Crisis Management: Deadly Crisis – And Surviving It: crisis response
When your organization is in deep trouble you feel like you can’t breathe. You wonder whether you’ll survive. Yet, sometimes you can triumph and even regain glory. Case in point: the following story in which the client’s identity is protected.
My pager went off one Saturday morning. The head of an organization called because his institution was in white-hot trouble. Suspected negligence by an employee had accidentally killed a child. News media from three states had been hammering for three weeks. (When a child dies on your watch, reporters should be on your tail.) Up until that point the basic response was, “no comment. The public assumption about the institution was “guilty.
After briefing me on the facts the board chairman took me to lunch and noticed the faraway look in my eye. I was nervous. Company mistakes, product recalls, management shuffles, layoffs, fires, etc., are one thing, but when a child is dead and your client”s involved this is another magnitude of seriousness.
Fixing the problem was hard. In our first attempt to be open with the media, a journalist violated pre-interview ground rules and went after a spokesperson. When I tried to intervene, the reporter turned his TV camera on me and told viewers that the PR guy attempted to block the interview. One day we invited 13 reporters to hear our efforts to correct problems. All were on site when an attorney concerned about insurance implications told us to call off the whole thing. The chief executive had the courage of his convictions to stand him down and said, “I am trying to rebuild the reputation of my organization and I am not going to let you interfere with it.” Can you imagine the fallout had all those interviews been cancelled?
At rock bottom, here is how this institution slowly restored its reputation. Primarily it invited respected third parties from other states to investigate operations and retrain staff. Third party oversight like this is important. If you think about it, the public will not be inclined to trust you to investigate or improve yourself following an awful mistake. Respected third parties bring objectivity, expertise, and credibility. Their good name serves as surrogate for yours while you painstakingly re-establish it. Explaining this effort was the reason the client called in the media. He was unveiling plans for investigation and repair.
Because a couple of reporters were especially aggressive, the client chose to avoid news conferences. We knew the hostile journalists would drive the rest of the reporters in an unhelpful way. So the chief executive spent hours meeting all media reps one by one. This resulted in stories that followed a bell curve. A few were nasty. A few were glowing as though we wrote them ourselves. Most fell somewhere in the middle and were fair. The public and news heat subsided as headlines appeared announcing operational improvements. Working with regulators, the institution gradually won the necessary approvals to reopen. The former employee implicated in the child’s death was found not guilty in court. Bit by bit, the organization returned to its previous footing.
How are things today? Once upon a time this institution was publicly linked with the name of a dead child. This year, almost a decade later, leaders and staff of this organization won two honors: a gold seal of approval for quality and safety and an award for excellence in performance management.
Yes, sometimes you can survive a dreadful event if you persist in doing what is right. And you can breathe again.