Chipotle. Volkswagen. Nate Parker. Companies and individuals who did not have a crisis communication plan in place and did not manage well.
Crises occur without warning and very often without a plan or a team in place to manage them. The resulting environment is disorganized and emotional resulting in poor decisions that exacerbate the problem. The way crises are handled, including strategy and communication, can mean the difference between a business being able to right the ship or, in the worst case, sink it.
And I’m sorry to say it, but today and for at least the next four years, all businesses are at risk for crises that they did not cause, yet may not be able to recover from.
But there are ways to be ready even if you don’t know what’s coming or when it will hit.
First, it’s critical to understand the geopolitical environment. In the US, we are in a unique and unprecedented moment. Intemperate and ill-thought-out statements or criticisms that often have no basis in fact are being spread by leaders via social media and emboldening followers who have buying power. We have just seen this with Carrier, Boeing, and the auto companies.
Second, business leaders must position and fortify the company accordingly. No company is beyond reproach. Bad things happen and the company is often at fault. But what is a corporate leader to do when there has been no accident, no shoddy craftsmanship, or no personal bad behavior? You must decide whether this is a company that has values and stands up for them, or caves at the first gust of wind. I liken this to building structures that can withstand a hurricane. It’s a good metaphor.
Third, there must be a rapid response or crisis team already in place that can quickly develop messages that resonate and apply the discipline necessary for them to function. Sometimes the initial messages are what I call “holding statements.” A good holding statement could be something like, “We are on top of the XYZ issue, take it very seriously, we are working hard to get to the bottom of it.” Also, there always has to be a promise of more information to come. Either the business controls the story, or outsiders will do it for them.
Fourth, identify the best spokesperson. This is often – but not always – the CEO. While the CEO or senior-most leader must make some appearances, another executive who is skilled in delivering information in a variety of press and digital environments might actually be the best regular spokesperson who can deliver reports and handle press conferences, enabling and positioning the CEO and his or her team as the best people to remedy the situation, bringing the CEO in at the most opportune and critical moments.
Fifth, do regular “fire drills.” Practice, practice, practice. It is unpleasant to imagine things could go awry and there are certainly more interesting things to do and other fires to extinguish. But as I always counsel my clients, being prepared is the best bulwark against a downward slide that could result in a drop in the company’s value, at best, or the company’s demise, at worst,
These steps may sound like fear-mongering or hysteria, but in today’s new geopolitical world, being prepared to manage the twin goals of calming and satisfying customers and markets and protecting the reputations of the company and its leadership requires nothing less.