Crisis Management: Follow The Reassurance Principle Out Of A Crisis: Crisis response
When a crisis or emergency threatens your reputation and you want to know whether your rescue plans are sound, ask yourself this question. “Will my actions and words reassure those who depend upon me?” (“We are concerned,” “we are taking control,” “we are fixing the problem,” “we are meeting with our opponents,” “we have brought in outside experts to help us get to the bottom of it”) If your actions and words are reassuring, you are on track to restore, protect, or even enhance your reputation.
On the other hand, if your actions and words are non-responsive (“we’ve done nothing wrong,” “this is being blown out of proportion,” it’s business as usual,” “no comment,” “this is a matter of litigation”) or even combative (“they don’t know what they are talking about,” “we are filing a lawsuit immediately,” “it’s the media’s fault”) you may aggravate your predicament.
I boil all of this down to what I call the Reassurance Principle.
The Reassurance Principle of Crisis Management – Act and communicate to restore or maintain the trust of others.
When trouble threatens, the Reassurance Principle is the closest thing to a “magic bullet” for resolving conflict that I have found. The principle is the first philosophy that my crisis clients apply, the core of my media training, the foundation of most of these columns, and the working title of an upcoming book. Simply put, reassurance usually works.
I hit upon the Reassurance Principle while working with an early media training client, an HMO. The night before our session I asked a vice president if he had any last-minute questions. He said, “Please tell me why the news media are always picking on our industry.” While searching for an answer I recalled 1960’s network news executive Av Westin’s theory of why people watch, read, or listen to the news. Westin said the news audience wants to know whether they are safe. Are their family, neighborhood, community, state, nation, and world safe? Are their property, values, and people-who- are-like-them safe? HMO’s, which deal directly with people’s health – safety – are news media magnets.
So how should HMO’s respond to accusations that they jeopardize people’s safety? They must reassure patients and public that they are safe. HMO’s need to operate and talk in a manner that conveys that they will protect people. Following the Reassurance Principle should make it easier (not necessarily easy) for them to manage controversy and conflict. Act and communicate to restore or maintain the trust of others.
I also noticed that the Reassurance Principle is relevant to other industries, companies, and institutions. In fact, I could not think of a controversy that I witnessed as reporter or consultant that could not be helped by following this philosophy. Ever since, clients and I have employed it along with other reinforcing tactics. We focus us on doing and saying the things that reassure stakeholders.
One thing bothered me, however. At first glance, reassurance did NOT seem to work in politics and especially in political campaigns. It seemed out of place in an arena often characterized by negative ads, attacks on opponents, contentious debates, and confrontations. Hardball ruled. That was puzzling. Why would we want companies and institutions to act in comforting ways, but not expect the same of our political leaders? After a lot of reflection, I have concluded that the reassurance principle DOES apply to politicians as well as business leaders. It is just that they take different paths to get there.
Take business leaders. Their mettle is tested by challenges and/or crises involving management, competition, finance, employees, unions, lawsuits, regulators, government, bad judgment, etc. When they respond in ways that reassure us that they and their companies can handle it, and take care of us stakeholders, we feel safe. We continue to trust them and buy their products and services.
Political leaders are tested too – but by public debate, confrontation, charges, negativity, opposition, and sometimes election defeat. In order to show that they can survive and continue to act in the best interest of constituents, they may need to respond in kind – argue, confront, countercharge, and even get back up after being knocked down. They must demonstrate that they can handle it. Their very ability to survive and indeed to prevail is reassuring to supporters. We will trust, support, and vote for them because their competency makes us feel safe. Their strength reassures us.
So, whether in business or politics, the Reassurance Principle holds. Act and communicate to restore or maintain the trust of others. Your reputation may depend upon it.