The new crisis management playbook

Sean Murphy & Adam Boesen

In today’s hyper-reactive, social media driven world your organization’s response to a crisis needs to be more sophisticated than ever because the stage where it will inevitably play out has never been bigger, louder, or faster moving. But you are not powerless. Companies looking to protect their reputations should adopt a three-pronged approach: 

1.      Prevention and mitigation

2.      Constructing a compelling narrative

3.      Effective crisis response and reputation repair strategies


Crisis prevention and mitigation

In a column about cybersecurity, Ted Schneider, chief technology officer of Arcos LLC, captured the essence of what has the highest potential to cripple a company in its crisis response: “We’re a reaction society. We’re not a society anymore where people want to think about what could happen.”

The mandate for crisis planning has never been clearer. For companies, the C-suite and boards of directors are under intense scrutiny to perform their enterprise risk management (ERM) duties—specifically to identify and deal with the organization’s potential vulnerabilities.

In terms of crisis planning, that translates to establishing unassailable operating standards that are in synch with current social values. And it means anticipating the type of crises your organization is most likely to face and preparing in advance to respond, including by having a team that’s ready to go.


Constructing a compelling narrative

People can react emotionally or even irrationally to a crisis, and the application of common-sense solutions often leads to unwanted outcomes. As Leonard Mlodinow explains in Subliminal (his neuroscience based book): “Studies show that well-reasoned arguments in opposition to our views tend to amplify, and not quell, disagreement.”

Many well-meaning leaders make the mistake of letting common sense dictate their crisis response. But a crisis is filled with complexities that require deeper insights than common sense can provide. Without a sophisticated understanding of the underlying psychological dynamics resulting from a crisis, leaders are left with only their own perspective, missing entirely the viewpoint of the people most impacted. The missteps and miscommunications that follow can be as unfortunate as they are unnecessary. 

What you say at the outset of a crisis is your best shot at defining the narrative—and thus the direction—of the crisis itself. At CSI, we employ sophisticated psychology-based methods to develop integrated communication strategies that create consistent messaging from day-1 all the way through to ultimate resolution. Consistency is essential because if your company’s crisis does lead to litigation, your initial response should not limit your later litigation and trial strategy.


Crisis response and reputation repair

Today’s reactive social media climate has only given more impetus to the long-standing crisis mantra of, “Tell it all, tell it fast, and tell the truth.” But this is easier said than done. In the face of a crisis, your company’s initial response should be to:

·         Activate your crisis protocol and assemble the response team.

·         Be quick, but take the appropriate time to craft your narrative so you are defining the issue and helping others understand what                you’re doing about it.

·         Be accurate and carefully check your facts.

·         Activate your communication channels, including social media and, if you’re really prepared, your crisis website.

·         Designate the right spokesperson and keep them informed and up-to-date. HINT: This isn’t always the CEO. 

·         Remember to include employees and other key stakeholders in your initial response.


Getting it right the first time is of course the goal, but there can be hope if your company’s early crisis response was to “zig” when you should have “zagged.” Even if that “zig” is causing real reputational harm, it’s never too late to begin to get it right. 

There are proven psychology-based research methods capable of identifying the real impact on your company’s reputation in the wake of a crisis. Understanding the true impacts allows for development of a roadmap for rebuilding trust and other critical aspects of your company’s brand with key stakeholders, be they customers, partners, employees, investors, or even regulators. 

Crises can happen to anyone. The difference between crisis and catastrophe is the foresight to plan, and the courage and insight to respond in a way that answers the real concerns of your most important audiences.

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