They say that out of crisis comes opportunity. Among the many challenges presented by COVID in 2020, my silver lining was the opportunity to write and publish a book, “Crisis Proof.” Its subtitle, “How to prepare for the worst day of your business life,” reflects the huge pressure and high stakes confronting business leaders when they face a major crisis.
But for communicators, a crisis can be the best day of your business life.
It’s the moment when you have the full attention of your colleagues and when your experience, advice and expertise has a direct impact on the destiny of your organization and those affected by it. As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
Taking an Outside-In Perspective
How can you make the biggest difference when your colleagues are facing the worst day of their business career? It begins with applying one of the most innate qualities of a professional communicator — the ability to see a situation from your stakeholders’ perspective.
Under what they may see as an attack, leaders can be tempted to focus inwardly and adopt a defensive posture, a mentality which may have contributed to the ill-fated comment of BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward when he said, “I want my life back,” following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Communicators should hold up a mirror to their business to ensure that its words and deeds address stakeholder impact rather than the injustice or irritation felt by an under-pressure leader.
A Critical Friend in a Crisis
Being an effective advisor in a crisis requires you to be brave in giving your best advice, even if it may not be what the leadership team wants to hear. Think of yourself as a critical friend, someone who is prepared to state the sometimes-painful truth, but only because you genuinely care.
In this role, you can focus your team on the critical requirements to successfully manage a crisis. During my 25-year career in crisis management, I have found that the following ingredients provide the foundation for a purposeful and effective crisis response.
1. Activate your team without delay.
Encourage your colleagues or clients to put their crisis team on standby at the first sign of a crisis. It’s better to stand them down if it turns out to be a false alarm than wait too long and forever play catch-up.
2. Follow your plan.
Often, teams react to a crisis without a second glance at their pre-prepared plan. Make sure that your organization’s crisis management plan is used in the heat of a crisis. Its processes, checklists and templates will be of great value in making swift and sure-footed progress.
3. Set strategic intent.
Acting without thinking is rarely a recipe for success, and in a crisis it can be disastrous. Before hasty decisions are made, encourage your colleagues to align around a single-minded “strategic intent” — a vision of what success looks like at the end of the crisis. This clear focus is an antidote to short-term, reactive thinking, and a powerful aid to well-conceived decision-making.
4. Engage in scenario planning.
If you are to exert influence over a crisis, you must get ahead of it rather than simply following events. The best way to do this is through scenario planning, a task at which communicators are particularly effective. Away from the noise and emotion of the crisis management team, consider what could happen next, how the crisis could escalate and the worst case scenarios. Share these insights with the team so they can take steps to prevent negative developments and prepare contingencies for worst-case scenarios should they emerge.
5. Be true to your values.
Businesses that respond to a crisis in a manner which runs counter to their stated values suffer the greatest harm of all. Reputation protection requires your crisis response to epitomize everything you have previously claimed to stand for. As guardians of reputation, communicators must be courageous in guiding their colleagues to stay true to their values in the most testing of circumstances.
Making a Difference When It Matters Most
No one in their right mind would yearn for a crisis to hit their business. However, for communicators, the day a crisis strikes need not be the worst of their career.
Indeed, it could be the occasion on which they make the biggest difference, not just to protecting their company’s reputation but also the lives and livelihoods of all the stakeholders affected by it. If that isn’t a good day at the office, I don’t know what is.
Jonathan Hemus is the founder of the crisis management consultancy Insignia and author of an Amazon No. 1 bestselling book, “Crisis Proof – How to Prepare For The Worst Day Of Your Business Life,” which was named as Specialist Business Book of the Year in the 2021 British Business Book Awards.
He works with leaders of businesses around the world to ensure they have the capability and confidence to do and say the right things under the intense pressure of a crisis. During his 25-year career, he has advised clients including Anglo American, Cathay Pacific, DP World, the International Cricket Council, Lidl and Procter & Gamble.
He is chair of the advisory board at Aston University’s Crisis Centre where he lectures on its MSc in crisis and disaster management.