Last year I attended a crisis management conference where one of the key speakers was the Group Privacy Officer for Shell, Helen Graham. She said something in relation to crises which at the time seemed to me so blindingly obvious that I felt it barely needing saying at all, but which in retrospect I appreciate much more.
“Many crises could have been avoided if their source was identified earlier”.
Pick virtually any crisis investigation and it will invariably point to something that was missed early in the timeline before it grew into a full-blown incident.
Which is why if your organization is taken by surprise when a highly disruptive event occurs it’s crucial to get to the core of the problem during the very early stages – during the so-called Golden Hour immediately after – as it will put you in much stronger position later on..
Catching the worm
Since the advent of social media, so-called citizen journalism and 24-hour news media there is some debate about whether the golden hour still exists in a literal sense [see ‘The Demise of the Golden Hour’ – Crisis Response Journal, November 2017 ] but certainly the principle that what you do and say in the early stages plays a pivotal role when tackling a potential crisis is as true today it’s ever been, even if you haven’t got a stopwatch in your hand counting down to 60 minutes from when news of the dilemma is first revealed.
When loss of trust happens, you’re either already in a crisis or on the brink, so anything you do to maintain or restore trust may help you avoid catastrophe.
You need to be the early bird, to catch the worm.
Communication is the Key
Once you and your team have begun to establish the facts and therefore the source of the dilemma it’s crucial to get your short-term communications strategy in place and inform your stakeholders, staff and customers that you’ve got a firm grip and are devoting all your efforts towards solving the problems.
In the timeline of any crisis it’s the really difficult stuff, the ‘hard thinking’, that needs to be done first. Once you’re satisfied that the picture is clearer you must communicate the facts in a clear way –
- Say what you’re going to do.
- Do it.
- Tell people that you’ve done it.
You will need to keep doing that with all your comms on all the platforms available to you – website, social media, external and internal media, leaving nothing to chance.
And yes, depending on the importance of the content, a phone call or one-to-one conversation with your key stakeholders is much more advisable than just sending an email with a score of cc’d names which lies unread in an in-tray for hours on end.
(Remember we all know what a back-covering exercise looks like!)
A true crisis is a complex, fast-moving beast devouring its prey and then moving on to the next potential victim swiftly and often silently while you’re busy elsewhere, which is why it’s essential that your crisis communications plan is clearly written, available to all relevant personnel, up-to-date and regularly tested. It should also be flexible enough to be fleet-footed when a change of direction is required along the way.
Strong, decisive leadership is needed but it’s equally important that the senior team should include at least one person who have the respect and, frankly, the BALLS to challenge the key decisions or opinions of the CEO or senior leadership team..
Yes, it’s the old cliché about every leader needing a trusted but critical friend who can speak truth to power at the right time ; at times of crisis this ‘critical friend’ role is needed more than ever but it’s worth remembering that the prevailing corporate culture needs to be able to facilitate this in the first place.
So what’s the culture like at your organization?
I worked at the BBC for nearly 30 years, much of it in radio, so I’ll use a a metaphor close to my heart – are you , or your CEO, a transmitter or receiver when it comes to communication?
In a crisis you need to be both.
A fearless culture
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Sandra J. Sucher criticized Boeing’s initial public responses to the tragic 737 Max 8 crash and loss of life in Ethiopia.
Without going into the rights and wrongs of her argument I was struck by a wise observation in the comments section by Vikram Khanna which I believe has implications for so many company bosses and management cultures whatever their size or the scale of the crisis they are facing.
“…human error is common in CEO circles as they get blinded by implications, profits, reputation, their legacy etc.
And inevitably CEO Muilenburg would have had a self serving (wanting to look good) PR expert in his ear saying – ‘don’t worry this will soon be yesterdays news and blow over……just keep claiming it is safe’………… not because that is the right advice, but because that is what many CEOs like to hear.
It requires a bit more courage to surround yourself with people who are fearless.”
I have no idea whether Vikram’s speculative comments about Boeing’s CEO are accurate but the his final point about management needing people who will challenge him or her feels right to me having been a manager myself and associated with many over the years.
If the culture at your company is transparent and strong enough to foster such a culture then you’re probably in a better position to tackle a crisis as hopefully your crisis management plan will reflect your actions and values at a glance.
And if it’s not then I’d advise you do some hard thinking now before it’s too late when the Golden Hour clock starts ticking.