Crisis Management: Act Fast – Case 2: The need for speed
The expression on the employees’ faces was unmistakable. They were NOT glad to see me. My unexpected appearance at their new company made them uneasy. The president was only slightly more comfortable. He admitted that this was the first time in more than a year that he felt that he could sit down with me and actually enjoy a casual lunch.
Why this painful encounter?
From 1995 to 1997 all of us were in the trenches of an ugly public crisis. Two Years! Month after month, we struggled to save their former company. Much of it played out in the glare of the media. It was a 24-hour-a-day 7-day-a-week battle that we ultimately lost. Their former company no longer exists. Now they are quietly moving on with their lives at a new plant. My visit was like encountering a former combat comrade – being reminded of a dreaded past. When I showed up, the nightmare returned. That is not overstatement. It was in their eyes.
In my years as a journalist I had no idea what it was like to be on the receiving end of public castigation for weeks or months. I blithely investigated companies like this one as well as local government, organizations, and individuals. I reported their “sins” and slept well. As a crisis manager, now I know. Like my clients, I sometimes lie awake wondering what else we must do to crawl out of a quagmire and restore public confidence. It is depressing to hope you are doing your best to do what is right only to see it easily swept aside by occasionally glib news reports that simply reiterate your original mistakes and give scant attention to correction efforts no matter how well-intentioned they may be.
Why do I tell you this? What does this have to do with you? I want to plant a seed, an idea that might help you avoid a similar experience sometime in your professional life.
When I lunched with the former client mentioned above we reflected on our failed efforts to save his old company. We immediately agreed on one point. Of all that he did right and wrong, the single most grievous error – the one huge mistake – that set him on the road to hell and made it almost impossible to reverse his decline was he was too slow to recognize the crisis and too slow to resolve it! We both agreed that if, at the outset, bold actions had been taken to fix the situation, he probably could have stopped the problems before they spun out of control. Furthermore, had he acted fast enough to make peace with opponents, we believe he could have settled the matter to everyone’s satisfaction for about 1/4th – one fourth – the millions of dollars that were spent fighting the battle through lawyers, consultants, and regulators. And how do you quantify the heartache and stress that could have been avoided?
Presently, among the several delicate situations I currently juggle, one resembles the grim tale above. It too is playing out in the public eye, and here too, the senior manager involved is fighting for his life. We are having a devil of a time reversing several journalists’ perceptions that the client is a “bad guy.” We are slightly more successful at convincing regulators of the sincere endeavors. So, why are we struggling? Again, the client did not recognize how much needed to be done until three weeks of negative news had already passed and I was asked to participate. The client now knows this, and I warned how difficult this hill will be to climb. The client is grinding out the efforts to resolve problems and restore confidence.
There are two important lessons for all companies from these dramas.
Lesson 1 – Be pro-active in the FIRST story
In my list of ten critical crisis communications steps, the fourth step states that when it comes to dealing with the press – acknowledge fast, provide information, and strive to respond in the first story. If you believe that the news media has interest in you or your company, it is your responsibility to be pro-active. Do your best to learn what they are investigating so that you can tell your side of the story. It is critical to get your comment in the first story. If you don’t, as with the company in this article, then you permit the public to hear the prosecution without the defense. Even worse, you will then have the additional burden of having to overcome that initial negative impression.
Lesson 2 – Common sense at lightning speed
A colleague once said that crisis communications is common sense at lightning speed.
It is incumbent upon you to act rapidly to protect your good name. You cannot afford to dither and equivocate when a media tidal wave threatens to swamp your reputation. Rapid response comes from having a crisis communication plan plus coaching and/or experience in conveying your message to the media.
At the very least, when you see a lurking reporter, learn what is happening, and convey your message that you are attempting to act in the public’s best interest. You may think that is the reporter’s job. It is yours.