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.

Apologize

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 thoughts on “Crisis management – can you handle it?

  1. Excellent article, and with respect to the unexpected in case of BP: if something can go wrong it will; if something can't go wrong,it still will!!

  2. Good article ! Indeed, sometimes, we underestimate the potential of disaster or crisis. We always believe that we can get control on everything, and make asumption based on the passed experience. We can note that in a fast changing environment, it is wrong to have such judgement. The fact to recognize an issue and the lack of control make us more trustable in the way we are facing the fact we can lose our position. This is a conterpart of the responsibilities we have to take when we have a high position. The question is "Do we prefer to lose our job or our face ?"
    Best regards

    1. Yes Eric, the only thing that's certain in life is uncertainty. We have to accept that and deal with what happens when it happens. By the way, I have never undetstood why some people are afraid of losing face? What's the big deal? We are all human beings and nobody's perfect.

  3. Nice article, catarina. I remember an incident of a youtube video of two workers at Domino's pizza franchise doing disgusting things on pizza. Few days later Domino's America's CEO appeared on youtube to apologise and re-ensure the customers regarding his brand. Not only he apologized, he briefed them on the actions he did immediately to support his statement. Any way, the principle mentioned above are the guide to safe way out of crises and disasters. Regards. Abdullah

  4. Very good article. We can plan for anything, but the only thing that is certain in this world it will change; and before the media gets involved, you have to come up with answers just as you do for your employees. Your first reaction must be appropriate and well thought out, otherwise anything you do or say can come back to really hurt. And you can buy buy if the situation will allow it, such as the example you used demonstrate what you can really turn something into a real credibility issue. In a company I used to work with we ran into an issue and the first thing we did was stall for time, but offer a time at which we would be ready to meet and discuss the issues. As a company we met this requirement and the crisis was defused and we were able to get back to business without being the topic of news.

  5. Your idealism is refreshing Catarina. Unfortunately, most big corps don't share it. BP is a good example. When disaster strikes, their efforts go in large part not towards assuming responsibility, but towards finding a way to rebrand and repackage so the name is no longer associated with the problem. And if that is not going to be successgul, they simply rename and regroup altogether.

  6. Catarina, nice piece. Unfortunately, many in the NGO, IGO, government, as well as corporate world, still fail to understand that crisis communication is as important, sometimes even more so, than the practicalities of crisis management – BP, Toyota, Goldman Sachs are good examples. But it is even more critical when communications will dictate the degree of public safety and security during crises, especially disasters or humanitarian operations. Communications, in many cases, can literally decide life or death, not merely the price of shares or political reputation.

    1. Good comment Jem.

      Agree with you that communication is a key part of crisis managment. Probably the most important. For instance if the person communicating with the press gives a dishonest impression, jounalists will go for the kill.

  7. We shouldn't forget that an important piece of crisis management is crisis mitigation. Follow the safety rules you yourself implement and make it part of your corporate culture. If you work to avoid accidents and disasters and everyone on your team does the same thing, then at least when a tragedy occurs anyway you can justifiably point to your culture of safety and work to improve it. If you do this, you don't have to put up a front of sincerity while lower level employees are quoted on TV saying how safety is important unless it interferes with production.

  8. What a wonderful post! I love the apology approach. When a company allows themesleves to show humiltiy, it reaches customers hearts and can cultivate trust. What you allude to is emotional and social intelligence in action. What am I feeling? What do I want to do about it that is productive? What are others feeling? What actions will create a win win? Crises events are ideal situations to implement ESI

  9. Catarina,

    This is an excellent guide to managing a crisis. Prior preparation is critical to responding to the emergencies that one can expect (fires, bomb threat, etc.). Knowing how to handle the media is critical no matter how well you handle the incident itself. Thanks for sharing.

    Chris

  10. I asked an executive at a large company once why companies DON'T act the way Katarina suggested. He said that when things go wrong the CEO very often does not know if it is the company's fault or not, and the lawyer's are breathing down their backs not to take responsibility until they know how liable they truly are.

    I think when disaster strikes, the companies should at least give the waiting press coffee and doughnuts for a start:)

    1. Good comment Cathy. Most likely it applies to the United States more than other countries due to since litigation is a bigger issue there than elsewhere in the world. Have actually never handled crisis management that involved the US. Would probably have had an impact on how I did it.

  11. Johnson & Johnson was held up as the best at handling a crisis with the Tylenol recall over 20 years ago. In the last year they have had recall after recall. The knowledge of how to handle a crisis was not institutionalized. They continue to flail at the problem without resolving it.

    Great advice in your post.

    Rob

  12. Crisis management should be a part of small and large businesses. As you said you can not predict everything that my occur, but you must be willing to be flexible and assume responsibility. We recently we had a printing mistake that impacted on of our clients. Our first instinct was to blame the printer but instead, we assumed responsibility. Although it was not a major crisis we gained respect from our client.
    I dont think people care whose fault it is they just the problem solved in a timely manner.

  13. You reaise very important points Catarina, especially the tenative plan of action. When I was in marketing all of us in senior mangament went through media training and with our PR agency did different senarios and a rough plan of how we would respond etc.

    Two months later there was a crisis and having thought through the major steps it did alleviate some of the stress and it worked out okay. Another company I worked for didn't and when the brand was in the news for a negative reason it was chaos for a while.

    Excellent post.

  14. Wow, I have to admit this is something I never considered! I have heard though that being open to the press isn't always the best approach (in general, but not particularly in a crisis situation). They tend to make things up, even if you present the proof. However, your points are well taken, and if I ever found myself in that situation I would follow your advice. I hope I never have to face any of these sorts of situations in my small businesses.

  15. I can't even imagine trying to handle the media in a crisis. I used to work for a nonprofit that was very visible to the public. Anytime there was a flurry of media activity (especially if it had a negative slant), we were told to refer any inquiries to our in-house PR person. He was instructed to follow our "talking-points" and if necessary refer them to an assigned spokesperson. As a nonprofit, we did work with a PR company that did pro-bono work for us but we also had a line item in our budget, just in case.

  16. Nice points Catarina. I am not so sure how one can have a tentative plan of action for every possible crisis that might happen. The problem with a crisis – besides the obvious – is that it is something unexpected and unplanned for. However, your points about being totally transparent are very valuable. If one is not, they will be found out. In addition, I would add to "stay calm" or at least as calm as possible because when we panic, our adrenaline gets pumped and we are therefore unable to think clearly.

    1. Thank you Julie and I'm glad we agree. The tentative plan is mainly who handles what and how when something goes wrong. As I pointed out it's not possible to predict everything that could go wrong. So it's just necessary to be clear about who will deal with the problem and more or less how it will be done. Not least who will communicate with the public and the press. Agree with you about staying calm. Panic would be fatal.

  17. I think that what the article and the comments thereafter indicate is that communicating in a crisis is far from easy – it occurs in a very complex and difficult environment which is rapidly changing with extremely heated emotions thrown in. There are many differing stakeholders involved and frictions, not least between PR and the lawyers, and getting it right can be critical to not only the survival of a company, policy etc but also to the very wellbeing of people invilved, be they shareholders, consumers, the general public, disaster victims or sufferers of humanitarian catastrophes. Preparation and training for dealing with communication in this light is vital but often not considered until it is too late, in which case too many people suffer because of too little foresight and investment in that training and preparation.

  18. This article is more of simple dos and donts. I can tell you that with best of preparation and protocols, sometimes the crisis can blow in your face. Reason- spokesperson at the senior management level doesnt take your counsel. sad but true that the industry thinks that you didnt handle it well

  19. Crisis management in relation to the Flood Victims in Pakistan

    While loads of money is pouring in through the locals and international organizations, the biggest problem is one of co-ordination. Everyone seems to be doing their own little bit which needless to say results in wastage, inefficient distribution etc.

    Are there any best practices, basic guidelines or any ICT systems that may be used? Any guidance would be appreciated

    Thanks
    Sadia

    1. Sadia, I have never dealt with crisis management when it comes to a disaster like the floods in Pakistan. Seems to me that the inefficiency is a result of really poor management of the crisis in the sense that nobody is in charge of the overall effort. Really hope the situation approves.

  20. Brilliant, Catarina.

    Crisis Management is something the EuroCrats seem to need desperately. As I said of the starving people in Africa, the only time the world shows concern is when a major public relations disaster is about to occur.

    Regards,

    Slim
    My recent post Biologia 1 de vera unidade iii

  21. Nicely said! I was directly involved at the senior level in Hurricane Katrina and several major tornados recovery efforts, & over the years had clients who got themselves in large scale high-profile public image scandals. In the end, it all comes down to experience, common sense and shooting from the hip! Always–always be proactive; and solicit the help of a pro. Cheaper than attorney fees! The crisis may be the lemon–the outcome however, if handled right, can be sweet lemonaide!

  22. Great post Catarina – I agree with you on so many points. An honest response that takes the matter seriously is required. Take a look at OCW in the U.S. The primary reason they are protesting is because they don't feel represented. Yet, look at how the politicians have responded – they say they don't understand why people are protesting or they tell people to blame one party and not the other. Bad crisis management to be sure.
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  23. Good. Only comment: I have worked with media in crisis, and cannot believe how lazy most of the reporters are. Many just go with what you give them without challenge. I might also add that a very, very good thing to develop in a crisis is a fact sheet, something in writing that spells out what you want the media to know. This is different from a press release, but it works like a press release in that you go from the most important to the least important point, a point at a time. And, I agree, in a crisis, communication is key even when you don't really have anything new to communicate. Those who ignore that rule can get burned big time.

  24. One thing that I think gets overlooked is that many companies are capable of handling a crisis effectively, but their executives make things far worse due to poor personal decisions.

    1. The executive views themselves as the company and feel they must be involved in everything. The result is that those who are below them get ignored even though they may know far more about the issue at hand.
    2. The executive thinks they are above the company and it is not worth their time to get involved in day-to-day events. By only focusing on the big picture they lose sight of the details that affect a company during a crisis and come across as cold and uninterested.
    3. The executive does not think about the company at all and is only interested in self preservation or self promotion by trying to please the public. This can result in unrealistic promises and internal conflicts (and blame) that end up hurting the company in the long term.

    By training senior executives and establishing processes to handle crisis ahead of time (e.g. be able to quickly "activate" a crisis team of people who are experts across your business), a company can help to prevent making mistakes in the management of the crisis and management of the press.

  25. Catarina,

    Nice! I was an emergency preparation, emergency response and crisis management consultant for a number of years and your roster was very thorough. Thank you.

    Mark

  26. All good dos and don’ts and great advice. What I have gleaned from those responding how their organizations handled issues as they arose are along the lines of these common ingredients for success along with some of my own experience in a well known insurance company where we would from time to time get embroiled in public issues as auto insurers are nice easy targets and the issues often complex but reduced to an attack on us.

    Key things for an organization to do well before a crisis include:

    1. Clarity of roles in-house as to who is do what must all be in place with prior executive commitment and understanding with a member of the executive the overall head of the issues management team. People need to know the process before a crisis.

    Formerly having the issues management coordination in my division in a former executive role this is critical as information needs to be gathered quickly and accurately with the right spokesperson(s) briefed and available.

    2. This issues management focal point must have access to the experts and those involved and they must get the whole truth together quickly. In my experience if facts are omitted or the story is not accurate someone ends up losing their job and that is the with holder or person who seeks to spin the story. Your board and chairman need to be briefed and other key stakeholders as well.

    When an issue hit we’d tell those providing us information that we simply need all the facts and the entire truth. Leave nothing out our people can write it up. We need this before we get to messaging or further actions but it is critical to not let dead air let others tell their story and your organization ends up looking bad and chasing the story which is often the worst position to be in.

    3. If an expert needs to speak such as on a public safety threat then get this person briefed and available quickly.

    You can’t – as the Japanese did in the major tsunami – rely on one overworked non-expert in the safety areas do all the talking despite their good intentions to take responsibility and then roll out the nuclear expert later on when that is not working. What happened then was that other nations started warning their nationals to get out. It was too late to get the expert in front of the public. It led to public concern well beyond what was necessary.

    3. Avoid what some technical experts want to do and that is get in a complex explanation of how your organization is not to blame but caught up in a mess due to others. The media won’t understand that and the public and stakeholders will be looking only at your actions.

    4. You can’t run issues management out of the media department yet they are absolutely critical and essential in a crisis as they know what the media want and need and their advice must be heeded as they deal with the media daily. They need to be fully involved in this and not be seen either as conveyors of messaging either. They must monitor, manage and be fully involved in the creation and dissemination of the message/story. In some cases their role as to who best to present the case is better than others’ judgment – listen to them.

    There are undoubtedly more and others could identify times when it is better to see if a story actually has “legs” or is a 24 hour story that simply fades away (depending on the issue of course). There are times too when the organization should lead in getting out the story. Certainly in my policing days that was what police leaders wanted to when members of their organization went astray. If they could lead and inform the public that they discovered this wrong doing, it went a long way to ensuring that the organization’s reputation was not harmed like it would be if the media broke the story.

    The article should be a good reminder to organizations to get this all figured out before the events occur that can harm your brand and your organization.

  27. Dear Catarina,

    Nice article. I appreciate it. But I feel Crisis management is a huge topic and is connected to all spheres of life. Now communicating to media, it happens only when something is connected mostly with Govt. or big Corporate Houses.

    But Crisis can happen anywhere. It can be in families, small business, in employment, etc. Well, as you rightly pointed out, communication is the key, wherever people are involved. Because, communications directly deals/influences the emotions of the people. And emotions are big potential, but has to be channelized. So a good communication helps. And many of your points are related to good communication.

    But what I think most is, the top man's capacity to cool himself and his emotions (understanding of that he cannot revisit the past, and has to take stock of the situation, and has to make salvage out of wreckage). Then he has to get his team in, cool their emotions and do a quick brainstorming in CRITICAL THINKING & CREATIVE THINKING pattern.

    Once you are able to differentiate the assumption and facts clearly, you will be in a better control of oneself and the situation. Now in this process, not one man gains confidence, but it is a TEAM, that gains confidence. Then need to go out communicate with utmost truth and modesty.

    Any how, it is a nice post. Thanks.

    1. It's so true that it often takes a team to handle crisis management, Arun. But it doesn't only apply to governments and multinational corporations. It's even worse for a small. local company when something goes wrong. It can lead to bancrupcy if not handled correctly.

  28. How a leader handles a crisis is a true test of leadership. You cover many good points. I've notice that that some tend to have too many crises, and a companion topic would be that many a crisis could have been avoided if proper planning had been implemented.

    I noticed you changed your theme for your site – I like the clean look. Why not have the menu across the top of the screen instead of one drop down.
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    1. Thank you Leora. Glad we agree. Planning is essential. But don't you think there's more to companies having many crisises than poor planning?:-) Have not changed my theme. It's been the same since 2009.

  29. I agree that it is essential to show that you genuinely care and that human beings are more important to you than money. There is nothing better to regain trust than to take responsibility and place your values in the right place.
    My recent post A moment of weakness

  30. Crisis Management cannot be generalized and cannot be taught like a B School topic. It varies from Industry to Industry, and place to place, hence this is a subject which should we worked and tackled on case to case basis rather than generalising. I am from India and can speak only about how crisis management is done here. We are very infamous for accumulating problems without solving it from time to time and when it blow up we call it a crisis. Then shifting of blame, responsibility and finding a scape goat are the routine things here. Some good companies by and large tackle it well without accumulating problems and allow it become a crisis..

    1. Naturally what a company has to be prepared for varies a lot, Narayanan. But no matter what a company does being prepared for disaster to strike is fundamental. Not sure why so many ignore that aspect. Glad you agree with me that it doesn't work to shift blame, responsibility and finding a scape goat.

  31. Disaster planning is so important – in every organization, association or company's existence. Having lived thru it with a non-profit I was volunteering for, I can honestly say it's better to be overly prepared than caught with your pants down.
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  32. It's always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared, but when it comes to action plans for crisis in schools too much time is spent on the paperwork and not enough on how action will be implemented. Of course that doesn't speak well for the rash of school shootings. We're told what to do, but not really shown or given a chance to practice how to respond.
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      1. Now that I think about it, larger school districts at least have an official PR person who is trained to deal with the press when a major crisis happens, but small schools do not and often end up backpedaling when too many wrong response actions are taken.

  33. Insightful as always Catarina. I hope I would remain calm. And then, I recently in interviewing people for my upcoming book, came across the most valuable piece of advice for such an event. It was shared to me regarding one of a cruise lines president's theory about listening: Listen to anticipate. I would think if I could remain calm that by listening all the pieces and parts could be pulled together and allow me to plan accordingly.
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  34. All good advice. It's crucial that everyone be on the same page — all levels of management and whomever is in charge of PR. One person off the reservation or not in the loop can spell disaster. Then, learn from your mistakes. Finally, at least learn from your mistakes. Avoid a post crisis circular firing squad. A Canadian friend has a job in post emergency assessment for the Canadian equivalent of FEMA. After a crisis or emergency, they compare what happened with what was supposed to happen and they adjust emergency plans as necessary for the next time.
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  35. The number of well known business men/women who show little integrity when caught out.

    They should apologise and work on repairing relationships with clients.

    What is done in the dark will always come to light.

  36. Good points for handling a crisis. I always think its funny how celebrities and politicians will instantly deny any trouble they’ve been caught in. Then, like clockwork, a week later they’ll admit it is true when they can’t run any longer. You think they would learn that denying the truth doesn’t work. But I guess it is human instinct to try to deny trouble once we’ve been caught in it even if it is has been clearly proven not to work.

    1. It's amazing how people try to lie when a crisis hits, isn't it, Erica. And it's even worse when it's a huge corporation like Wolkswagen because it will cost the business a fortune both short and long term.

  37. In my career as a pilot/flight instructor, my biggest crises were in air engine malfunctions. Before one happened, I wondered how I would do. When the very few did occur, I was pleased that I was calm, was able to solve the problems and never had to actually make an off-airport landing. I know this isn’t really what you meant but it’s what came to my mind in answer to your question. And yes, I do feel that admitting mistakes and being honest are absolutes.

  38. 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…..

  39. 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.

  40. “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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

      1. 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.

  43. 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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