This review first ran in the Sept. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
The answer to the question “can people really be that stupid?” is always yes.
I keep this reminder in a frame beside my phone at work.
You may want to get one too for your office.
Even if your organization is blessed and loaded with really smart people, it takes just one employee to ignite a crisis by saying or doing something illegal, unethical, immoral or wildly inappropriate.
You should also assume it’s been captured on video. It’s one of the rules in a new book by crisis management expert Melissa Agnus.
The world watched a dazed and bloodied Dr. David Dao get dragged off an overbooked flight so a United Airlines crew member could take his seat. We saw an Uber driver get berated by former CEO Travis Kalanick. And we lost our appetite over a video of two Domino’s Pizza workers who grossly violated every imaginable health code standard.
“We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” a Domino’s spokesman told the New York Times. “Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair.”
It may not be fair but it’s the reality for every organization.
When a video goes viral and spawns a crisis, there are eight expectations you must immediately meet if your organization has any shot at minimizing the financial and reputational hit. It took United Airlines two days to issue a public apology. In those two days, the airline’s market capitalization fell by $1.4 billion in pre-market trading.
- Notify your key stakeholders immediately and directly. If they matter to your organization, they need to hear the bad news from you first and not through the media or social media.
- Be transparent. Your attempted cover-up will be worse than the crime. “A mistake can be forgiven. The appearance of a cover-up will not be,” says Agnus.
- Deliver timely, consistent communication. “The longer you wait to communicate in a crisis, the more risk there is of the crisis spiralling out of control, and the more you risk losing trust and credibility.”
- Listen and validate feelings and emotions. In a crisis, emotion will always overpower reason. “If you want your message to be heard by emotional people, they need to feel as though you truly care about them, the situation, and its consequences.”
- Engage in two-way communication. “Gone are the days when you could deliver your statement, turn around, walk away, and go back to managing the incident behind the scenes.” In a crisis, we’ll be on social media, expecting real-time, back-and-forth dialogue.
- Communicate as a human and not as a lawyer or a logo. Yes, you’ll need a legal strategy to deal with a crisis but Agnus says it can’t be the public face of your response. Never leave stakeholders with the impression that covering your legal liability is your number one priority.
- Answer the most pertinent and pressing questions. “The longer you take to give people the answers to their primary concerns, the more frustration and loss of trust you will experience against your organization.”
- Hold yourself accountable and responsible. Prove that you’re serious about righting wrongs and committed to change. “People aren’t fooled by meaningless words, no matter how good they may sound.”
It’s no longer good enough to just have a crisis management plan, says Agnus. “It used to be that organizations – the smart ones, anyway – would create a crisis management plan, store it on a shelf or in a file, and rest assured that if a crisis were to strike they would be ready, as they had a plan just waiting to be activated. Today, choosing to rely on a crisis management plan is no longer sufficient. In fact, it puts you at a disadvantage.”
Instead what you need is an organization-wide and deep-rooted culture where your people are taught and empowered to mitigate risks, meet expectations and make smart decisions in real time.
“Crisis management isn’t a linear strategy,” says Agnus. “Unforeseeable, unexpected developments will occur, sometimes amplifying the challenges and other times lightening the load. You want to get your team to a level of preparedness that is instinctive, rather than solely being dependent on a linear plan that cannot possibly account for all the variations, bumps and turns that may present themselves.”
Agnus shows how to get a crisis ready program in place before you get the call about someone behaving badly and putting your organization’s reputation at risk.
@jayrobb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.