The #1 Rule of Crisis Management

by Pete Loscocco on 6 September 2016

Companies fret about how they’ll manage a crisis. They prepare detailed plans that are distributed to key leaders. They organize training seminars designed to prepare those leaders to act. They hold “on-camera” training sessions to polish interviewing skills. Yet when a crisis hits, many companies fumble their response, often failing miserably.

They violate a simple, powerful rule of crisis management. Spike Lee got it right in the title of one of his movies: “Do the Right Thing.” Do the right thing. Step forward, take responsibility, apologize, fix the problem, aid those affected. Do the right thing. If companies would let this thought guide their every action in a crisis, their effectiveness would improve dramatically.

Easy, right? But companies usually don’t do this. Some of their common mistakes:

They don’t take responsibility, creating a vacuum filled by regulators, lawyers and critics, to the company’s detriment.

They let the legal department take charge, whose worries about lawsuits and liability can lead to inaction and delay in putting things right.

They’re self-focused, worrying how the crisis will impact business rather than determining how best to help those affected.

They underestimate the crisis and the resources required to fix the problem.

They’re disjointed, with a lack of coordination between functional areas such as Operations, HR, PR, Legal, Logistics and IT hampering their actions.

They don’t show compassion and appear cold and uncaring.

Following are some simple steps an organization can take to improve its readiness for a crisis.

Practice: Have the members of your senior leadership team ever assembled to discuss strategy, roles and responsibilities in a crisis? Have they practiced, working through scenarios as a group? If not, it is critical that they do so. In this age of career mobility, it’s unlikely all of your leaders have worked together in a real crisis. The first time to do this is not when a crisis hits.

Simplify: Shrink that crisis planning binder to a page or two. As part of this, outline the critical things you want a manager to do, immediately, when a crisis hits. Give clear, simple guidance. For example:

“In an emergency situation, we want you, our site leaders, to take the following actions, in this order:

1. Protect people 2. Protect the environment 3. Secure property and equipment 4. Notify emergency responders, and alert us (the company) so we can activate our emergency response support team.”

Organize – Each functional area should have a designated lead for crisis response. In addition to your management team, these leads should train together to understand their responsibilities in a crisis and how to best coordinate their efforts.

Empower: The people responding to a crisis need to be empowered to make quick decisions. This is not the time to run every decision by the leadership team or a committee. Will every action be perfect? Of course not. But in a crisis, quick action is critical – you will never recover from delays caused by lack of empowerment.

Overestimate: No company has ever been criticized for bringing too many resources to bear to fix a problem. Hope for the best, but assume the worst. Put everything you can – people, equipment, contractors, experts, money, whatever it takes – in place to fix the situation.

Care: Nothing kills a company like the perception that you don’t care. Show your concern when talking to the media, the public and other stakeholders. You know you care, so say it! And don’t just talk about how you care, demonstrate it: by acting rapidly, eliminating red tape, marshaling resources to fix the problem, and aiding those affected.

Communicate: Of course you need to manage messaging and communications with the media and external stakeholders. But managing the flow of information internally is also vitally important. Have a system in place to share updates with both those involved in handling the situation, and the broader organization. But, ensure your point people are focused on solving the problem, not bogged down in reporting back to the many leaders wanting information.

But above all, “Do the Right Thing.” It will show in your company’s reaction to a real crisis.