The importance and value of crisis leadership has perhaps never been more apparent than it has been in 2021. Companies across the globe have been bombarded by one societal crisis after another. Every time a leader delivers a message—be it at a board meeting, media interview, keynote, all-staff meeting, community event, or on a social platform—the reputational piggy bank realizes a light deposit or heavy withdrawal.
During times of crisis, it is critical for leaders to think strategically about what the right message is and how it will resonate with many micro, diverse communities. Doing so will help assure the firm’s reputational and cash balances pay incremental dividends over time. On the other end of the spectrum, mishandled crises can cost leaders time, money, stakeholder confidence and their careers. Bottom line, you don’t spin your way through crisis, you lead your way through.
Over the past decade, Fallston Group has had the privilege of advising leaders in the auditing, accounting, legal and professional consulting verticals, along with many public, private, government and nonprofit entities who are fighting for marketplace trust, and their futures. The key is to understand each organization’s navigational fix—where’d they like to be—and then chart the path forward using a deep well of instinct and experience. Crisis leadership is an art, not a science. It’s laden in nuance—a predictive mindset is not negotiable.
The right message
Some firms are quick to put their CEO at the center of the management of their public response. In tandem, decisions need to be made rapidly to clarify who the public spokesperson will be, starting with initial response and continuing as the story evolves. Messaging decisions and options must be carefully considered every step of the way. Sometimes a simple statement strategically detailed makes sense, especially in cases that may involve legal pursuits. In other situations, it makes more sense to arm the media with more detail and perspective. Sometimes that involves taking responsibility and proactively addressing what steps the organization will take to move forward.
Much like a sprinter’s start, effective crisis leadership is about quickly getting out of the starting block and saying the right things for the right reasons at the right time. Winning comes down to sustaining the intense messaging tempo and making the proper leadership, strategy, and operating decisions that turn adversity into advantage.
Leading through crisis
Below are a few best practices to bear in mind from a crisis leadership standpoint:
Never erode your integrity. There can be immense pressure to “make your organization look good.” Do not cave-in to others who would like you to lie, distort the truth, or leave vital facts behind which alter messaging and perception—this is tantamount to a lie. Once it’s lost, you will never fully restore your integrity.
Be responsive. These days, many leaders seem less inclined to return a reporter’s call, or otherwise seek to delay the release of information. By sticking their heads in the sand and not responding, businesses make themselves irrelevant and ineffective. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. When someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told.
Know the facts: Too many professionals jump on camera or in front of an audience with no substantive information or an unwillingness to engage with questions. Not knowing the facts or relying on the “no comment” phrase is unacceptable. Know your position, know your craft: it’s your legacy.
Be predictive. When preparing to deliver a message, be certain to plan for every question and eventuality. There is often a tendency for people to want to go on camera without fully preparing because they are used to speaking publicly or know the organization very well. Push back and demand ample preparation. Don’t wing it; prepare for every interview no matter how mundane or harmless it may seem.
Build media relationships. You want to get the benefit of the doubt when journalists tell your story. It’s not about an unfair advantage, but simply balance. When managing the media, gather intelligence from reporters and news organizations—ask them what angle they plan to cover, who they are speaking with and what their position is. You’d be amazed at what they will tell you, particularly if there is an existing relationship or future mutual need.
Video doesn’t tell the whole story. A video account of what happened does not factor many variables—what each party said, body language from all angles, and what transpired before and after the footage. In today’s digital world, more is recorded and shared than at any other point in history. The emergence of video has changed all professions, but treat video for what it is: another tool in the search for the truth.
Practice, practice, practice. It is essential to practice interviewing and public speaking. Know yourself, know your audience.
Seek advice from colleagues. Take a look at how others have responded during times of crisis and leverage their lessons learned to your advantage. Your colleagues, peers and competitors are invaluable pools of knowledge and can serve as the single most important case study resource.
Think about what you don’t know yet. During a crisis, it often takes time to know the exact fact pattern that is developing. These events often have many related stakeholders, and other third parties, that may have relevant information. One should try to clearly understand what is known with certainty and what is still not completely clear. This perspective should inform your public statements with the goal of maintaining integrity and marketplace trust.
There two benchmarks of success which allow leaders to quickly maintain control and weather the storm. First, they put their hand in the air and recognize they are in trouble. Second, they ask for help from their trusted circle. Recognition of trouble and decisiveness in action will preserve your reputation and help you turn short-term adversity into long-term advantage.
Author: Robert Weinhold, Chief Executive