Companies which remain in existence for any length of time will usually, at some point, experience a level of corporate crisis which potentially threatens their survival. Yep, even SMEs.
When that happens, the problem won’t be solved (as some people think) by the exercise of consultants' voodoo at the interface between the company and its external audiences (though if that interface is mismanaged, usually through ignorance, it can make the situation exponentially worse).
It will more commony be solved by the company regaining control of its destiny through skilled management, by getting to the truths of the problem speedily, by the controlled release of those truths, and by its integrity, humility and measured transparency.
As a generalisation, history shows that companies which make mistakes are mostly punished, but forgiven; companies which make mistakes and then try to cover them up, mislead, and avoid culpability, or which shut and bolt the doors and only talk to people when they are forced to do so by the law, often find survival harder or more expensive.
So getting to the truth is critical, and it is truths that will enable that interface to be managed to maximum effect.
If your company goes into crisis, these 20 things will almost certainly happen, most of them simultaneously, in a process that will seem incredibly fast-moving:
1. You’ll have to make decisions faster than you’re used to …
2. … involving sums of money which might be horrifying …
3. … on the basis of less evidence than you’d like …
4. … under greater public scrutiny than you’ve ever experienced in your life.
5. You’ll be accused of things that you might have done …
6. … and (probably) things you definitely haven’t done (the two will get mixed up).
7. You’ll face multiple aggressive and stupid questions …
8. … when you’re unsure who you can rely on …
9. … and you’ll be presented with confused and contradictory data.
10. Your planning will go awry because (as the military say) “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” (but if you’ve done the proper preparation you’ll be ready for that, and you’ll be agile and able to adapt).
11. However much training and preparation you’ve done, things will happen that no one could possibly have predicted, because they always do (but precisely because of your training and preparation, you’ll be ready for that).
12. Many small (and sometimes unrelated) crises and sub-crises will occur, because that’s what happens when companies are put under stress, so you must be focused (always a better choice than being distracted).
13. Customers, suppliers, shareholders/stockholders, sponsors, partners, employees and even main board directors (tick as applicable) may desert you, instantly, in defiance of any contracts forbidding them to do that. In many cases you’re better off swallowing your disappointment, surprise and sense of betrayal and letting them go quietly (you’ve got enough on already without picking legal fights which may enter the public arena and involve a distracting and reputationally unhelpful process of claim and counter-claim. Letting them go without consequences is unjust, but pragmatic).
14. There’ll be ‘incoming fire’ with bewildering velocity. It will come from the media, regulators, consumer bodies, law enforcement, politicians, pressure groups, industry bodies and trade/professional associations (possibly even those you pay membership fees to), lawyers, trades unions (irrespective of whether your company is unionised), self-declared or media-anointed ‘experts’ / ‘analysts’ / ‘commentators’ and others. Some of this noise will be fuelled (transparently or otherwise) by aggressive competitors, aggrieved ex-employees, suppliers you rejected, and possibly those very few dissatisfied and unreasonable customers from the past 20 years. All these people will have an agenda, and it won’t be yours, but they’ll see an opportunity and leap on it; much of what they say will be couched in the media-friendly language of moral outrage (genuine or not, doesn’t matter at this stage). You’ll have to couch your own media communiciations in moderated, professional tones which are not very media friendly, so your side of the story will be lost if you don’t know how to get your key messages across in that environment. You’ll either know how to do that already, or you won’t. It’s no time to learn on the job. You need to speak with clinical precision, without vacuous industry jargon or ‘management speak’ (that just makes you sound like a lightweight at this point, to journalists and everyone else).
15. Those around you will have heightened emotions, fear and guilt (which may or may not be justified); this will probably impact negatively on the quality of decision making.
16. You’ll be quoted and misquoted (usually not with the evil intent that you’ll ascribe to that, but because of the speed of the news cycle). If you try to use nuance, your meaning will be garbled and lost, and with a complex issue most executives struggle to avoid nuance. There are communications strategies which can help with that, if you know what they are. Your storytelling must be highly skilled and use the language of journalese (direct, never presenting facts in chronological order, using short active sentences containing one idea only, etc). You’ll need to practise contained key message delivery, linked to the crisis cycles. You’ll need to know the difference between the story and your key messages.
17. People within your organisation, possibly senior figures and trusted professional advisers, including (sometimes) lawyers with no crisis management experience, will urge you to “say nothing to anyone” (when this happens, and it usually does, even in the 21st Century, dispense with their advice as diplomatically – but firmly – as possible. They’re well-meaning but both ignorant and dangerous and there isn’t time to re-educate them). There are things to say, even if you’ve got nothing to say (yep, you read that right) – and that definitely doesn’t mean becoming a prattling empty vessel, it means engaging in substantive communications. Most people who haven’t done the training will read that with a furrowed brow; those that have will know what I’m talking about. The issue about lawyers is covered in more detail below.
18. If you accept the advice of these false prophets and say nothing, the communications vacuum will be filled by others (many of them listed elsewhere in this article) and they’re unlikely to have your interests at heart when they’re in front of the cameras.
19. Someone else, possibly several people or organisations, will actively bid for the position of ‘go-to media expert’ / studio ‘talking head’ / lead blogger on your problem; they’ll have strategised this in principle before your particular crisis ever emerged, waiting for their opportunity. They may execute their strategy skilfully and with the benefit of great media contacts, developed over time, and they’ll be entirely self-motivated. You will probably have never heard of them. They will say things, live on TV, irrespective of the effect on your organisation; some of it will be true, some it garbage, most of it annoyingly speculative. You can’t stop this, but you can reduce its effect. You must become the most trusted source of comment and information, so that the media and others are less tempted to seek that information elsewhere.
20. From the outset, you’re there to be shot at, even that’s grossly unfair. But you have to take it, because you’re preparing the ground for what happens later. Crises happen in cycles, because that’s how news happens, and every dog has its day. Your moment will come, but you have to recognise that moment if you want your voice to be heard. If (from Day One) you ‘owned’ the crisis, your advocacy over the long run will be far more effective.
Those who argue “we shouldn't say anything to anyone until we have the facts” will give external audiences the impression of a company bobbing at the whim of fate and facing weak and indecisive leadership or a complete leadership vacuum.
News cycles are measured in days, hours and minutes; you must never panic, but you must be able to act very quickly and manage your reputation from Day One. You need to engage with your crisis; ‘seeing how things pan out’ has never been an effective crisis management strategy.
You must be measured, sensitive, focused, calm, disciplined and (above all) right. Getting to the truth, faster than anyone else, is the single greatest winning strategy in crisis management.
Getting the truth first and controlling its release is usually possible, if you know what you’re doing, if you’ve done the preparation, and if you and your team aren’t making it up as you go along. But no one would ever describe any aspect of this as easy.
If you have an old-style lawyer who says “don’t say anything because it might be construed as an admission of liability”, explain to him/her that in the 21st Century the law is not the only consideration; there’s no point in winning in the courtroom if your customers, suppliers and shareholders / stockholders abandon you because you’ve lost their trust. Believe me, there are many lawyers out there who understand this.
It may take months, years, or even decades for a crisis to get to court; if you decline to manage your crisis from Day One your company may not last that long (ditto your career).
An informed adviser will be able to point you to case histories of companies that have taken such advice, won in court, but gone out of business; and others who owned their crisis from Day One, occasionally even to the point of near-admissions of liability, lost in court, and continued to thrive commercially (which definitely does not mean that you admit to things you haven’t done!!) But if you’re sat there studying case histories and your crisis is underway, you’ve already started to lose control – it’s too late.
Clearly the legal issues are critical – but they’re no longer automatically the prime consideration. They may be low on the priority list on Day One.
The public will forgive companies that make mistakes; it’s less forgiving of ‘weasel words’, evasiveness, lack of transparency and dishonesty, and of companies that try from Day One to ‘get off on a technicality’. There are some things that you actually can’t say, genuinely, in such situations, and in those circumstances you need to have very skilled advocacy to handle the communications.
Crude “I can’t comment because of an ongoing investigation” statements belong to 1953, not 2018; you need to be much more convincing if your customers are to believe that you’re not just using this device to obfuscate and avoid your responsibilities, and there are ways of doing that.
There are plenty of skilled, smart corporate lawyers in the 21st Century who know this and who will work as part of a crisis management team, accepting the principles of crisis management from the outset.
Your public speaking skills will be at a premium and you’ll need to listen to all of your audiences (there will be a lot of them, but you'll have analysed them, so you can issue consistent messages, edited for emphasis to each of those audiences). Despite your multiple audiences, you'll have to remain focused. Oh, and you’ll have to speak on the record. Always.
Corporate crisis is tough on everyone. It can kill careers, but it can also make them.
The only way to deal with this is to increase your skills base in core areas, engage in gaming/simulation, and put yourself through a process which will prepare you mentally.
If you do that, a crisis will still be tough, life-defining, and possibly career-changing; but you’ll increase your ability to manage it with lower cost, to get through the crisis cycles faster, and to emerge with your company and your career intact.
You have to undertake that preparation in the calm pre-crisis environment of normal trading, when it may seem like a complete waste of money, because “it’ll never happen to us”; that requires an enlightened decision.
In any crisis, the moment will arrive when it’s appropriate for your voice to be heard. You need to recognise that moment, and seize it, to start saying the right things, in the right way, with the right tone of voice, to the right people.
Once a crisis has begun, and entered the public arena, you’re going to have a crisis, and nothing can stop it (the skills and management practices you’d deploy to prevent a crisis happening have already failed).
The purpose of crisis management skills is not, therefore, to prevent the crisis happening, but to identify that you have a crisis quickly (many companies fail at this very early hurdle), seize control of it as soon as possible, compress the cycles, reduce the cost, and reach the point at which recovery and rebuilding is possible, faster.
Good crisis management is bold and confident. You’ll be confident if you’re making decisions from a more informed base, and that will only happen if you’ve done the mental preparation and sharpened your own skills, and if the team around you understands what you’re doing and can support it.
If you want some advice on your management team’s resilience to a potential corporate crisis, or if you’d like assistance with any of the issues mentioned here, please get in touch.
I blog regularly, mostly on corporate communications, and you can find my other recent LinkedIn posts here.