Crisis Management: Controlling the Chaos

Warp speed communications, fake news, lack of diversity, harassment, mental health issues and safety are just a few challenges facing organizations, companies and academic institutions today.

Executive Counsel Terry Hemeyer recently was the keynote speaker at the Deans of Student Affairs Annual Meeting. The meeting, which was hosted by the State Bar of Texas in Austin and sponsored by the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, brought together law school deans of student affairs from across the state.

Hemeyer led a discussion among the deans about potential challenges and issues that could arise at their schools, and shared the biggest challenges when managing crises in academic environments. Here are some of the challenges he addressed that resonate with today’s most troubling vulnerabilities and situations facing academic, organizational and corporate entities.

Timing is Critical

Crises do not age well, like a fine wine. It is imperative to handle a crisis immediately. You cannot ignore the problem, go home and hope that it doesn’t exist in the morning. In the first hours after a crisis, your mission is to determine what action to take, what to say, whom to say it to and when to say it. There is often no time to think and strategize with big-picture crisis policies when a crisis is happening. Those policies need to be prepared ahead of time.

In today’s world, perception is everything. A lie repeated enough is eventually perceived as the truth, so it’s important to address developments in a timely manner. If misinformation gets out there, you need to correct it with facts as soon as possible. It needs to be timely, but it needs to be informed. Do your research and get the accurate facts before making a statement.

The crisis leader needs to be, or at least appear to be, the calmest person in the room. As a leader, understand that you can’t make everyone happy and a decision needs to be made in a timely manner after sufficient research, even if that feels as though you’re taking a chance. Stalling on making a decision can cause gridlock and further damage to your brand.

Control the Conversation

A crisis will not stay quiet. With social media and instant availability to information online, traditional media outlets will often know about the emerging facts before the crisis leader. Social media policies are imperative in this day and age, but you can’t tell employees or stakeholders to simply not talk about your company. You need to be open, explain that they are representatives of the organization and to be responsible with what is put online. With the power of social platforms today, just one person can criticize a company or organization and it can spread like wildfire, leaving you with no control over it.

The first message that comes out about a crisis often sets the tone for the overall story. You, as the crisis response leader, are on the defense because you have to have the facts before you should respond. You need to give the same message to everyone. In an academic setting, for example, you need to give the same message to students, faculty, staff, parents and board members. If you send out different messages, two groups could find the disparity, which delegitimizes the message. Also, assume that each group needs to be told individually, as audiences today are especially segmented, running in their own circles.

Everyone will be faced with a crisis at some point. It’s not a matter of if, but when. And, no two crises are the same. You may deal with numerous similar situations, but they will have nuances that separate them. Deans of student affairs at law schools manage a variety of situations that arise by the minute. Being prepared in knowing that crises are only a matter of time can help these administrators prioritize and handle these issues in the most effective way possible.

As Executive Counsel for Pierpont, Terry Hemeyer advises clients on reputation and communications management, as well as preventing and navigating crisis situations. He is also an award-winning educator, teaching at both The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, where he teaches crisis management in the MBA program.