Crisis Management

4 Hallmarks of Leadership in a Time of Crisis

4 Hallmarks of Leadership in a Time of Crisis
Image credit: Sarah Crabill | Getty Images
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There was an earthquake in California. Your facility and team were impacted.

News of your imminent merger was just leaked by a young, ambitious journalist who caught your CFO off guard at a networking event.

Your CEO is being led out of your building in handcuffs.

Related: 5 Crisis Management Tips Olivia Pope Would Endorse

These examples could all be real. Companies face such scenarios daily, and some are serious enough to bring down companies. The most recent and very public example is the Wells Fargo debacle, which culminated with the resignation of CEO John Stumpf. Those revelations were almost a textbook case of what not to do when a crisis arises.

So, the message here is: It doesn’t matter how large or small a company yours is; you simply can’t ignore crisis communications.

A great positive example of how to navigate the waters of a crisis? Skittles. The company's swift and direct response to a tweet from Donald Trump, Jr., comparing a bowl of Skittles to Syrian refugees gained the candymaker praise across social media.  

How do you plan and prepare for anything from a destructive tweet to a financial crisis? By having in place a solid crisis communications strategy. A documented, well-thought-out plan with actionable tactics. Just as a winning sports team has a crisis playbook, you can do the same, to help you make any bad-news scenario more manageable, less painful and, hopefully, ensure a positive outcome.

Here are a few tips on how to create a winning crisis strategy.

Have a plan, work the plan.

According to a 2013 study by the Institute of Internal Auditors, only 54 percent of respondents had a crisis plan. That’s insane.

Not having a plan is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day efforts for growing and managing your business, but it’s delusional to think a crisis won’t happen to you.  You can never fully predict when one, or fallout from one, will hit, but I promise you that 90 percent of potential crises are known and you can -- and should -- be prepared.

So, to do that, have your team come up with all types of scenarios -- from the common to the far-fetched.  What are the most frequent negative scenarios in your industry? A disgruntled customer? Violence inside a store or at a facility? Stolen documents? An offensive social media campaign?

Related: 5 Crisis Management Tips for Your Digital Brand

Next up? The actual plan.

  • Create a solid crisis communications plan that includes:
    • Holding statements
    • Emergency contacts
    • An audit you can complete as facts are uncovered
    • Approved messaging
    • Template press releases
    • A social media policy
    • Designated spokespersons (have more than one)
  • Prepare holding statements for every scenario, no matter how unlikely they seem. I’ve had holding statements for everything from a negative social media situation to a terrorist threat. Cover your bases.
  • Designate the team. Ensure you have representation from critical areas like legal and HR and adequate representation from your c-suite.
  • Have a back-up to the back-up. Inevitably during a crisis, the head of legal will be on a vacation with no cell signal, or your CEO will be en route to Dubai and unreachable. The team needs to be enabled and empowered to make critical decisions without having everyone present. Or designate an alternate. The plan should clearly outline roles and responsibilities.
  • Disseminate information. Know how critical information gets to the right people; know the right place and the right time. For example, journalists, customers and others may be calling. Are your receptionists, call center teams or others prepared for questions? Have a plan so everyone knows where information will come from and how to respond, should someone call or even stop in at your company.

When a crisis arises, work with what you know.

Once a crisis hits, the team needs to quickly ascertain the level or significance of the crisis. Sometimes it’s just an issue, sometimes it’s more. And it can change over time or circumstance. So be prepared for anything.

Once you assess the situation, determine the facts. What do you know? Start working with that. Respond quickly, factually, genuinely.

  • Document all of the necessary information, including:
    • A brief description of what happened
    • What is being done to rectify the situation
    • Steps being taken to prevent the situation from happening again
    • Key contacts, names and details, like time, location and anything else that is known
    • A website, social media handle/page or toll-free number for additional assistance or information

Social media is often the first medium where news breaks. The old adage was, respond within the hour. With social, you need to respond in seconds. Social media is an incredibly useful listening and communication tool, so make sure your team is monitoring the conversation online and responding quickly with what is known, plus appropriate apologies or statements. Not responding is not an option.

A word of caution: Don’t let speed be an obstacle for discerning your message. Be quick, but precise. Leave no room for misinterpretation. Once again, refer to the Skittles response mentioned earlier -- be short, quick and to the point.

Create a “war room” for the crisis team. Your war room should be kept away from the core of your business, out of immediate sight and contact with employees, customers or others while the team assesses the situation. Rent a hotel suite if you must, but while you work through the situation, make sure you contain the information. Don’t print to a shared printer the rest of the company uses. Until you know more, being a little cautious, even a little paranoid, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Own it, fix it.

Implement a communications strategy to keep customers, stakeholders, and employees informed of everything that is known. Being up-front and honest is critical. Mitigate issues early on. Wells Fargo failed on all counts. It failed to apologize soon enough and underestimated the gravity of the situation and problem.

If your own company falters, fails or makes a mistake, don’t keep your mouth shut. Own it. Apologize for it. And take steps to make it right, quickly.

Ask for help when you need it.

An outside perspective can provide clarity and remove the emotion or opinion from a crisis. Consider hiring a consultant or third-party expert who can guide you through or speak to media and customers. I’ve worked with CEOs and chief legal counsel who wanted to take the hard line or let their emotions or opinions get in the way of ensuring the company response was quick and contained the right sentiment and messaging.

In contrast, a communications expert has navigated issues like this before and can offer credibility, experience and expertise you may not have within your company.

Related: How to Maintain Clients' Trust While Managing a Crisis

Above all, the biggest mistake you can make in a crisis situation is doing nothing. Be prepared, work the plan, respond quickly and take appropriate action -- lead. Your customers and your team may even thank you for it.