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Effective Crisis Management: What Leaders Need to Know  

By Patrice Rajacic

When you’re scanning the morning news, it generally doesn’t take long to find a story about a developing crisis situation, a close-up of a very recent crisis, or an analysis of a crisis that may technically be over, but is still being dissected and examined months or even years later. And depending on your perspective, which news outlets you read, and your level of knowledge about each situation, you probably have an opinion about whether the organizations involved handled their respective crises well or badly.

When I’ve talked to colleagues and peers about my work, crisis management is likely to come up – and I’ve noticed a common theme emerge when it does. In the extended list of functions I work across in my capacity as Corporate Communications lead at Marino, I’ll mention crisis management, and the following exchange will happen:

Them: “Oh, I saw something on the news about a crisis that (insert recent news story subject) had recently.”
Me: “Yeah? Do you remember what happened?”
Them: “Not exactly, but it was bad.”

That, in a nutshell, is what every company and organization should be consistently working to avoid. Even after a crisis is over, its impacts can last well past the actual incident. Effective crisis management – in which communication plays a critical role – is one of the most important ways that an organization can protect the future of their brand, their credibility, and the trust of their stakeholders after a crisis occurs.

Planning for the Worst – Before it Happens

Whether it’s a corporate scandal, a data breach, or a severe weather event, no company or organization is totally immune to a potential crisis. That’s why it’s so important for every organization to have a plan in place for crisis response if something serious were to happen. This involves identifying potential crisis scenarios that your organization could encounter, determining which internal stakeholders would need to be involved in the response and handling of those situations, and how you would communicate with your key audiences through the situation.

If you’re not sure where to start in putting a crisis response plan together, one helpful exercise is taking a look at other entities in your industry that have been through difficult situations and asking, “What would we have done if we were them?” That practice on its own could prompt conversations within your leadership team and yield insights that could be the foundation of your crisis response program. Engaging an agency partner to bring outside perspective, identify blind spots, and advise on activating the plan can be highly valuable in making the program effective and actionable if you ever needed to use it.

Putting Crisis Management into Action

So say you walk into work tomorrow morning and something worrying has occurred: how do you make sure your plan actually works? More often than not, bad crisis management doesn’t have to do with a crisis response plan being wrong – it has to do with the plan not being followed properly, the plan being followed too late, or there being no plan in place to follow at all. In the midst of a difficult situation, the overall goal is to maintain trust with the affected parties, your internal audiences and, when necessary, the public. Constant, clear, and thoughtful communication is one of the most effective ways of controlling a narrative, managing expectations, and expressing your care about the impacted parties during a crisis. In our current media landscape, where everything can be scrutinized and picked apart in any number of online forums, having an agency partner can be critical to making sure your statements and responses strike the appropriate tone, avoid sounding stale or indifferent, and get in front of the right audiences.

Preventing Future Crises

Nearly every crisis is a business problem before it’s a crisis – and even when an effective communications plan is in place and followed through to the end, the fact remains that you can’t communicate your way out of a business problem. Once a crisis has happened, the process of taking care of the affected parties, addressing the problem, and taking steps to ensure it does not happen again in the future should begin as soon as possible. Through this process, and in the weeks and months following, it’s important to continue communicating about the actions you’re taking and promises you are fulfilling in order to effectively move past the incident, rebuild trust, and protect your business.

In the midst of a real crisis, it can be very difficult to see one’s way through to the other side and stay focused on the most important aspects of managing the aftermath. But one thing you can do right now is think through potential scenarios and the steps you would need to take in order to avoid one extreme – having a series of scattershot, knee-jerk reactions in the moment – or another – being paralyzed and avoiding any communication until it is too late to do so impactfully. Putting a plan in place, and having the right team around you to provide varied and objective perspectives, is an important step in preparing today for any unexpected event that could happen tomorrow.  

Patrice is a senior vice president at Marino, a full-service strategic communications agency with offices in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami. She oversees the agency's corporate communications practice and serves as the lead on Marino’s crisis communications program.

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