harder.
Think of Nixon and Watergate as a classic example – the original burglary plan was ill-conceived and illegal, but the cover-up made things so much worse.
In the heat of battle, it’s important to remember that the interests of senior executives and the interests of your company are not always synonymous. If an executive has made a foolish decision and they’re trying to protect themselves, note that any advice they give you may be more in their self-interest than your company’s long-term good.
Keep an open mind, but be wary, even a tad cynical, about people’s motivations – and never forget that the overall interests of the company must come before any individual.
The personality question
With these guiding principles in mind, you need to quickly identify what kind of people you are going to be dealing with as you manage the crisis. Are your key stakeholders calm, thoughtful types? Or are they emotional ranters and ravers, who are likely to take any affront to their management of the company very personally?
Once you know this, you can start planning strategies to help them through. Ask yourself, under what circumstances will they make the right decisions, and what situations will pressure them into mistakes?
Think about how you will communicate with them. Are they people who prefer written information, or is it better to talk to them directly? Are they more likely to listen to advice in a big meeting, or in a face to face conversation? Some executives like to show off in front of a large group and demonstrate they’re in charge, but if they don’t have the right facts or insights and are prone to shooting from the hip, could this be the road to ruin?
It’s not the same solution for everyone, but finding what works for each stakeholder will make your life a lot easier.
These are just a few tips among many other aspects of crisis management, but bear them in mind as you seek to mitigate the damage, and remember the wise words of one American expert: “The secret of crisis management is not good vs bad, it’s preventing the bad from getting worse.”