Crisis strategy–how to avoid fanning the flames

By far the majority of reputation crises I’ve been involved in have a very, very important question at the core: how do we avoid fanning the flames? There is a very real danger in communicating about an event of actually doing harm rather than improving the situation. The greatest danger, of course, is bringing a bad story to the attention of others who otherwise would not even be aware of it.

The understandable fear of this I believe is the main cause for the other problem which is “too little, too late.” When actions taken, or messages communicated about a big problem, are seen as coming slowly only as a result of outrage or pressure, then reputation damage can be severe.

This is a dilemma, a clear example of being between a rock and a hard place. And almost everyone wants to know how to make a sure-fire strategy decision that doesn’t cause harm in either direction.

A couple of recent reputation crises I’ve been involved in have brought this issue again to my attention. I find myself repeating advice to clients in very similar ways and wanted to share my thoughts about dealing with this dilemma.

The most important thing is to listen. (Amazing how often listening is the solution to communication problems!)

For example, suppose you have a senior executive whose ex-wife is accusing him of domestic violence. You knew the split was ugly and you really have no idea if there is any truth to the accusations. The executive is crucial to the company’s operations and has a high profile so news stories and social media chatter could be very harmful. So far it has been quiet, no media coverage, just behind the scenes legal activity and investigations.

What do you do? This is a classic “smoldering” crisis. There’s smoke but no fire yet. Hopefully it will all go quietly away, but there is a reasonable chance that it could suddenly flare into flames that would threaten the organization.

Here’s what I would tell you if you were the CEO:

1) Prepare–don’t stick your head in the sand. Don’t wait to be caught by the interviews and social media wildfire then have a deer in headlights look. Get ready. Take whatever internal actions that those who value you expect of you. Perhaps it is to put the executive on paid leave pending an internal investigation. Be proactive keeping in mind what is fair and right and how others will evaluate your character through your actions.

2) Prepare holding statements. Think through how this could play out–from minor public play to major coverage and new, devastating revelations about your key executive. Think how it could get worse and what you would need to do and say.

3) Identify who to talk to. The most important people in any crisis are those whose opinion about your organization will determine your future. Major customers, investors, donors, business contacts, employees and families, and so on. Know who they are and determine in advance both what you will say and your methods of communicating with them.

4) Rumor management. You know there are a number of people who know about what is going on and who are talking about it. Just because they are not privy to the facts does not keep them from commenting, even on social media which has the potential to reach the media and spread virally. So monitor, monitor, monitor. Not just monitor social media, but establish “listening posts.” These are people you trust who are connected into the networks that really matter–employee networks, customer networks, industry networks, etc. Tell them to call you immediately if they hear anything–good, bad or indifferent. You want to know what the chatter is, who is saying what, and most of all, if a rumor getting legs.

5) Establish communication triggers. Decide in advance at what point you will launch a more proactive communication strategy. Perhaps it would be personal calls to the most important stakeholders. Perhaps an email to your identified top 200. Perhaps it is a low-key post on your website. But, for a worst case wildfire, you have to be ready on a 24/7 basis to push the red button and start communicating with anyone and everyone who may care.

Judgment is clearly called for here. In this kind of situation an experienced, wise and skillful crisis communication expert is probably worth whatever exorbitant fees they may charge because much is at stake. But, the key is quite simple and it goes back to “The Art of War.” Intelligence, knowing the situation, is everything. In this case, knowing what those most important to your future are hearing, thinking and responding is the most important intelligence you can have in making the right call. And it really is easier than you might think.

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