I was born lucky. At the “up” end of Marty Seligman’s pessimistic/ optimistic temperament continuum. Yet this is my dire prediction for 2009 plus a bit of advice. In this volatile time, the Law of Unintended Consequences will strike repeatedly – in unexpected places. Organizations will need to act quickly but most – large and small – will be unprepared. Unfortunately, most will react.
the way you respond. So here’s your three-minute Crisis Response Primer.
Read it now.
The few actions you take now and over time will not take much time. They will ease your mind as you see crisis hit others around you. And – most unexpectedly – they could enable you to act in ways your colleagues actually brag about afterwards.
Avoid the BIG mistake: believing that bad things won’t happen if you don’t think about them.
Most company and other organizational leaders, like most humans in their personal lives, avoid planning for disasters. Because it’s usually a thankless task, we often don’t take action until after a crisis has hit us, someone we know or someone who is like us or in an industry or profession like ours.
Yet, now more than ever, every organization needs a plan. Responding quickly, fully, and truthfully is the only way you can keep the faith of the publics you serve, inside and outside your organization.
Your organization’s advance preparation for several kinds of crisis is all the more crucial today. Why? Because technology enables news to travel farther, faster, and in more ways.
Almost immediately these days, people can learn the “truth” — in several, often conflicting versions — faster, from more places and perspectives, compare their views, and see how those views stack up with those of “the general public.”
Like a tennis game on fast-forward, the ball of “information” and opinions bounces back and forth at warp speed. Some organizations might still be trying to choose a spokesperson while the ball has already made several trips both ways, right over their heads, and they aren’t yet participating in the game about their issue.
And human nature remains the same in one way: bad news always travels faster than good news. What can you do to protect your or your organization’s reputation in the face of a future crisis — inaccurate, incomplete, or biased government or otherwise official or media announcement; or an attack from someone, especially a credible, well-liked, powerful or well-known figure?
1. If You Throw Mud, You Get Dirty
Years ago, the actress Meryl Streep appeared in a woman’s television show interview, holding her young child in her arms. She made a tender picture and — not surprisingly — was eloquent, sincere, but inaccurate as she spoke of her concerns about the danger she believed the waxy coating on apples represented to the health of her child.
Within hours, a chorus of (male) representatives from various growers, marketing boards, and processors were pictured on TV, frowning and speaking in harsh tones as they castigated Streep for her “ignorance” and “irresponsible action.” This continued for some weeks, contributing to the growth of the controversy.
Several nutritionists, characterized by some consumer activists as being “bought off by the industry,” spoke earnestly, obscurely, at great length, and with some ambiguity. Not surprisingly, their quotes were always fully or accurately covered. Finally, two months later, a government report concluded that the waxy coating does not harm young children, something the apple industry already had the facts about but not the approach to being heard.
As a former reporter, I must agree that “the media” is a mighty and not always even-handed animal. Coverage of the report was much less prominent than coverage of the growers’ initial attacks on Streep.
More recently, when the U.S. media announced contamination of certain strawberries, David Reid of the California Strawberry Board immediately briefed the media on how the source of the strawberries was being tracked and when information could be expected. He was open and not defensive with the media about not knowing the source at that time.
When he spoke to reporters, his voice was low and not rushed. He was brief and to the point, and his expression remained genial and concerned.
2. Be Open to Public View
Reid had an “open” face — that is, his eyebrows were slightly raised, and his cheeks and mouth were slightly softened, free of tightness. Why? Because he had practiced before this crisis – because he knew that someday there probably would be one. And he practiced before each interview. Sound artificial?
Consider what is at stake for you and for your company. Perceptions color reality. If you look angry, resentful, and evasive, even when you are telling the truth, people usually trust their eyes first. Make your appearance congruent with your words, and make your message vivid, truthful, compelling, and succinct.
3. No, I Do Not Beat My Wife!
If Reid was asked a negative, emotion-charged question, he did not use the same characterization in responding. He re-framed the question to be more neutral and then responded to it. His goal was to make his characterization of the situation more vividly memorable than anyone else’s, so his would be the question most frequently used in subsequent discussions and media coverage.
Eight Ways to Face a Crisis Before it Happens
1. Picture the Situation and Put in the Practice Before You Need it.
You can’t anticipate every possible disaster, but you can presume the most likely possibilities, at least in broad-brushstroke scenarios: accident, verbal attack, negative study or report, and so on.
Identify the kinds of worst-case scenarios your company might face and prepare for them with the help of outside experts who can provide candid feedback on your potential scenarios, available facts, spokespersons to use, and responses to make.
What could happen? What fact-finding and decision-making process and public position would your organization take?
Who inside your organization would be involved in approving that position? If your organization were in some way to blame or at fault, what mechanism or process do you have in place to ensure that your organization would maintain a standard of integrity and truthfulness.
How could you set a process in place immediately for rectifying the situation, as compared to denying, avoiding, covering up, or even lying?
2. Get Your Facts or the Facts Will Get You.
How would the key decision-makers be placed in communication with each other quickly so they could be informed and make a joint decision? What is their advance standard of how fast they would commit to making a decision? Would all of them be involved in the decisions related to financial commitments involved in decision-making? If not, who would be?
Who inside and outside your organization would have the most reliable information most quickly, and how would you reach them most swiftly, should the situation require speed?
Who outside your organization should be contacted first to be informed of the organization’s stance and action?
Who inside your organization would inform whom, and how, and how fast?
Who are your most powerful allies and critics, in general and on this kind of situation?
Who could counter each critic? Who, outside your organization, would be most likely to comment on the crisis first (which reporters, other food experts, consumer activists, government officials, and so on)?
What approach would each of these people take (positive, neutral, or negative) toward your company’s situation and subsequent position? How knowledgeable and credible would they be?
Who are your credible current and potential outside advocates in these situations?
How can you deepen their knowledge, support, and able advocacy of your organization, in advance of such situations?
3. Be Vividly Specific and Compelling.
In general, what is the most vividly specific and accurate characterization of your company you would give in any discussion? Is it of interest and understandable to those outside the food industry? To see how difficult it is to be vividly specific and credible, peruse the advertisements in your nearest publication as compared to the headlines. It is hard to be
b) accurate, and
c) timely when you have an interest at stake (your organization’s reputation) and a committee (your colleagues in the organization) to decide on the final message for an ad. Think of the increased difficulty of being all three if you were facing the heat of a crisis.
When writing or speaking to gain attention and credibility, consider the best third-party source of information and the briefest way to characterize their findings. Whenever you can, quote an impartial expert from that source. Better yet, have that person practiced and prepared to respond, and you be the echo.
Most adults, especially the more educated they are and the higher on the corporate totem pole, tend to talk in lengthy abstractions, full of terms of art and qualifiers before they get to the point or respond to a question.
Turn your comments and answers upside down and begin speaking in the “pyramid style” of good newspaper writing — all of the most important facts in your first sentence, with each subsequent sentence an elaboration, offering layers of supporting detail.
Use specific examples, contrasts, vivid details to make your quote more quotable than an opponent’s. Speak English “like it tastes good.” Use the sensory, situational adjectives of full color, not the grayness of dry abstractions and wordy generalizations.
4. Verbal Snapshots Penetrate the Mind and Linger.
Speak in word pictures. Whoever most vividly characterizes a situation usually determines how others see it in their mind’s eye, think about it, discuss it with others, and eventually decide about it. Those much-maligned “sound bites” are not bad of themselves.
They prove you can get to the point quickly — and you know what the point is.
They reflect a respect for the listener. They set people up to be interested in hearing more.
They provide anchors by which people can remember your supporting points. They are “verbal snapshots” that penetrate the mind and the gut in an instant and then linger like a vivid after-image.
5. Be Brief to Build Rapport.
Your brevity brings you other benefits. You are less likely to be misquoted. The interviewer stays engaged and feels more comfortable, because he feels in control as he guides the questions. You have more opportunities to complete your comments naturally with your short aside — the positive characterization you have created of your company, received feedback on, and practiced shortly after reading this article.
6. Make Unlikely Allies Before You Need Them.
If you haven’t yet done so, conduct a Stakeholder Analysis in which you and your associates in top management identify all of the key influencers who can alter people’s perceptions of your organization. These influencers might include labor leaders, stock analysts, reporters (industry, business, women, consumer, and other beats), civic and community leaders, vendors, customers, politicians, and activist groups.
Then match each key influencer with a “key contact” in your organization — ideally one who already has a relationship with that person that the influencer can maintain and nourish by providing genuine support for that person’s interests and for those they share, unrelated to your company. A strong key contact system is your company’s best crisis insurance and a long-term investment few companies have.
Further, find friends and allies inside and outside your industry who can be knowledgeable alternative voices to yours. Inside the industry, look for credible experts or opinion leaders with a constituency that is overlapping or apart from yours. Outside the industry, look for people who are respected and who have some connection with your organization or the people you serve.
Consider the “Rule of Three” for reinforcing the reality and the perception of broad, diverse support — whenever two people who represent interests apparently much different than yours, and who might not even look like you, speak out similarly to you on an issue, the credibility and newsworthiness of your stand is multiplied.
7. Be Plainly Clear.
Patterns literally distract. To be heard and respected, avoid wearing any kind of patterns, especially on the upper half of your body — patterns break up the attention span of anyone looking at you so they do not listen as long nor remember as much. Other patterns of distraction are ambient or distinct background noise or voices and motion, yours or that of other people.
Attempt to speak in a place of visual and sound calmness. People do not have “earlids” to screen out noise and can get distracted. If others are moving around you, listeners are less attentive.
If you walk or gesture quickly, you do not look assured or truthful. The more you move your body or your arms, the less people will be able to listen and find you credible. Avoid “hand dances.” Gestures that are high, fast, and frequent, especially above the waist, rob you of credibility. Use lower, slower, and few motions to illustrate a point. As with using a lower, slower, warm voice, your gestures should follow the “less is more” notion.
8. Look to Their Positive Intent, Especially When They Appear to Have None.
One of the surest and most deserved ways to build credibility and respect is to display grace under pressure. Another person’s vigorous, personal attack against you, while uncomfortable in the short term, is actually quite advantageous.
Genuinely praise some specific action of the person who has criticized you. Because most attacks from critics are not a complete surprise, you usually do have some time in advance to anticipate that they might attack again. Be specific, direct, and truthful. Find some part of the attacker’s current or past statements, actions, or motivation with which you can truthfully agree. In most cases, if you can’t do this, you are too entrenched in a narrow perspective against them and thus more vulnerable to counterattacks.
For example, if the apple industry experts had
a) first praised Streep for her obviously sincere concern for children’s health and the “possibility” that the waxy coating on apples could be injurious to them and then
b) moved on to welcome the attention her comments brought to the matter (not “issue”) so they could
c) explain the value of the coating, the public reaction might have been different.
This idea is akin to product positioning — position your positive comments in direct and vivid contrast to the attack. Two statements are thus placed like two products, side-by-side for close comparison.
Be the First to Say You’re Wrong When You Are
Say you are sorry. Say it soon. Prove you mean it. Say it in person, if at all possible. Say it first to the person or persons most damaged, no matter how much you’d rather avoid that uncomfortable situation. Otherwise, the situation will metaphorically stick to your feet like tar paper, forever pulling people’s attention toward it and away from any subsequent good actions you take. You’ve made the taint potentially indelible, the stink longer-lasting.
More than any other kind of situation, there can be no ambiguity about the steps you must take if you want your organization to have future effectiveness. For those rare instances when you or your organization is in the wrong or has caused damage to others, the sooner and more heartfelt your apology, the more sincerely and positively you will be perceived and the more quickly the forgiveness can begin, especially if your apology is directly coupled with your explicit and adequate plan to rectify the matter. Ironically, acting well in times of crisis creates a rare kind of happiness.
After writing this post I found follow-up tips so valuable I can’t resist adding the, via Communication overtones, comes Beth Harte on how you better have a hose if you want to put out a fire. Thanks Kami Huyse.