My Three Cents

I was quite taken by an article in a recent Fortune magazine on crisis management which explained a point that most major companies often forget. Authored by attorney and crisis consultant James F. Haggerty, its powerful conclusion, based on 12,000 statements of companies in crisis, is indisputable:  Planning and rapid responses “make all the difference” between a crisis you manage and one that manages you.  And an organization’s first rapid response — and I underscore FIRST and RAPID — is really the big differentiator.  Most managements let a crisis linger too long before speaking out. And that is colossal mistake #1.

I once had a speech coach who also spoke glowingly of the importance of speed in a crisis.  Her memorable line was: TELL IT NOW. TELL IT ALL. TELL THE TRUTH. Let’s not de-emphasize the importance of telling it all, rapidly.  Don’t leave crumbs on the floor. Get rid of the gory details upfront. Otherwise things can get messy.

Case in point:  Hillary Clinton and her leaked e-mails. She operated on the “dribs and drabs theory.”  Months passed and the whole story was still not all out. As noted in the book Shattered, the Clintons, two consummate professionals who are among the most practiced in public relations, couldn’t master a basic fundamental. They were forever back and forth on the best way to handle her email situation.

As Haggerty explains in the Fortune story, “In a crisis, it’s not the event itself that counts. It’s the response.”  Citing examples from United Airlines to Equifax to Target to Sony, even going back to the BP oil spill, he notes that in each case the first days or weeks of the crisis were characterized by fumbled responses, statements that corrected prior statements, and falling back on legalisms and obfuscations.  Same is true with the current Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal – – silence for days and then an inept initial response – – before finally getting its act together.

My own career experience is that most companies have not prepared or thought deeply about crisis plans in advance, and always look with squinty eyes when you advise them to do so. You can’t plan for everything, the adage goes. But, as Haggerty points out, you can prepare crisis plans for your core business, which is generally where most crises occur.

Today’s crisis plans need to be tied to a full-scale social and digital plan, prescriptive down to the last tweet. Even if the company doesn’t know all the facts related to a given crisis, “we’ll inform the public as soon as we know the facts” doesn’t fly in today’s fast-moving media environment.  Even if a company does not have access to all the facts around a crisis, the company needs to reassure “the public that it understands the severity of the problem and their concerns and has the crisis under control.” Abrogating the crisis and keeping “our heads down” would be a non-starter in any other area of corporate planning.

What are the consequences of fumbling in a crisis?  Generally, consumers may quietly halt purchases. Investors may lose faith. Many folks would rather walk away than speak out. And not all of them are likely to return.

Haggerty concludes that if a company’s crisis plan is “a binder sitting on a bookshelf gathering dust, its greatest use will be in prying the door open as executives run from the building when the real crisis breaks.” Well said. Wake up, CEOs.

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