10 Commandments of Successfully Managing a Business Crisis

Commandment number one is beginning preparing before anything has gone wrong.

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By Tor Constantino

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Uncertainty and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand. The one certainty that every enterprise owner can count on is they will experience a crisis in some manner, form or shape that impacts their business.

A general definition of a crisis is an internal or external event, or series of events, which have the potential to negatively affect the organization or key players.

The variety of crises that can adversely impact business continuity are legion and can include trigger events such as: natural disasters; socio-economic shifts; criminal acts by the company or against it; regulatory or government engagement; labor or personnel challenges; product safety issues; cyber attacks as well as any other number of potential problems that can arise.

Because every crisis and business is different, there is not a single approach to handle every situation. But, here are 10 crisis commandments that will greatly increase your likelihood of your business making it through the metaphorical or literal storm.

1. The best time to address a crisis is before it occurs.

This basically means that Noah didn't build the ark when it was raining. Business owners need to at least consider the things that can go wrong across their organization before things do go wrong.

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2. The best organizations plan for crises they have not yet faced.

This seems obvious, but it's difficult to scenario plan beyond your organizational comfort zone. Leaders that take this step are better prepared when bad things happen.

Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader

3. It's inevitable.

Understand that it's not a question if your organization will face a crisis, but rather when, how and why -- preparing for it is a best business practice.

4. Any degree of planning is more helpful than none.

You can't plan for every crisis or issue; however, I've witnessed firsthand that the very act of merely discussing various scenarios with colleagues helps improve the alignment and response following a trigger event.

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5. One bad thing leads to another.

Be aware that one crisis can and may generate a separate crisis or crisis cascade. Many leaders and communicators fail to consider this potential domino effect of disaster -- don't be one of them.

6. Everyone needs to be involved.

From a communications standpoint, it's vital to have regular meetings across the entire organization (vertically and horizontally) to help identify early warning signals and bubbling trigger events of a full-blown crisis.

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7. Examine your vulnerabilities before anything goes wrong.

Scrutinize your organization with a critical eye to identify likely areas of vulnerability or institutional blind spots that prevent you from accurately assessing situational risks. Keep in mind that no matter how tough you are at evaluating and judging your organization before a crisis hits, the media and affected audiences will be even tougher during the throes of turmoil. Think of former CEO of BP Tony Howard.

8. This is no time to be optimistic.

Make sure that your issues management plan meets the "worst case scenario" -- in other words, expect the crisis to occur on a holiday or weekend; knocking out the most reliable, high-profile, well-performing, "taken-for-granted" system you have.

9. A have a plan to tell everyone what's going on.

Regardless of the crisis or issue, consider all possible stakeholders in advance and get contact information for them. Communicate with them as needed during the crisis, and reach out to them once the crisis is resolved to conduct a post-mortem evaluation with those stakeholders to determine key learnings and best practices for the future.

Related: 15 Ways to Lead With Effective Communication

10. Say as much as you can without causing panic.

Tell as much of your story as you can, as early as you can without over promising and under delivering. You must also strike a balance that avoids overcommunicating too early so as not to create a panic.

For instance, I used to work at a telecommunications company where a lightning strike knocked out 911 service for half of a major city population. We had to immediately notify local police and fire officials, as well as dispatched hundreds of our technicians with multiple cell phones in our service trucks across affected neighborhoods and city blocks, so that residents could walk up and use the cell phones for emergency calls. The entire issue was resolved within four hours but pandemonium could have ensued if we had communicated 911 service was down without taking the aforementioned steps first.

Having said that, a brief notification within the first hour or so of a trigger event is critical to ensuring the successful navigation of a crisis, fully recognizing the fact that during those early hours information is usually sketchy, incomplete and possibly inaccurate -- even for those closest to the event.

To effectively respond early, it's good to prepare some brief, general talking points in advance that can be adapted to a specific crisis situation or circumstance as needed. Using pre-approved, general information accomplishes several objectives including:

  • Buying time to develop a more thorough response and more specific Q&;A list
  • Enabling the leadership team to gather more information from those closest to the trigger event assess breadth and scope of the event
  • Reducing the risk of information retractions and re-statements later that often result from organizations sharing rumor, speculation or hyperbole too early in a crisis
  • Helping foster the perception that your organization is responsive, engaged and working toward resolution

As a business owner, you wouldn't think of running a company without the necessary insurance covering property, inventory and liability. While those are valuable assets, think of crisis communications planning as insurance toward your organization's most valuable asset---its reputation.

Tor Constantino

Former Journalist, Current PR Guy (wielding an MBA)

Tor Constantino is a former journalist, consultant and current corporate comms executive with an MBA degree and 25+ years of experience. His writing has appeared across the web on Entrepreneur, Forbes, Fortune and Yahoo!. Tor's views are his own and do not reflect those of his current employer.

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