Old Adage Rings True
“When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”
Keith also meant the expression as a reflection on human nature. Despite the frequency with which crises occur in our personal and business affairs, most of us fail to assess the probability and impact of the big ones in advance, much less plan effective responses ahead of time. Which explains why business executives who find themselves engulfed in major crises tend to run through a predictable cycle:
Surprise … insufficient information … escalating flow of events … intense outside scrutiny … siege mentality … panic … short-term focus.
This has long been a source of grim amusement for me, since statistics compiled annually by the Institute for Crisis Management show that 65 percent of crises in American business are “smoldering” in nature, rather than “sudden,” meaning they could have been spotted and fixed before reaching the crisis stage. Moreover, management is responsible for 52 percent of all business crises, compared with employees (29 percent), or other factors (19 percent).
No telling whether the failure to plan ahead stems from cockeyed “What, me worry?” optimism like that of MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, or from the ostrich-like certainty—in the face of all evidence to the contrary—that “It can’t happen to me.” Perhaps business leaders are just too busy dealing with the little, daily crises of commerce to pay attention to the big monsters bearing down on them.
Which of course is about as foolish as a motorist who neglects to wear a seatbelt or carry accident insurance. Maybe there ought to be a law requiring corporate crisis preparedness. Meanwhile, though, what you do when you’re at the wheel of your organization boils down to taking personal responsibility.
Keith, for example, wisely looked to the future, took out a life insurance policy, and executed a will to preserve his modest assets for his family in the event that the worst should come to pass.
So, while he probably didn’t see coming the careless driver who flew off a side road and took his life as he was traveling along M-52 four years ago, he nonetheless foresaw the inevitable and prepared accordingly. And that lessened the resulting turmoil immeasurably.
Guaranteed: When a big crisis hits, you’ll quickly have to explain yourself and your organization to a demanding public. Will you be able to say you did all you could?
Your supporters will expect you to handle the situation. Amid the chaos, you’ll be making decisions in a fishbowl, possibly as systems fail, events escalate, facts are scarce and panic spreads. So, it’s best to prepare in advance for an appearance in the court of public opinion, where executives are generally considered guilty until proven innocent.
Developing a crisis plan can be fairly complex, depending on the size and type of your organization, and its impact on the public. It starts with an analysis of what events would constitute crises for your organization, assuming that a crisis is any situation that runs the risk of:
- Escalating in intensity
- Falling under close media or government scrutiny
- Interfering with normal operations
- Jeopardizing your organization’s image
- Damaging your organization’s financial standing
The main goals of crisis management are to lessen any harm caused by the event, and only secondarily to ensure fair, balanced news coverage. Typically, planning covers three types of response:
- Managerial (confirm crisis severity, mobilize and direct crisis teams)
- Operational (implement emergency procedures, protect people and operations)
- Communications (gather facts; facilitate flow of information to employees, families, and all other key constituencies, including news media)
Public relations professionals can help develop the communications plan. You’ll need a wide range of expert advice for your crisis management and operations plans—legal, financial, human resources, law enforcement, facilities management, information technology, telecommunications, social services and so on.
It’s a big job, best begun sooner rather than later. “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” observed financier Warren Buffett, one of the world’s wealthiest people. “If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
Or, when the time comes, you could simply run in circles, scream and shout.
| ||Mark Holoweiko |
Mark Holoweiko is chairman of Stony Point Communications, Inc., a strategic public relations and marketing agency based in Haslett. Nationally accredited by the Public Relations Society of America and a certified crisis communication consultant, Holoweiko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.