Our firm is often brought in to serve as counselors during a crisis, or to help clients prepare for controversial decisions that will be covered, debated and questioned by the community, business competitors and the media. While each project is unique, there are common truths to any crisis management project.
No matter your planning or how obvious ‘the answer’ may appear, having things go according to plan is the exception, not the rule. However, well researched and thoughtful your strategy is, you must remain nimble, flexible and be in a position to respond to developments as they occur.
You must also be willing to set aside the bias of past successes. Political communicators frequently cite Shakespeare’s prose, “What’s past is prologue,” to sound pithy and wise. While it is important to learn lessons from the past, you can’t assume someone else’s playbook will succeed, because no two issues are ever exactly alike. (For the record, the character in The Tempest offering this sage advice, was attempting to rationalize both regicide and patricide, so dig deeper, beyond the lackadaisical.)
Make sure you have a strategy, not simply a plan based on instinct. A true tactician will think several steps ahead, peer beyond the corner and prepare for the inevitable push back.
You must also accept that your team will make mistakes that set your objectives back. The best teams will mitigate self-inflicted errors, but in developing a strategy, you should plan for something to go wrong that was of your own doing.
Often in a crisis situation, executives and communicators are triaging information and prioritizing its release. So, in an attempt to offer disclosure of the scope of the issue in a timely fashion, you may not have all of the facts. Or worse, those seeking to hide and survive may have intentionally hid them from you.
It is important to establish yourself as being an honest broker of information, or you will make the media and public much more suspicious of your answers in the future.
Here are a few notable examples of failures that ignored these fundamental truths of crisis management, by otherwise veteran communicators.
* Whatever your partisan affiliation, the handling over Hillary Clinton’s email server has been an unmitigated disaster for her campaign. The issue isn’t going away and serves as a cloud over her entire platform.
* In the world of sports, the NFL’s abject failure over discipline with its players manifested in the Ray Rice scandal. The league was caught off guard when its familiar playbook for off-field incidents no longer satisfied the media, public and sponsors.
* In the gaming industry, paid daily fantasy sports operators find themselves in an existential fight. It appears they convinced themselves of the legality of their product, but a growing roster of Attorneys General seems to differ. All ‘disrupters’ are not created equal and while it’s too early to tell, these operators are on the defensive across the country.
* And…Rahm Emanuel. #Wheretobegin
In these endeavors you can do everything right and still end up losing. Sometimes you are dealing with public officials who aren’t courageous enough to make a tough decision, or you’re simply dealt a bad hand. Not every case is winnable; that’s just a fact of life.
However, with thoughtful messages, nimble decision making and a forward thinking strategy, you can avoid common mistakes of crisis management.