Don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” a phrase coined by Rahm Emmanuel while he was White House chief of staff, has become a point of discussion among crisis communications experts and enthusiasts. Is there such thing as a “good crisis?”
To the average government and business leader, a better way to look at the issue of crisis management is to approach the topic from the point of not letting a good crisis waste you. Emmanuel’s point that a crisis can prove useful in some ways is valid, if it is handled properly.
No incident brings to mind the importance of critiquing leaders in their moments on the hot seat than that of the Carnival cruise ship Splendor fire of 2010. Most people agree that Carnival Cruise Line CEO Gerry Cahill and his team did an outstanding job by setting up a command post not in the plushness of a corporate atrium, but on the dock of the very port the ship sailed from. His timely news conferences, with the world’s press hearing updates straight from the mouth of the company’s top man, was a perfect example of sending a clear message in a time of trial.
As images of passengers eating Spam out of cans were broadcast to the world, I was glued to my TV telling him, “Gerry, get on a boat or helicopter and jump aboard that ship and ride this out with the passengers.” I don’t know if it was logistically possible, but think of the images of a corporate CEO enduring what his customers were going through. I’m sure that he would have gotten an earful from disgruntled passengers, but hopefully you understand the point of making it a habit to always be on the lookout for your leadership moment.
Having a crisis communications plan that is established, documented and trained-on is critical for today’s leader. The elements of the plan should come from the five assumptions General Electric CEO Jack Welch wrote about in his book, “Winning.”
Assumption No. 1 — The problem is worse than it appears. This allows the leader to outrun the totality of the predicament and formulate worst-case scenarios that spur creative thought towards ending the crisis sooner.
Assumption No. 2 — There are no secrets. Everyone will eventually find out everything. What a painfully true statement. Heed his advice and get everything out in the open from the beginning.
Assumption No. 3 — You and your organization’s handling of the crisis will be portrayed in the worst possible light. The immediate media and public opinion onslaught can and will sway emotions toward your organization that won’t be favorable. Don’t dig your hole deeper than it has to be.
Assumption No. 4 — There will be changes in processes and people. Almost no crisis ends without blood on the floor. How true is that? But take heart. Those changes have been the salvation for some companies and their long-term growth strategies.
Assumption No. 5 — The organization will survive, ultimately stronger for what happened. The maturity and experience gained from the ordeal of a crisis can be very valuable for future planning and response to other incidents. Try to focus on what the experience is going to give you instead of what it is going to take away.
When trying to differentiate between crisis management, leadership and communications, it is amazing to discover how they are one and the same when the crisis occurs. In my opinion, the leadership and management provided in a crisis is solidified through the communications process. When most people, families or organizations experience a potentially damaging crisis, they are immediately focused on correcting the problem and preventing further damage to themselves. However, there are others in the picture with a presumed vested interest — namely victims, lawyers and the media.
How we deal with each can make or break an organization. Having a crisis response plan and team to implement it is very important, but choosing to abandon a well-conceived plan and winging it in the heat of battle will cost you every time.
On his blog, Mr. Media Training, Brad Phillips gives “Seven Rules to Remember When a Crisis Strikes.”
1) You will suffer in the short term. Like Welch’s account of the immediate effect the crisis will have on you or your organization, Phillips believes that a well-handled crisis can enhance an organization’s reputation, increase its stakeholder loyalty and add to its bottom line.
2) Communicate immediately. It’s important to get out in front and do your own talking. Inform interested parties that, if nothing else, you are aware of the situation and will share information when it’s available.
3) If you don’t talk, others will. Reporters need information based on broadcast deadlines, and they’ll take the information from whomever is talking.
4) Saying “no comment” is the same as saying “we’re guilty.” Many leaders have the tendency to withhold comment until they have more information. The public can perceive “no comment” as a sign that the company is out of touch with the situation or as a proxy admission of guilt.
5) Your response needs to be about the victims. When BP CEO Tony Hayward told reporters, “I’d like my life back,” the media and dissenters had a field day painting the oil spill incident as a class warfare fiasco. Crisis leaders should always focus their public comments on the victims and not give the media a stick with which to beat them.
6) Facts are not enough. Facts can get obscured by perceptions. The crisis leader should, above delivering accurate and timely truths about the incident, strive to make sure that the stakeholders have their concerns addressed in a broader range than just that of facts and figures.
7) Get it all out. Members of the media are experts on digging deeper into a story and finding sources to fill in the blanks of the information presented to them. When suspicions start to arise that all the information is not being presented, people will start to fill in the void with rumors, gossip and unverified information.
Leadership is tough enough when times are going good. When, not if, crises occur, the leader’s response can determine many long- and short-term outcomes and can shape the future of the company, church or even the family. You can better prepare by observing the mistakes and accomplishments of others who have found themselves in the arena of a scandal or disaster. Your leadership moment could come in the wake of a crisis, and your preparation and the ability to calmly manage the situation can determine that your moment be cast in a positive light.
Chief Jones is a 25-year veteran of crisis situations. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Mercer University and master’s degree in public administration from Columbus State University.