Recently, I talked about what to do at the onset of a crisis, but what happens if you can’t immediately get a handle on the crisis? What is your crisis management strategy for living through the day-to-day of a crisis that seems to go on forever? The initial response with employees and customers requires getting to the ground truth quickly and relaying as many of the facts as you can, while taking action.
Some of these same elements continue to be relevant in dealing with the fallout of a long term crisis. But what’s crucial for an effective crisis management strategy is being perceived as a company that is moving forward and not one hoping that maybe after enough time passes, everyone will forgive or at least FORGET. When facing damage from a crisis that just will not die, you need a plan for resolution and rebuilding.
Putting Out the Fire vs. Leading Through the Fire
One of the most challenging tests of a great leader is how they deal with a crisis. To pass this test, it takes two skills: knowing how to put out fires and knowing how to lead through fire.
Every executive has to deal with surprises and being in business likely means you’ll have to put out some fires eventually. Especially as your company expands, those fires will seem bigger, or at least the potential for fires gets bigger. When it comes to putting out the fire of a PR crisis, the name of the game is regaining control.
For example, you may remember that back in 2016, after the shooting in San Bernardino, the FBI demanded that Apple build a “backdoor” giving the authorities the ability to circumvent Apple’s data encryption and unlock any iPhone. In response, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, effectively took control of the story writing this letter: ”A Message to Our Customers.” Tim Cook knows how to put out fires.
However, there are times when you cannot expect to turn things around so quickly or the fires you thought you put out actually continue to smolder. In these cases, leaders must develop a crisis management strategy for continuing to lead even through the crisis.
Here are some tips for moving forward through the fire:
1. Continue to focus on transparency and the truth.
While it can be tempting to say whatever you believe will finally put an end to this crisis, resist the urge to “whitewash” the truth. Keep in mind that following your gut and making quick, impulsive decisions is not a valid crisis management strategy and won’t likely get you through this crisis any faster. Impulsive decisions often result in a further loss of power.
Instead, you’ve got to slow down. It will be uncomfortable to tell the truth and only the truth. The media, your employees, your stakeholders, and your customers will likely push for more information. This is difficult to deal with, especially day in and day out. But if you haven’t worked out all the details, do not speculate. Remember that you are engaged in a game of chess here—not rock, paper, scissors.
2. Work with your team to identify how the firm is preparing to resolve the crisis and (hopefully) prevent another in the future.
One way to relieve the discomfort of having to stick to the facts, when you don’t have many facts to offer, is to take action so that you have more to talk about. Of course, I’m not suggesting you take any random action that comes to mind. Again, impulsive decisions are almost never the right move.
Instead, work closely with your team to come up with new policies and processes that help your company is ready to move forward. If new training would prevent a similar problem in the future, take steps to implement new training programs as part of your crisis management strategy, for instance. Also, consider what would improve both internal and external communications in the future.
For example, Stanford University recently changed their leave of absence policy for students facing a mental health crisis in the wake of a class action lawsuit alleging discrimination. In her message to students, Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Susie Brubaker-Cole, said, “my colleagues and I have learned from our conversations with you, and our campus community is stronger because of your advocacy.” She went on to say, “together, we are making significant progress, and this new policy is a critical component.”
3. Do NOT stop communicating, either internally or externally.
No matter what crisis management strategy you ultimately choose, remember to continue communicating as much as possible. Hiding away and hoping you can weather the storm without facing questions from your employees or the public will only cause more problems.
Instead, keep your leadership visible and ready to answer questions. Have top leaders communicate internally through regular town hall meetings, Zoom meetings, pre-recorded videos, manager talking points, or even just walking through the cafeteria.
By the way, communicating does not mean you have to take every accusation “on the chin,” but certainly continue to address the issue(s) with employees via your identified channels. Also, be sure to proactively offer appropriate updates to customers, regulators, investors, etc.
Communicate, both internally and externally:
- What’s the latest
- What has changed
- What remains the same
Remind your leadership team not to say anything to employees that they wouldn’t say outside the company. This can be controversial, but it’s a reality. Memos leak. Video and audio can be shared. Be transparent and be prepared for what that means inside and outside the company.
4. Focus on sharing your strategy—value proposition.
This final point is perhaps the most important aspect of any crisis management strategy: go back to the heart and soul of your company wherever possible. It’s a good idea to look at this crisis from a 360-degree angle. Remind your customers why you do what you do and emphasize that you are looking at this issue as only a blip on the radar.
The point is not to dazzle or distract from the crisis, but to provide context about what your firm does, why, and how you remain committed to that strategy/mission. Ideally, any new processes, policies, actions are in support of continuing to advance the vision of your organization. With surgical precision, you are removing an imperfection and you will be stronger following this recovery.
Keep this message close at hand, no matter how bleak things look. And always know that every crisis comes to an end eventually. I know that cliches sound so empty when you’re standing in the middle of the chaos and I know you’ve heard them all, but maybe you can take comfort in the words of one great American entrepreneur, Henry Ford, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
If you’re standing in the middle of a crisis right now, don’t go it alone. Find your tribe. Gather your advocates. And build your crisis management team. Fear might leave you feeling paralyzed at the moment, but you can trust the experts at Audacia Strategies. We’ll help you find the right crisis management strategy. Chaos is our brand, so you can bet we know how to walk through the fire. Contact us and let’s get to work!