Crisis Management: Please! Don’t Hesitate When Your Reputation Is On The Line: 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 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 we did right and wrong, the single most grievous error – the one huge mistake – that set us on the road to hell and made it almost impossible to reverse our decline was we were 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, we probably could have stopped the problems before they spun out of control. And – number crunchers – get this! Had we acted fast enough to make peace with opponents, we believe we 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.
So, given the severe penalty for delay, let me repeat some oft-told recommendations of mine for crisis management. Put these in a drawer somewhere for that dread day we hope will never come. First and foremost….
Act and speak reassuringly
– To SAY the right thing you must first DO the right thing. Determine what you need to do to correct the situation, then draft messages to convey those actions to the public. You want to assure everyone that you are acting in the best interests of all. Media coaching will prepare you convey that word.
The next three tips will help you decide what is necessary to DO the right thing…
Take Care of Victims or Perceived Victims
– Remember that often times if there is no victim, there is no story. Don’t let a victim go unattended.
Fix the problem
Self-evident, but often overlooked.
Communicate with stakeholders and not through the media
Explain your situation and corrective efforts directly to those who have a stake in your business. Don’t let reporters surprise them.
In order to SAY the right thing…
Get media coaching
– This will teach you how to make your best case with reporters and other audiences. Even during non-crisis times, it is useful for focusing positive messages.
Respond in the first story
– When you become aware that a reporter is poking into your business, get pro-active, call the news operation to learn is happening, and give your side of it before the story hits the public. Once the story is out there without your constructive comments, you may have a devil of a time offsetting initial negative impressions.
I have mentioned these before. That disturbing encounter with a former client and his employees reminded me why they are worth repeating again and again.