Crisis management – can you handle it?

crisis management

When the ferry Estonia unexpectedly sank, the then Swedish prime minister promised it would be raised. Turned out that was impossible, but the voters never forgave him for breaking his promise.

Negative media coverage hits when you least expect it and you have to be quick, open and take responsibility. It’s actually more important how you handle the crisis than what actually happened.

Not as difficult as it seems

How should a crisis be managed? There are an abundance of strategies claiming to know how to succeed with crisis management. They all have one thing in common – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. But the multitude of theories do give the impression it’s almost impossible to manage disaster when it hits you. And the fact that huge companies like BP fail contribute to making companies feel they are not up to the task. Of course they are.

You can’t anticipate everything that could go wrong

Things go wrong when we least expect it and to make it worse it’s usually something we wouldn’t in our wildest dreams imagine. It’s not the areas where you understand something could go wrong that turns out to be problematic but something completely unexpected. So no matter how prepared you are, you will usually be caught completely off guard when something really goes wrong.

Make a tentative plan of action

So it’s important to decide who handles what and how you will proceed when a crisis happens. Otherwise it will be total chaos with people trying to avoid dealing with it by claiming it’s not their responsibility. And several people have to be prepared to act, in case someone is off sick or on vacation. You also need to make sure the person handling the press gives a serious and honest impression.

Monitor your press coverage

It’s important to be aware of what’s written about you. Not least on social media because that’s often where a problems starts. Keep a close eye on comments being made since things can easily get out of hand if you don’t handle them swiftly.

Can you handle even a huge disaster?

You have to be prepared to do so even if it never happens. If not, you are doomed when disaster strikes.

Be available

Trying to avoid the media is tantamount to suicide. Some journalists will then try to nail you and find whatever information they can to do so. If necessary by analysing the crisis at hand in a way that makes you the culprit. If you don’t know what to say, you can always end a news conference by saying that the next one will be held, say, tomorrow afternoon at 15.00 hours.

Don’t try to hide anything

Be as open as possible to avoid speculation. Use your web site to make documents related to the issue at hand available, questions & answers and statements. Just be careful about not saying anything that could later turn out to be bending the truth. It’s better to say that you don’t know but will find out and get back to them.

Don’t simplify the problem

Handle the issue in a serious manner and don’t try to make it appear to be of minor importance. It is important, so important you have journalists hounding you. If you seem arrogant they will go for your throat. Make sure you convey the message that you completely understand and sympathize with the public outcry caused by the crisis. It’s essential to show that you genuinely care and that human beings are more important to you than money. However, don’t be as emphatic as the former Swedish prime minister by promising something that can’t be done. It would have been better that he said he would like to raise it, but didn’t know if it was possible.


When you are at fault acknowledge it, take responsibility and apologize profoundly. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to explain why things went wrong. That usually goes down wrong and give the impression you are not sincere. And that’s fatal.

Be honest

Whatever you do, don’t lie and hope it will not be detected. Investigating journalists will find out and the repercussions against the company, and you personally, could be grim. Even white lies can be fatal. Heard about one minister that got caught with a white lie and was sacked after eight days in office.

Show the media what actions you are taking to sort out the mess and make sure it never happens again. Needless to say it has to be something that makes sense and enable them to show the public that you are taking your responsibilities seriously.

Maybe the most important thing is for the crisis to be handled by a person that gives an honest and caring impression. If not, media can easily get the impression something is wrong and start investigating. If worse comes to worse they will then dig up something else that can be editorialized into a story needing even more crisis management. Or even make it necessary for the CEO to resign.

(Photo: PhotoXpress Nathalie P)

105 responses

  1. This is so spot on. Even though there is a ton of stuff published on crisis management, it's amazing how frequently both people and corporations muck it up. The recent Hilary email scandal …her lack of transparency. Without the leg up from a bumbling Kevin McCarthy, it well could have sunk her. Still might. My favorite is the rehab thing. OMG really? There's such a thing as rehab for sexual addiction? Come on now people…..

  2. I am so glad that I’m not working anymore now that social medial is here. When I was managing the charity we had one negative report in the newspaper – totally unsubstantiated – and I was all set to let them have it and set them straight. My chairman at the time told me to leave it alone and it would die a natural death in a couple of days. He was right but I didn’t like it. Now with social media you need to have a crisis management strategy in place because it won’t go away if you don’t respond so great info here.

  3. “It’s actually more important how you handle the crisis than what actually happened.” This is a very true statement since it says a lot about you and your company. “It’s important to be aware of what’s written about you. Not least on social media.” This is also very true. People tend to forget that social media is public and the whole world can see the comments being made. I agree as well, that it is always important to show up and to take honest responsibility for what is occurring.

  4. This is so important, your world can change in a blink of the eye. The problem is, I think many companies do not plan on something bad ever happening. When it does, they rely on an outside PR company to try to resolve it, instead of themselves. When they do, they almost do the opposite of everything you mentioned above.
    Thanks for sharing this post about crisis management.

  5. Pretty good advice It is almost human nature that sometimes when a crisis occurs the first reaction is to wait to see if it blows over before reacting. It usually doesn't, it just snowballs. Another common reaction, which you mentioned is to try to minimize the crisis. That's exactly the type of thing that makes you seem uncaring and unapologetic.

      • A number of times. Always involved the company that I worked for sending inaccurate information that was picked up by financial media and thus embarrassed them and sometimes affected the market. May not have been a crisis in the outside world, but was a criisis for our business. I tried to take the same approach that you are suggesting. Apologize and be honest.

  6. There was an old theme song from a TV series, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”. Your post applies to every area of our lives, Catarina. People don’t take the time to,” stop and think” or examine the benefits AND the concerns with actions they take. I imagine in the corporate world individuals rationalize and re-frame their actions. Convincing themselves and others why something may look bad on the surface, but it really is for the, “greeter good”. People tend to be forgiving when they see someone is genuinely remorseful. You’re right is=t’s the arrogance of some who give halfhearted apologies. Sometimes jus saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough.

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