Crisis Management Nuggets – From the Frontlines

Recently, Pierpont Communications’ Terry Hemeyer invited three crisis experts to visit his MBA class at Rice University to discuss crisis management. The students heard expert commentary on how to manage threats and crisis situations illustrated through real-world experiences.   The information shared was valuable, both for communicators and business executives. Here are some of the key points that each speaker made:   Richard E. Ford, a 26-year Coast Guard veteran and former supervisor of the Environmental Services Unit and Regional Oil Spill Coordinator of the Western Hemisphere spoke first. He was instrumental in managing and handling the colossal 1994 floods in Houston and the aftermath of the event, which included massive damage in and around the city and leaking oil pipelines. Ford focused on how to manage crises with special regards to the public sector environment. Here were his key takeaways:   There are four main things you have to deal with in crisis management: (1) intense media, (2) power vacuums, (3) the Board of Directors and (4) day to day operations. Crises are multi-faceted in nature and it is likely that there will be several stakeholders to answer to including your team, the public and the media.   Media has narratives and they have agendas. They will take anything they hear or see to fit “their story.” Often times the media reports a story they visualize, but it is your job as a CEO, manager or PR professional to give them timely, accurate and honest information and prevent an inaccurate story.   You will have to make decisions where you may not have the authority due to policy, regulations or the law, but you need to do the right thing. It is not always easy to make hard-hitting decisions during times of crisis; however, your decisions and actions must be in the interest of the greater good.   People of higher authority who only dabble in the crisis may give you bad directives because they are not fully informed. A crisis manager should prevent this if possible by communicating and making the tough decisions to get things resolved quickly and in the best interest of the stakeholders (i.e. the public, investors, creditors, customers and employees).   You can’t do it all by yourself and you can’t remember everything. You will need a following of people that are dedicated to making things happen – they should be trust-worthy, well-informed and have the ability to make good decisions at the spur of the moment.   Next up was Greg Holdburg, who shared his insight on business continuity planning and emergency response.  Holdburg has more than 20 years of experience handling crisis situations and is currently the senior manager of Global Business Continuity at BMC Software. Some of his pointers included:   You need to have one message. Training employees (specifically C-level employees) on the messaging during a crisis is vital to overcoming it. Different messages coming from individuals from the same company can cause chaos. Training high-level employees on what to say in the event of a crisis will alleviate extra commotion.   Test your contingency plan through a “Table Top” exercise. To measure the effectiveness of a crisis plan, put it to the test by considering pending and immediate crises. This in turn helps refine and improve the existing contingency plan. Test your plans and assumptions to ensure that you’re thoroughly prepared.   Post mortems are important to improve processes and apply them to different situations. “Deep-diving” to see strengths and weaknesses of the contingency plan is critical after riding the crisis tide. Unpreparedness is often exposed and it’s important to understand how and what to improve in the wake of another disaster.   The last frontline expert to share his views on crisis management was Pierpont’s own Clint Woods, who was also the forum’s moderator. Woods is senior vice president at Pierpont Communications, and here is what he shared:   The four key things to keep in mind while managing a crisis are: (1) leadership, (2) humility, (3) humanity and (4) transparency. Despite the chaotic environment (both during and after a crisis), an organization should show the above qualities to ensure that its image and reputation remain intact. Clean, honest and rapid communications is a must to overcome the crisis. Strong leadership is critical in a crisis situation. It’s important to also continue to maintain a sense of calm. In the chaotic environment resulting from a crisis, it is easy to forget that crises are human events and people tend to lose sight of what’s important.   The biggest mistake is not realizing that reputation matters. Billionaire Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” A company’s reputation is the foundation of its credibility in the market – it is highly important to keep it intact.   You can’t do one-way communication; there are many stakeholders.Stakeholders need clear communication. It is also imperative that you listen and monitor traditional and social media trends. This will help shape the conversation in order to protect your company’s reputation.   The event was a success and the students were able to take away key thoughts from three knowledgeable experts. Crises can hit an organization at any time and these gentlemen shared their thoughts on what’s important in the event of a crippling situation: leadership, reputation, business continuity, media relations and most importantly – relationship building.