5 Principles of Strong Crisis Leadership

In a world where misinformation can go viral in minutes, technology disruptions can cripple business operations, and reporters may blend fact with fiction to fit the most “clickable” narrative, thoughtful and strategic crisis preparation, response, and recovery never have been more important. Crises hit without discrimination and can affect every layer of an organization, and the consequences of flawed crisis management are very real.

Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to effective crisis management. Those who emerge successfully typically take an integrated approach that coordinates the necessary players, reaches the right audiences, and takes steps to transition from response to recovery seamlessly.

To provide clarity and a solid foundation to help you engineer your response, I’ve broken down five key principles of strong crisis leadership. These best practices should serve as your North Star when navigating tumultuous seas.

DO: Plan and train. Rinse and repeat.

Proactively developing a crisis communications plan is of critical importance, as is training your team and spokespersons on that plan, testing it to identify vulnerabilities, and revisiting it regularly to ensure protocols and scenarios are up to date. According to PWC’s 2019 Global Crisis Survey, nearly seven in 10 senior-level executives experienced at least one crisis within the last five years, and 95% of corporate executives expect to be hit with one in the future. And this was pre-pandemic data.

Putting your head in the sand and hoping for the best no longer is a viable option, as crises have become more complex and harder to contain than ever before. It’s worth noting that crisis preparedness has emerged as a real competitive advantage – most notably because so many competitors fail to take these preventative measures and inevitably suffer the consequences.

DON’T: Panic or rush.

I’ve heard crisis management experts claim that you have “15 minutes to respond to a crisis.” While I agree with the sentiment, a panicked, rushed response to a crisis without careful consideration and vetting by necessary parties can create problems worse than saying nothing at all. Before you make any statements, the crisis management team must be assembled, facts must be gathered, audiences must be considered, messages must be crafted, and spokespersons must prepare. This takes time.

The benefit of crisis preparation is that much of this legwork already is complete, putting your organization in a position to respond more quickly with approved language that can be tailored to a particular situation and its associated circumstances.

DO: Respond swiftly and in one voice, but very carefully.

The first public response sets the foundation for all future communications. Misrepresented facts, an inauthentic or disingenuous tone, a lack of contrition or empathy, or conflicting messages from multiple sources within the organization will be examined thoroughly by the media and public. It’s difficult to walk back a misplaced initial response. The media landscape is littered with stories of ousted corporate executives who faltered when communicating in the early stages of a crisis, many of which were avoidable.

So yes, respond swiftly, but carefully and in one voice. If the crisis is not yet public, get ahead of it before news or social media grabs ahold – research consistently shows that a crisis does less reputational damage if the company is first to report it. Your response should be measured and calm, fact-based, considerate of all those consuming your messages – both internal and external – and as transparent as possible without creating or increasing litigation risk. In many cases, and especially if injury or loss of life is involved, demonstrating compassion is paramount.

It sounds cliché to say you have one chance to get it right, but in dealing with a crisis, you really have only one chance to get it right.

DON’T: Lose control of the narrative.

For large-scale crises, ongoing communications efforts are required to maintain control of the narrative and position the company as a trusted source of new information. An effective strategy to ensure that your organization’s voice drives the conversation is to establish a regular and fixed cadence of communications. If media expects a company’s statements detailing situational updates will be released at set frequencies, the organization shifts from reactive to proactive, ultimately influencing and sometimes controlling media cycles.

You should monitor the reaction to your response, using social listening software to analyze public and media sentiment. If you identify that a particular aspect of messaging falls flat, you can pivot through tone or language. Capturing this information throughout the duration of a crisis will be vital once the crisis shifts from response to recovery. It will help you analyze your organization’s handling of the issue to garner learnings and help you prepare for the next issue.

DO: Act as one team and remain true to your values.

Successful outcomes can be engineered when crisis management is viewed is a team sport (with a strong team captain). Conversely, misalignment, internal turmoil, or infighting can make managing – and thus surviving – a crisis much more difficult. The reality is that a crisis magnifies the best or worst in your people and your business or organization. Therefore, you must rely upon your organization’s core values during crises, whether those values are focused on respect, integrity, trust, accountability, honesty, resilience, collaboration, or the like. Figuring out your organization’s values before a crisis is critical – if you don’t know what guides you, you’ll get lost quickly in a crisis.

Surviving a crisis together can galvanize your team and bond them to each other and the organization, while a poorly planned and executed response can send the team and company into a tailspin from which they may never recover. If you act as one team and remain true to your values, your organization will be able to capitalize on one of the greatest opportunities crisis presents: strengthening your internal culture.

The Bottom Line.

Crises will happen. It’s not a matter of if, but when. So, make crisis preparation a priority – before it hits. Develop a plan and test it. When a crisis strikes, adopt a fact-based, measured approach that removes emotion from the equation. Swift and effective communication is key to taking and maintaining control of the narrative. Act as one team, and always remain true to your values.

Remember this: in crisis there is both danger and opportunity – you must successfully navigate the former in order to seize the latter.

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