“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” – Thomas Paine
As far back as the late 1700s, even Thomas Paine knew that “shrinking from service” during a crisis was a bad idea. That sentiment remains true today.
In my most recent article, “The Biggest Mistake Businesses in Crisis Make,” I noted the mistake in question was not realizing when one is already in a crisis. I also noted the four primary phases of any crisis: discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis. Here I will explore the second phase, disclosure of the crisis.
Stage Two: Houston, We Have a Problem
The disclosure of a crisis can take many forms. The worst is when businesses learn of the situation via the news media. More often, however, it is the business itself that identifies and discloses the crisis by recognizing a problem exists and pulling in the leadership team to debrief and consider options.
The decisions made by leadership during this discovery phase determine whether the situation will be truly negative or if a positive outcome might result for the business. The best-case scenario is for businesses to already have a crisis communications plan. Management must also be willing to address the issue at hand as well make meaningful changes to better the situation for the business as well as its clients or customers. In such situations, there is potential for the business to emerge with its reputation not only intact but possibly improved by demonstrating its responsiveness and sincere effort to make needed course corrections.
However, as Mr. Paine alluded, those who shrink from the responsibilities of meeting a crisis head-on only add to the damage. One need only consider Toyota’s 2010 recall debacle and the company’s initial, repeated denials of any vehicle defects to recognize that failure to take ownership of a crisis situation and create a corrective action plan can do serious damage to a business’ reputation.
As I’ve noted repeatedly, businesses are best protected when they already have a crisis communications plan in place. However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, business leaders must prepare for a crisis by creating a plan either immediately before a storm or in the eye of one.
In such situations, we recommend business leaders, upon discovering the problem, take the following steps promptly:
- Quickly and thoroughly assess the facts of the situation and its practical impact on the business/customers/employees
- Begin planning what steps must be taken immediately, as you also look at long-term strategies to remedy the situation for all parties involved
- With your crisis communications team and attorney, create a small crisis response team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities
- If you don’t have media response and social media protocols, create them
- Craft a response strategy and related messaging that will help ensure your side of the story is made simply and clearly
- If possible, prepare by testing your strategy and responses through simulations with your crisis team
- Consider all your audiences, including your employees, when you craft your messaging and strategy, and tailor the tone and style of each message to each audience — while making sure you are consistent with facts
- Don’t lie, don’t speculate and be sure to put your emotions aside as you prepare to manage the crisis
What is key to remember is the steps listed above must happen in near synchronicity, and they must happen quickly. Depending on the situation, businesses might be faced with a crisis in the public eye with little or no warning. I’ve seen crisis situations emerge where businesses get a day or two of warning before news goes public. However, I’ve also gotten phone calls from C-suite executives who received phone calls from reporters seeking comment on situations these executives were completely unaware of, with only minutes before publication or broadcast of the story.
If you believe the reputation of your business is important, you need to know what steps to take and how to communicate effectively to help protect that reputation.
Lack of planning, poor communication and disorganization in response to a crisis situation can lead to a “bet the business” risk responsible business leaders don’t need to take. Following the steps above when a significant problem arises can help your business weather a crisis.
In my next article, I’ll discuss managing crisis situations, including what to look for, how to respond and how best to manage both the crisis and yourself as you attempt to shape the resulting impact.