The word “crisis” does not generally evoke pleasant thoughts: Financial crisis. Energy crisis. Unemployment crisis. A crisis is an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome. To this end, every leader will have to confront a business crisis at some point in their career. Effective crisis management skills are some of the most important, and hopefully underutilized, skills a leader can and should possess.
Step 1: Inform everyone who needs to know.
The first step in any crisis is to pass along the information you have about the situation to your team. From the leader’s perspective, this is probably upper management, who can then inform anyone and everyone on their team who needs to know. If the information is going to be released publicly, you want to make sure all employees know prior to the public finding out. This reduces the risk of employees connecting erroneous or unimportant dots that either should not be connected or unintentionally lead to passing along false information. As important, it also reminds them they are part of a special team and everyone is in the same situation together, working towards the same resolution goal.
Always notify franchisees, divisions or branches of the company that may be impacted. You want to avoid a situation where a reporter calls someone who was not already aware of the incident. When informing team members of a crisis, make sure to tell them who to contact if the media or anyone else asks them for information. Someone needs to be the point of contact, and you do not want just anyone to have carte blanche approval to speak with the press or the public at large, answer questions for which they may not be completed informed and be the mouthpiece for the organization overall.
Depending on the crisis, you may also need to call in experts to help you deal with it. That could be an attorney, a PR firm, your insurance company or the police. If you are a franchisee, you should contact your franchisor; they are more likely to have the resources and systems in place to help gather facts and deal with the crisis. Don’t run to the media. Patiently wait for them to come to you. Remember, your job is to manage the crisis, not create a story that isn’t necessary news at this point.
Step 2: Prepare a statement (but don’t release it).
Crisis is not good and the attention your business receives from it won’t be as well. This is why you don’t want to reach out to the media yourself, but you should be proactive in preparing a statement in case they learn about the crisis another way. Work with your publicist to draft a well thought out statement that addresses the situation clearly and succinctly, so that you are ready to respond later if necessary.
A good response should be honest—do not sugarcoat it and certainly do not make anything up. If you aren’t sure of answers, simply say you are gathering more information. Never speculate. You are not trying to communicate every detail of what happened, but instead, you are trying to correct the issue and mitigate any damage. Never say “no comment.” You can use phrases like “I don’t know at this time” or “We will continue to gather information” if you are unsure.
Step 3: Communicate information as you gather facts.
It’s also important to stay pragmatic when approaching a crisis. If you become too emotional, you may become part of the problem. Let the experts do their jobs, whether it is the police, a supplier, counselor or someone else. Again, your goal during a crisis is to fix it and mitigate damage.
During this process and as you learn more about the situation, communicate what you know, being cautious that it doesn’t harm the public, your employees or the brand. Your intent should not be to keep information from anyone, but instead to ensure it is vetted prior to communication so you can be sure it is complete, accurate and factual.
In a crisis, you want to control the message. If someone needs to be interviewed, choose someone as close to the top of the organization as possible. They do not need to know all of the details of the crisis, but they do need to know what the ultimate resolution will be. If necessary, coach them for the interview. Your public relations firm or attorney can help with that. For example, listen closely to the questions you are asked because they may not be the most relevant or important questions to what you are trying to communicate. Be calculated in getting across your key talking points so that you can pass along the most relevant and important information.
Crisis management is part art and part science. Make sure you are communicating facts and not conjecture. At the end of the day, you are not trying to sell a story. You are trying to solve a problem first and foremost.