Crisis Management: Don’t Overreact In A Crisis: Crisis response
“When trouble strikes, Don’t Overreact!” This is a tricky crisis management principle I have been reluctant to offer – in crisis coaching and this column. I have decided to do so because it might occasionally help you.
I have been wary because there is a danger that “Don’t Overreact” will encourage you to do precisely the wrong thing when confronted by a serious challenge – do little or nothing and hope the problem will go away. That would be bad since, in my opinion, the most frequent mistake that companies and individuals make when a crisis strikes is that they act too slowly. Executives often wait too long to make decisions, exercise good judgment, correct a deficiency, or tell their story. That lag allows negative public opinion to take hold. It is like permitting the prosecution to present the case while the defense takes the day off. The jury hears only one point of view. That is why I repeatedly tell companies, “Go fast! Tackle public problems at lightning speed.” Quickness has saved many. Often sheer speed prevented negative news stories. We corrected the problem or satisfied potential victims before the matter could become newsworthy. (If you have never faced a public crisis, it is hard to appreciate how rapidly bad news can sully a decades-old wonderful reputation, or how rapid reaction on your part can protect it.)
“When trouble strikes, Don’t Overreact” might provide precisely the excuse some need to stick their heads in sand. Therefore, please promise yourself to be careful with this philosophy.
Here’s an example of handling a crisis with 1) the traditional “Lightning Speed” tactic and 2) the “Don’t Overreact” approach.
True story. ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, notified a company it had evidence that it was using illegal immigrants. ICE said it would arrest the immigrants, fine the company, and announce its action with a news release. Aside from the apparent mistake, the company worried that news of the violation will hurt business. Here’s were two approaches we considered to address the problem:
Option One – “Lightning Speed” solution: (1) Immediately investigate how it happened and begin fixing the problem, (2) Draft key messages for all audiences – including the media – explaining the predicament and how it would be corrected, (3) Prepare a spokesperson, (4) Notify stakeholders so they wouldn’t learn about it from the press, (5) Issue a news release, and (6) Give a media interviews. Primary advantage – You are perceived as tackling the problem head-on, fixing deficiencies, doing the right thing, being forthcoming, etc. Primary disadvantage – There is a chance you are blowing the case out of proportion and generating bad publicity unnecessarily.
Option Two – “Don’t Overreact” solution: You take steps (1) through (3) on the chance that this issue might move into the public eye early. You are prepared to go public but don’t while you maintain a hair trigger to implement the remaining steps should disclosure begin. As opposed to “lightning speed” you do NOT immediately notify stakeholders, issue news releases, and talk to the press. Instead, you try to meet with the “illegal immigrants” and work with ICE to learn what happened and how, and what you need to do. You are in maximum cooperative problem-solving mode. Ideally, you resolve the dispute quietly. If it becomes public, you respond to media inquiries individually, forthrightly, and without blanketing the area with a news release. Primary advantage – The problem is solved peacefully without reason for public notice. The government is satisfied with the company response, and your reputation remains unblemished. Primary disadvantage – should there be a legal confrontation, the matter drags out and becomes public, then your go-slow attitude might inadvertently give the wrong impression. It could appear that the government “caught” you, you were forced to take action, you are a problem company rather than a problem solver, and you were hiding it all.
Sometimes, “Don’t Overreact” works beautifully. We used it in this case. The illegal immigrants fled before the client could talk with them, and the company proved to ICE that it had not broken the law. Satisfied, the government dropped the issue. The situation never became a public concern because we made the problem go away – quickly. No harm, no foul. (Nevertheless, at all times the company remained ready to explain itself publicly.)
So, what’s the lesson? “Don’t Overreact” is like using a scalpel. A precision tool when skillfully applied – dangerous if mishandled.