Crisis Management & WordWrite’s 5 Core Philosophies
by Robin Rectenwald, on Sep. 8, 2020
Most organizations try to avoid crises. We run toward them.
As go-to crisis communications experts, in any given year, we handle at least 12 major crises for businesses in a bind. About 10 of those never make the news — and then there are a couple that can’t help but be all over it.
Regardless of whether a crisis is under-the-radar or going viral, we've been there. We know how to handle the heat, and over the years, we’ve developed five core philosophies for managing crises. Let this quintet of counsel serve as a foundation for your own crisis management and planning strategy.1. Your authentic story is never more important than in a crisis.
The most valuable asset your organization has before, during and after a crisis is what we call your Capital S Story — the authentic story that answers why someone should buy from you, invest in you, work for you, donate to you or partner with you.
In times of crisis, those affected don’t have any interest in sales slogans, taglines or pretty logos. They judge you based upon what they know to be the character of the organization. How they feel about you before the crisis will influence their interactions with you during the crisis and their willingness to have a relationship with you after the crisis.
We think of this pre-existing rapport as the “bank of goodwill.” The better you can communicate your genuine Capital S Story, the more goodwill you’ll have built up when something occurs that could potentially damage your reputation.2. Communicate process when you can’t communicate progress.
You won’t have all the answers when a crisis strikes — especially if it’s ongoing — but you must keep communicating with your stakeholders. How do you communicate updates when there are no updates? Communicate process. Keep employees and, when appropriate, the public abreast of the steps you’re taking to respond to the crisis and that you’ll share updates once available.
This simple strategy helps you control the story and lets stakeholders know that you are taking action to solve the crisis.3. Identify your most fluent spokespersons and prepare them.
Everyone has seen at least one cringe-worthy interview or on-camera flub (if you haven’t, here are five). These public-facing moments are precious during a crisis, because as Warren Buffet puts it, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Therefore, it’s especially important in a crisis that your spokesperson is pre-identified and trained.
This person will not always be the president or CEO (not everyone is great with a microphone in their face). Depending on the situation, you might need a calm and collected representative from the company to make an appearance or you might need a trustworthy media relations expert to be your gatekeeper.4. Know the difference between an issue and a crisis.
You know the old phrase about mountains and molehills. That’s what we’re talking about here — don’t go turning the latter into the former, because a molehill can turn into a mountain in no time.
In this context, issues are smaller-scale problems that may deserve attention from the business but don’t shut down operations or become widely publicized. Crises, meanwhile, are the large problems that can shatter reputations and damage an organization in an operational or financial sense.
For a broad example, an issue might be a customer posting a one-star review of a product or service — it’s not great, but you can’t please everyone. But if an employee reacts by insulting the customer and that interaction goes viral, suddenly you may be in a crisis.
And thanks to social media, many companies now are susceptible to problems being amplified exponentially by simple shares and retweets. So, if your staff encounters an issue, these are some of the questions you can ask to determine if it can become a crisis:
- Is it emotionally compelling?
- Is it relatable, or is there a conflict?
- Is it easily sharable?
- Could this go viral?
Having a smooth and practiced process in place to evaluate issues and potential crises will help you remain calm even when a bigger issue does arise.5. Most crises are predictable.
A year ago, no one could have guessed the COVID-19 pandemic was going to turn the world upside down just when it did. However, plenty of people did predict that the world would endure another pandemic at some point.
Just because we can’t see exactly when a crisis is coming doesn’t mean you can’t plan for one. Think of oil companies, for example. They don’t know if or when a tanker will crash and spill oil into the sea, but they can reasonably assume it could happen (there are many instances from history, after all). You can believe, just as their tankers are insured for accidents, there are plans for responding to those potential incidents.
Think of the risks in your own industry. Weigh how likely those risks could become a full-blown crisis. Plan for it — and follow those four other philosophies while you’re at it.