For a few hours on March 30, 1981, chaos overcame the U.S. federal government.
Ronald Reagan, just three months into his presidency, was struck by a would-be assassin’s bullet. As media worked to rapidly cover fast moving events, the Fourth Estate found a young administration ill-prepared for the circumstances of the moment. Absent a clear crisis communications plan, and with the president in surgery, the vice president on a plane being returned to Washington, D.C., and the district largely locked down following the shooting just blocks from the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously stepped to the White House podium and, unscripted, told reporters asking who was in charge: “As of now, I’m in control here at the White House.” Haig was constitutionally inaccurate while at the same time functionally correct. However, his ill-considered wording set off a flurry of speculation about the severity of the president’s health and contributed, temporarily, to exacerbate a national crisis.
Into the storm
Whether you have news vans swarming your office, incessant phone and email inquiries from eager reporters or angry customers (and sometimes employees; and sometimes all three at once) inundating you with demands for answers, the evidence of a full-blown crisis situation involving you or your business becomes hard to ignore once the word is out.
I’ve stood next to, and sometimes in front of, countless business leaders facing all of the above scenarios (save the Reagan assassination attempt). What I can tell you is these crisis situations are jarring experiences for even the most seasoned business leaders.
In my recent series of articles on crisis communications, I’ve noted there are four essential stages of a crisis: discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis. Here I’ll talk about the most challenging stage: managing the crisis.
Who is in charge here?
Once the underlying issues are front and center for your audience(s), you will quickly find yourself in full-fledged crisis management mode. There is a lot to do, and never enough time to do it.
And if I haven’t beat this drum enough in other articles on this topic, let me again note that this stage is significantly less horrifying if you already have a crisis communications plan in place.
Assuming you do not have a crisis communications plan in place and have not had a lot of lead time to prepare for this crisis scenario, there are several things you will need to do all at once after related details have made it into the wider world. The first is to establish a chain of command.
Often, in a crisis, the CEO may not be the best person to lead the crisis response. He or she may have other mission critical responsibilities or may serve as the spokesperson in some situations. What you’ll need is a small but empowered group to keep the assessment and response process moving. Every organization will approach this differently, but legal counsel and your public relations representative are essential members of this team.
What’s going on?
Next you need to quickly, but accurately ascertain the facts of the situation. Gather as much verifiable information on the situation as possible. This includes speaking to those involved, reviewing any related documentation, and in many cases trying to establish a timeline of events. In fast moving situations, you typically have about 15 to 30 minutes to do so.
While you’re gathering the facts, you’ll also need to prepare a holding statement to respond to inquiring media, as well as for use on your brand’s social media channels. You may also need a slight variation on your holding statement for internal audiences (e.g., employees, managers, vendors, boards of directors, investors, etc.).
Once you’ve compiled your facts, you need to more fully respond to the media beyond your holding statement. Attorneys will advise most business leaders to say little or nothing at all. They are thinking about potential litigation issues, and rightly so. However, as we advise clients facing crisis situations, there is the court of law and the court of public opinion. One of those allows you many appeals. The other, just one.
During any crisis, your legal team and your public relations professionals should work together to determine what can be included in a statement that still addresses any legal concerns. There is always something you can say. Under no circumstances should a business ever issue a “no comment” to a crisis situation. The negative publicity a “no comment” generates can be substantial.
What can we say?
Every good crisis statement should follow another simple formula:
• Acknowledge the situation
• Tell the truth
• Tell what you know/lay out the facts as you have them
• Don’t speculate on what you don’t know
• Highlight any immediate, corrective action the business is taking to address the current issue
• Reference, if possible, what steps you will take to ensure such a situation cannot happen in the future
You also have to decide if your statement will be written or delivered by a spokesperson. If it is written, how will it be delivered? If it’s meant to be read, who will read it? Has that person been media trained? Will they take questions? What will they do if they get a question for which they are unprepared?
Throughout all of the above activity, you also need to ensure your organization is speaking with one voice as well as directing inquiries to the right personnel.
Who is handling customer calls or complaints? Do they have instructions on how to reply to certain issues? What if reporters start dialing your phone tree randomly? Does everyone in the company know what to say and to whom they should direct any random media inquiries? What’s been told to the employees, board members, investors and other staff? What about vendors? Has anyone reached out to them? Who is monitoring your social media? And has that person made sure to cancel any scheduled social content that has the potential to worsen the current crisis situation?
Who is talking about us?
From the outset, you need to begin monitoring what is being said about your company. On social media, in the press, by employees, etc. Your response to any crisis can define the situation in many cases. How the public at large reacts to your statement, what they say online and off, will shape all that comes after for your business. This is precisely why a crisis communications plan is critical. No company that wants to remain in business should be “making it up as they go” while trying to save that business during a crisis. How a statement is received, how it is believed, and how it is shared plays an outsized role in any crisis situation.
To monitor effectively, companies in crisis should use monitoring tools for online media as well as social channels. Google Alerts are a simple, free tool. A range of social media dashboards can help ascertain what is being discussed about your business, which is often not on your business’s social media channels. Your communications team or outside public relations agency should be able to provide other professional monitoring tools to assist with keeping an eye on timely press coverage and social channels.
Talk to employees. Get feedback from managers. Contact your most trusted vendors and ask what they are hearing. It’s also possible, through this monitoring process, that your business may have to issue future statements or updates to the press and others to best manage the situation.
When will we know more?
Crisis events can be brief or linger for weeks. They can also come roaring back into the spotlight months and even years later if managed poorly during the original event. Each crisis has a life of its own, and each is subject to the nature of the situation, time and circumstance. No one should assume a crisis facing their business will only last a single news cycle.
With all things related to business crisis situations, my advice is always to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
In my final note on this series about the four stages of any crisis, I’ll detail what must be done when the crisis ultimately subsides. I’ll talk about how to gather lessons learned to both better the organization and how to begin the hard work of repairing any reputation damage the business and its leadership team might have suffered.