Ten Keys to Turning a Crisis Into An Opportunity

by Eddie Reeves on

As I look back at the fateful days immediately following September 11, 2001, when I and my small band of colleagues on the media relations team of Merrill Lynch worked around the clock to respond to the brutal terrorists attacks that changes our lives forever, I realize that I am still in some ways processing it all. I have, thank God, been able to achieve enough distance physically, temporally and emotionally to be genuinely proud of the work we did in helping the victims, their loved ones, the people of New York and the nation as a whole get, analyze and share information key to helping them to, if not completely heal, at least to move forward.

While I don’t claim to have any epiphanies to share, that tragedy, along with several other client crises involving financial meltdowns, criminal investigations and political scandals have given me a perspective on how best to manage and communicate through a crisis. One thing I know for sure is that a well-executed response to a crisis can actually result in an organization not just protecting its reputation, but actually enhancing it — provided the organization and its communications counsel truly understand the strategy and processes of effective communications.

I recommend ten key practices of high-performance strategic crisis management:

# 1: Have a solid crisis communications plan in place

Leaders are infinitely more effective at dealing with the pressure-cooker environment of a crisis if they have well-thought crisis management plan in place. At a minimum, the plan allows everyone to know his or her role and the general structure of the crisis response effort. No specific crisis is likely to follow the plan very closely, but that doesn’t diminish the value of having a plan. As General Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but planning is essential.”

# 2: Identify your crisis management team

A small team of senior executives should serve as your crisis communications team. The CEO or top executive should lead the team, and at a minimum, the organization’s top public relations executive (and/or outside PR/crisis communications consultant) and legal counsel should stand duty as chief advisers.

# 3: Designate a skilled spokesperson

Ideally, there will be one person who speaks for the organization during the crisis and that will be the CEO. The leader of the organization will automatically have the most credibility simply by dint of position. If this individual has not received significant media training, schedule it before he or she is ever put to the task. If that isn’t possible, someone more adept in speaking on the record should be considered.

# 4: Designate media coordinator

This is important for both your organization and the media. It is important that someone be paying attention to the ongoing care and feeding (sometimes literally) of the media and ensuring that all media receive the best information in the best time frame. To be most effective, the media coordinator will understand the organization, its culture and its history, including past incidents, legal claims or negative information that media may discover, because if it exists, it WILL come to light.

# 5: Designate an internal communications coordinator

One of the most vital areas of activity in managing a crisis, but one of the most often given short shrift is in managing how employees, contractors, retirees, shareowners an other internal stakeholders are communicated with. To ignore these crucial audiences is a cardinal sin, since they can either be one of an organization’s greatest strategic assets or one of its greatest liabilities in managing a crisis.

# 6: Practice, practice practice

One of the single most important and effective things that organizations can do is rehearse for crises, but precious few ever do. Hold brainstorming sessions with your crisis communications team. Conduct actual mock crises and evaluate how your team handles them. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make prepared.

Once a crisis occurs, the “three R’s” of crisis communications come into play:

# 7: Recognize!

You want to communicate about the crisis as soon as possible, but not until you have something helpful to communicate. You need to talk as soon as possible but you MUST know what you’re talking about before you start! Gather all the facts you can as quickly as you can from as many sources as you can, but remember the most important question is have we done what we need to do to immediately protect the loss of life, limb and property (in that order).

#8: Respond!

You don’t have to wait to begin responding. this is where having a strong plan in place before a crisis is invaluable. there are some basic things you can do immediately — isolating any danger areas, contacting the proper authorities, marshalling any medical, logistical or technical resources that may be needed. In addition to being the right response to the crisis, immediately springing into action with some of these basic steps will go a long way to reassuring the press and the public that you are acting responsibly.

#9: Repair!

Once the crisis has subsided, you must launch an in-depth review of what led to the crisis, how well you responded and how you might prevent such a crisis in the future. Once this review is thorough and complete — but not a moment before — you must then communicate clearly and convincingly to all your audiences your findings. they want, need and deserve to know what happened, why it happened, how you responded and what specific steps you are taking to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

#10: Recover!

This final phase is crucial, but often botched. If you have managed your recognition, response and repairs well, you should actually be in a position to recover from the crisis.  And by “recover”, I mean to actually end up in a stronger position than you were before the crisis even occurred. How is that possible? Because people love to uplift and celebrate comebacks.

If you are lucky, you will never be put in the position of managing and communicating through a crisis. If you are a leader of any organization that is trying to accomplish anything of real consequence or meaning, however, the odds are you will grapple with this challenge sooner or later.

Rather than dreading it, understating it, or worse, ignoring it altogether, I encourage you to view it as an opportunity to move your organization forward. I can tell you from ample experience that effectively managing a crisis and its attendant communications imperatives can not only help keep your organization from losing ground, but can actually help move it forward. And attending to the ten guideline above will help you do just that.

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