Effective Crisis Management: Avoid Flawed Response

Last week I visited the pharmacy to buy some Tylenol for my mom.  Unfortunately, the shelves were empty of all McNeil Consumer Healthcare products because of a product recall several months ago.  At the time, Tylenol was front page news.  Months later, store shelves remain empty.  But news about Tylenol was pushed from the front page, first by Toyota’s problems; then by the crisis facing residents of the Gulf Coast because of the oil gushing from BP’s undersea well.

Waiting for another crisis to remove your organization from the 24 X 7 glare of the media spotlight does not substitute for an effective Crisis Management Plan (CMP).

In all three cases, this spring’s product recalls by McNeil and Toyota and the BP oil disaster, three elements of crisis management are obvious: 1) a clear threat to the organization; 2) the sudden emergence of an unanticipated situation; and 3) a very short window for making decisions and to react.  How organizations respond in a crisis is largely dependent on a comprehensive CMP.

Risk and Crisis Management Response

One of today’s hottest business topics is risk management.  Although related, risk management and crisis management are different.  Think of risk management as the process of identifying, assessing, and finding ways to avoid risk.  Crisis management is the formal process of dealing with threats after they occur.

In a growing number of organizations you’ll find the new position of Chief Risk Officer (CRO).  In some cases the CRO is responsible for development and execution of an organization’s CMP.  My belief is this responsibility properly belongs to a Chief Communication Officer (CCO).  Regardless of how responsibility is established, identifying risk and crisis response requires a comprehensive team with representation from all parts of the business: risk management, corporate communications, legal, operations, human resources, sales & marketing, and security.

Despite the best efforts of a risk management team, it’s not possible to eliminate all threats to the integrity, reputation, or survival of an organization.  That is why it’s essential to have a written crisis management plan and drills to practice responding to a crisis situation – because every organization will face a crisis at some point.

Crisis Management Best Practice

The unyielding spotlight of media attention requires organizations to respond quickly and effectively.  Along with traditional public media, the explosion of new social media channels complicates how organizations respond to a crisis.  Your CMP should include:

Executive Leadership.  In any crisis, leadership is essential.  That doesn’t mean the CEO must always lead the response or be the public spokesman.  Not all crises are equal.  A crisis of global significance, such as what’s facing BP, requires leadership from the very top.  The type and level of crisis will determine response.

Organizational Identity:  One of the most challenging issues in effective crisis management is protecting organizational reputation.  When a crisis occurs, everyone within the organization must understand the potential impact to the organization’s identity in the minds of the public.  Everything that is said, done, or not said/done, creates a public impression.

Coordinate and Connect:  The CMP should define how departments within an organization respond to a given crisis.  Each team has a role to play.  Stay connected.  When in doubt, pick up the phone.  Practice drills are the time to establish relationships, not during a crisis.

React Quickly:  In a connected world moving at “Twitter speed,” act quickly.  The public reaction to Toyota’s recent problems was exacerbated by their slow response to a growing list of problems.  The public can accept updates and clarifications, but delays always send the wrong message.

Communicate Constantly:  The nature of a crisis will determine how communication should be handled, and the channels to be used.  The old stand-by, the news release, is only one tactical element of a crisis management plan – and no longer the most effective.  Traditional media, along with social media channels, should be part of the plan to reach both employees and the public.  Web communication can be a vital link.  When other communication channels fail, the web is often the most accessible.

Direct Involvement:  Never underestimate the value of a physical presence.  Nothing will reassure customers, or the public, more than direct communication.  How much more effective would BP, and the Obama Administration, have been had they been present, on the ground in the gulf region as quickly as possible?  Employees with direct customer contact can be a critical component in restoring confidence during a crisis.

Language is Critical:  Spokespeople must be trained and sensitive to balancing legal and economic language against the public’s need for emotional and empathic expressions in all public statements.  This is always a fine line and a source of potential conflict between an organization’s legal department and others on the broader crisis management team.  Executive leadership is essential in communicating a message that strikes a balance between an organization’s legitimate concerns and the needs of the public.

Communicate Clearly and Openly:  Monitor news, information, and rumors across all media channels.  Even if the news is grim, communicate honestly and transparently.  You need to be perceived as the most credible source of information concerning a crisis.  Use your website to maintain an open channel of communication and to avoid having spokespeople responding to the same question multiple times.  Address rumors and misinformation as quickly as possible, using all available communication channels – including employees with direct customer contact.

Team Support:  Crisis response can be an incredibly stressful situation.  Some situations may last months or longer.  Make sure those on the front lines are well trained, provided a constant flow of up-to-the-minute information, and supported in every way possible.

There are many examples of organizations that have done an excellent job managing perceptions, and the business, during a time of crisis: Johnson & Johnson, Mattel, and Pepsi to name a few.  In each case the companies responded immediately and with a well-defined plan.  At no time are an organization’s mission and values more challenged, than during a crisis.  When the corporate brand aligns with actual behaviors, trust and goodwill result from shareholders and the public – even in a time of crisis.

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