A road map for crisis management

Preparation results in better response

Crisis Management

President John F. Kennedy once said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”

In the face of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, businesses and organizations across our city and our region have struggled to determine how to communicate about this evolving crisis.

There are two subsets to a crisis management strategy: how you react to the crisis and how you manage your business during turbulent times.

Reacting to a crisis

No matter if the crisis is internal or external to your organization, time is of the essence. You should have a designated crisis management team ready to expressly handle these types of situations whether they are internal or external to the organization. If not, someone should be appointed as the spokesperson or point person for the media or government agencies. Someone must articulate the organization’s position on the event, situation or crisis. As painful as it can be, the truth is your best friend. This is not the time for “spin” as the truth will come out and you want to be a source to be trusted.

In recent years, a major airplane manufacturer and a national fast food provider were not completely truthful with the media and regulatory agencies.

Boeing’s response to the 737 Max fatal crashes is an example of “duck and cover” tactics. Management, including their CEO David Calhoun, tried to cover up the fact that their own people were concerned about the safety of the plane’s new navigational system. They responded with newly revised software designed to fix the software problem. Because of the level of distrust among pilots and passengers, and their initial responses, which were found to be flawed, the airlines grounded their existing 737 Max fleets and canceled their initial orders. As a result, there is a new chairman at Boeing and an ongoing investigation by the FAA.

Chipotle experienced their third and fourth foodborne illness crises in Ohio and Massachusetts, when CEO Steve Ellis was the company’s voice. The crisis experts were not impressed, and criticized him because he was not “super specific” about what was being done to remedy the Boston norovirus problem that sickened more than 140 college students. The experts also said that Chipotle missed an opportunity for a more integrated response that could have included social media, where there were negative comments being shared. They did not make a concerted effort to manage the information on either the internet or social media channels. Their lack of response let the negative comments “run wild.” As a result, their inaction reinforced the perception that something was wrong with their “food safety culture.”

Managing the crisis

Based on those two case studies, both companies could have done a better job of managing their individual crises. Kane Communications Group suggests strategies for successful internal and external communications in these types of situations:

  • Know who your key target audiences are. These include your employees, your customers, your contractors. They may also include elected officials or other specific groups.
  • Document all the communications channels you use to communicate with these audiences and how you use these channels. With employees, for example, your company may have an intranet site, email, weekly employee-supervisor meetings, a monthly town hall. It’s also good to have their cell phone numbers. Document all these channels so you can activate them in real time when needed.
  • Develop a list of possible crisis scenarios with your leadership team. What could happen? Based on these scenarios, prepare “holding” documents that don’t need much updating when a crisis hits. These holding documents may include key messages, statements, a press release, email templates for each target audience that can be used in response to the scenario.
  • Connect your crisis communications strategy and messaging to your mission, vision and core values. These brand attributes are critical during a crisis and extremely important to help protect your brand.
  • Get input from a crisis communications expert. Today, a company’s reputation and its value can rise and fall with a single tweet.

Communication is a core business strategy. Take it seriously – especially before a crisis.

A few other important strategies:

  • Carefully fact check approved messages.
  • Identify a crisis team and/or key spokesperson(s).
  • Develop both short-term and long-term plans for communication.
  • Set policies for media relations and social media.
  • Always be authentic and transparent.
  • Turn to your legal team and communications counsel equally. Your legal team establishes guidelines, your communications counsel helps you manage the court of public opinion.

Cary Silverstein, MBA, is a speaker, author and consultant, a former executive for Gimbel’s Midwest and JH Collectibles, and a former professor for DeVry University’s Keller Graduate School. Kimberly Kane is the president and CEO of Kane Communications Group.

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He was a senior professor at DeVry's Keller Graduate School in Wisconsin. Cary has published articles in periodicals and on the Internet. He recently published first book with Dr. Larry Waldman, "Overcoming Your NegotiaPhobia". Cary holds MBAs from L I U’s Arthur T. Roth School of Business. Cary has a BA from CUNY, Queens College. He has certificates in Negotiation from Harvard’s PON and in Labor and Employment Law from Marquette University.

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