I was corresponding with a colleague earlier today who was inquiring into my experiences with crisis management, and after reviewing my e-mail to her I thought the subject was worthy of being published in today’s post. In the current always-on, real-time, and often invasive world of media coverage any company is only a slight faux pas away from crisis mode. It is not really a question of if your organization will encounter a crisis, but rather it is a matter of when and how often a crisis will occur. In today’s post, I’ll share my thoughts on how to successfully navigate a crisis…

Much of my personal practice deals with managing perception surrounding both personal and corporate brands. In working with professional athletes, politicians, brash entrepreneurs, and overly confident executives there is little in the way of crisis that I have not experienced over the years. I have dealt with everything from Federal investigations, felony convictions, sexual indiscretions to just plain-old poor judgment. Sometimes a crisis can be thrust upon an unwitting and/or undeserving target, and other times it is self-inflicted. Regardless of the cause, when a crisis strikes the appropriateness of the response can have a dramatic impact on the future of a company and/or individual. Make no mistake…effective crisis management skills are mission-critical to corporate and professional sustainability.

My personal belief is that nobody is perfect, but it is often my job to make them appear as such…Everyone makes mistakes and from time-to-time conducts themselves in a manner that they regret, it is just that some people’s baggage is more public than others. I have witnessed the mismanagement of trivial mistakes that have taken very prominent public figures to their knees, and I have handled exceedingly difficult circumstances such that barely a ripple was felt. In most cases, it is not the indiscretion that is an issue, but rather how it is dealt with that determines public opinion.

While there are certain key principles underlying successful crisis management, it is certainly far from a formulaic process. Each individual instance of crisis requires a completely unique strategy engineered to fit the context, environment, constituencies, and a virtual plethora of other potential issues that may be encountered in managing the perception and risk of crisis. The following guidelines are meant to give you a basic framework for dealing with a crisis:

  1. The truth is your friend: No matter how tempting it may seem do not travel the delusional path of the cover-up. The truth will always eventually come out, and your problems will only be exacerbated by layering mistake upon mistake and lie upon lie…
  2. Anticipate and insulate: When it comes to crisis management the best defense is a very prolific offense. Where possible, you need to seek out potential areas of conflict, crisis, and risk in order to effectively neutralize a threat before it becomes a reality. Remember that crisis avoidance is better than crisis management.
  3. Impulsivity is not your friend: Never, and I repeat never, speak to the media if not prepared. No comment is better than an off-the-cuff comment of frivolity. All members of your management team should be media trained prior to making any public statement (whether in crisis mode or not).
  4. Get professional help: Just as a defendant who represents himself is said to have a fool for a client, a person/entity at the center of a crisis that attempts to solve their own problem deserves the outcome they are likely to receive. When the stakes are high, seek the counsel and advice of a subject matter expert who knows how to walk from one side of a minefield to the other without getting blown-up.
  5. Passivity is not your friend either: Sticking your head in the sand and hoping a crisis will blow over is a recipe for disaster. Aggressive, confident, proactive, and rapid response is always a better choice than not taking any action whatsoever. Left unattended most problems will only grow in severity and add to the potential for lasting damage.  Remember that sleeping dogs are nothing more than contingent liabilities as they always awaken at some point…
  6. Understand the real issues: Get to the root of the issue as quickly as possible. Often times what appears to be a crisis is really just the calm before the storm. If you miss addressing the real issue out of the gate you may not get a chance to recover…It is critical to understand all of your constituencies as well as the media’s real interest in the story.
  7. Cover all the bases: Never rely on the media to exclusively deliver your message. The media is only one delivery channel, and effectively managing perception is based upon influencing all channels. Create allies who have a vested interest in your success, and utilize all back-channels to influence the desired outcome.
  8. Think long-term: Don’t win the battle and lose the war. Your credibility and brand are rarely worth risking over a short-term gamble. Resist the temptation to bluff unless you can bear the fall-out if you’re hand is called.
  9. Monitor your results: A crisis is rarely a static event…problems tend to be very fluid and can rapidly evolve and/or escalate. It is imperative that you know where you stand at all times and consistently evaluate your position and strategy relative to the risks and rewards at stake. Never allow yourself to get locked into a strategy that paints you into a corner you don’t want to be in.
  10. Go for the win: At the end of the day, the best way to manage a crisis is to create a win…With all risks and controversies come opportunities if you understand the subtleties of crisis management. Controversy usually involves more than one party and where there are multiple parties involved there are multiple interests to be leveraged and needs to be addressed.

The world is not fair, and the business world is most certainly not fair. You will likely face a variety of crisis situations during your career, and how you handle them will impact your ability to achieve your goals, protect your interests, and secure your future.

Note: I only work with those who have been unfairly treated, or with those who have sincere regret and remorse surrounding their mistakes…dirtbags need not apply.