crisis coaching.

Achieving Crisis Mastery: The Case for Finding a Crisis Coach

May 16, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • Mastery in a field comes after competence has been achieved but achieving mastery requires objective feedback to refine and optimize performance.
  • Coaches are very common in sports and are beginning to be used in other fields to help practitioners hone their skills and to understand & eliminate the bad and expand focus on the good.
  • A good coach will help you achieve mastery as a crisis communicator and here I outline several approaches to developing this relationship.


I’ve been in crisis communications or some form of crisis management for over 30 years now. First in political campaigns, then in various roles in big firms and now leading the growing team here at I believe that we have a solid foundation of skills and techniques. We’re very good at looking around corners giving us an ability to identify what’s likely to happen next to help advise clients. We continue to practice, to develop and we are always striving to master our craft.

But that’s not always been the case.

Like everyone else, I started out knowing very little and, like everyone else, I had a steep learning curve until I was at a stage where I was competent at my craft.  I had developed a decent toolkit of skills and techniques; I could hold my own in front of the media and advising a principal (candidate or CEO); I had developed rich pattern recognition skills.  I thought I had it made.

However, then there was a season in my career where my ideas were stale and the insights perfunctory. I encountered situations where there were no patterns for me to recognize.

In short, I had stalled.

I was competent but competence was no longer enough. I had yet to reach the next level: mastery.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to hone my skills and abilities, leveling up towards mastery. A key part of that has been coaching which is something I commend to anyone committed to becoming a master of their craft as a crisis communicator (or baseball pitcher.)

I was reminded of this the other day while I was re-reading an article by Atul Gawande concerning coaches in his field of specialty: surgery. The article explains how Gawande approached a colleague and asked him to coach Gawande to improve as a surgeon. It’s a long but worthwhile article and while re-reading it, I was reminded of both the benefits and misconceptions of coaching.

The benefits are, to me, stark and apparent.  Like Dr. Gawande, I played tennis and was on the debate team in my youth and, in both cases, I had great coaches. Coaches who were tough and pushed me, advising me on strategy and called me out on my errors. However, they also highlighted my strengths and helped me reinforce successes. You only have to look at the world of sport to see how prevalent, and essential, coaches are. Great tennis players, great pitchers, and great runners all acknowledge the role their coaches play.  Tiger Woods credited his new swing coach with his unexpected victory at The Masters in 2019.

Given the success in these fields, it’s not a huge leap to see how a coach could help a crisis communicator.  Someone who can watch to see if you’re keeping a level head and note when you aren’t. Someone who can help you spot patterns in your thinking which might indicate you are leaning on familiar solutions rather than addressing the client’s specific issues with real-time inputs. Someone who can help make the tweaks required to move you from competence to mastery.

However, some people harbor concerns over using a coach.

Some feel that it diminishes their standing as an expert. Some feel they have already achieved mastery and there’s nothing else to learn. I recently shared the idea of coaching with a highly successful public speaker, someone who makes ten to fifteen thousand dollars a speech, someone regarded as an expert in their field.

They were appalled at the idea.

They fear that it would take them off their game and that the questioning and scrutiny of the coach would be counterproductive. In this case, they might be right because their income relies heavily on them delivering variations of the same speech over and over.  There’s tremendous consistency in what they do.

However, this isn’t the case for most people, especially the crisis communicator.  Our role is to help apply some order to chaos, but each situation is still different. Being able to find familiarity when everything around you is in flux is the definition of a real crisis expert. However, where we lazily look for consistency and apply the same well-worn template to different situations, then we lose some of our mastery. A coach helps avoid complacency.

Clearly, I’m a fan of coaching, and I’d suggest you give this serious consideration as a way to continue to hone your skills and to develop mastery. However, if you aren’t ready to jump in fully, start by instigating a debrief process with your team to get feedback on your performance after a simulation or a real crisis.  Over time, as you see the benefits and become more comfortable with the feedback process, move to the next stage and seek out someone who has been at a large agency or corporation.  They can observe how you approach a particular situation, see how you respond, read your talking points, your messaging and strategy. This allows them to grade your response and provide specific feedback on how you can improve.

But far and away the most effective route is to find a crisis communications expert to act as your team’s coach. This formal arrangement lets the coach dedicate the time and resources to run you through drills, exercises – mini-simulations even– but most importantly to watch you in action to offer insights on best practices, call you out on errors and push your team to be even better.

In addition to their technical expertise and experience, there are three specific things you need from your coach.

  • Actionable feedback. This is a formal relationship and the feedback you receive must be similarly formal and actionable if you are going to see the benefits. Agree upon a process and format for feedback that works for you both.
  • Discretion and confidentiality. The coach will have access to much of the same sensitive information concerning clients that you do as they observe you at work. They must maintain these confidences as if the client were there own and an NDA is a reasonable expectation.
  • Availability and flexibility. Crises are unpredictable and unscheduled so the coach will also have to be flexible to ensure they can observe you in action.


Having a coach can be hard: they highlight our faults, tell us things we don’t want to hear and push us to go where we maybe don’t want to go. Sometimes this kind of insight can be unwelcome when you feel you’ve already grasped the fundamentals of your craft. But if we look at those who achieve true mastery – from the operating room to the 18th hole to the boardroom – there’s almost always a coach in the picture somewhere. Without the external feedback and guidance that a coach can deliver, competence is often the best we can hope for.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.