active engagement by board

Crises Require Active Engagement

December 20, 2018

Critical takeaways

  • Success in a crisis requires active engagement by the organization’s senior leadership.
  • Active decision-making is key to success and this is supported by active monitoring of the media landscape.
  • Active preparation shouldn’t be mistaken for overreaction. The eventual decision could still be ‘do nothing’ but an active stance ensures you are ready for every outcome.


We were approached by a small hospital chain based in South Texas that was experiencing a labor issue related to unionization of the nursing staff and how this affected their pay and conditions. At one of our first meetings with the senior team, an attorney present described our involvement as an overreaction, “like bringing a gun to a knife fight”. He felt that this was simply a labor negotiation rather than something that could become larger.

However, my concern was that this situation matched a pattern of similar situations going on around the country at that time. That meant that this apparently local, isolated situation could blow up into something much bigger, not only affecting this hospital in south Texas, but with implications across the state and the region.

My feeling was that they should ‘overreact’ and conduct significant stakeholder outreach beyond the circle of those immediately involved. If nothing else, because of potential for this to spread, they should actively monitor the situation allowing them to react accordingly in case this became more than a local matter. Whatever the outcome, I didn’t feel that they could afford to passively engage with the communications aspect of the situation.

As it turned out, this wasn’t a ‘knife fight’ at all. Far from it.

Johnny Cochran’s law firm – the high-profile attorney who represented OJ Simpson – became involved as this became a quasi-civil rights issue regarding the pay and conditions of all Hispanic staff in south Texas.

Luckily, the hospital had taken our advice and ‘overreacted’ so we had conducted stakeholder and media outreach in advance, letting the hospital begin to tell their story before this blew up into a bigger, regional issue.

This example and a key concept of active engagement during critical moments from an amazing book Sailing a Serious Ocean: Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea by John Kretschmer highlighted the need to lean in. Kretschmer makes a point that  jumped out to me (emphasis mine).

“Fear leads to inaction and then, finally, to panic. And that’s a deadly course to follow. Managing the mindset of the crew is one of the skipper’s most important jobs in a storm. The majority of sailing disasters result from boats and crews taking a passive approach to storms. Staying engaged with the boat and the situation is the single most important heavy weather tactic.”

Not just sailing disasters,” I thought….

Stay engaged

There’s no place for a passive approach in a critical moment or crisis. Whether it is setting a clear end-state and sticking to your course, actively engaging with stakeholders, or biting the bullet and saying “I’m sorry”, you, your CEO and your senior leadership must be engaged actively.

Trying to let things unfurl naturally or setting the response to ‘autopilot’ will make things much worse.

However, active engagement doesn’t mean tearing off at 100 miles an hour and throwing everything you have at the problem. That might be just as bad as doing nothing. Essentially you have three options in the early stages of a critical moment best summed up by another recent client experience.

Faced with some negative comments on social media that seemed to coming from employees, a client was concerned that these were symptoms of a bigger issue but they were struggling to determine the best way to proceed. We were brought in to offer an outside perspective and, as the team discussed the situation, three camps emerged.

“Let’s lean in and do everything that we can.”

“We’ve seen this before and it will blow over – we don’t need to do anything, move on.”

“Let’s just monitor this situation so we can see where it winds up.”

All three of those are legitimate approaches and, faced with a similar situation, your instincts and pattern recognition as a crisis communicator will help determine the right course to take in situations like this.

In this case, because the situation was developing, the firm was at a fork in the road and didn’t have enough data to support either of the first two options. In this case, we agreed that the best approach was the third: to monitor things.

What I liked was that each camp was taking an active approach. Even the ‘do nothing’ suggestion was based on an analysis of the situation and pattern recognition. This was a decision they had come to actively.

So even a decision to do nothing can be active but how do you know when to make a decision and what decision to make?

Active monitoring

To me monitoring is absolutely best practice for successful decision-making in a crisis. Moreover, it can often make the difference between a crisis moment that is managed successfully, averting a crisis, and a full-blown disaster.

So active monitoring needs to be in the toolkit of every crisis communicator allowing you to develop a clear understanding of the situation, not just act as a consumer of the outputs.

Here are four things I’ve learned that I think are critically important to allow you to shift from passive consumer to active monitor.

Firstly, ensure you are monitoring the right things. Understand and ask questions about the parameters that were used for social media monitoring. What were the filters and were these too loose or too restrictive? What terms were applied and were these adjusted for the situation, geography and likely stakeholder groups? Did you account for mistakes and are you also looking for variation or typos in your name – searching for ‘Bill Coletti’ isn’t the same as searching for ‘William Colletti’.

Secondly, understand the data you receive. What does ‘normal’ look like for views of your ‘about us’ or ‘contact us’ page? What does a normal day on social media look like for you? You need to be able to separate fluctuations in activity based on day of the week / time of the day and spikes which might indicate more event-related traffic. What value do you place in an original Tweet versus a re-tweet? Can you tell what potential bot traffic looks like versus actual people? Learn to use tools like Google or Bing Analytics and manoeuver around these reports. Being able to understand this kind of data will give you what you need to inform your decisions.

Thirdly, identify your decision points in advance. I think it’s important that leaders consider inflection points – a change in tone of the conversation, a spike in activity, coverage in certain outlets – that might cause them to take action well before the decision itself. Have that conversation with your CEO and the senior leadership, explain the implications of each change and offer your advice on what that means to the situation. That will allow you to pre-empt decisions and start preparing in advance. This way, you’re not making things up on the fly and you can react quickly to develop the speed of trust required for success. (If this seems contrary to the concept of avoiding overplanning, I’m not suggesting you do this months in advance but that you plan for the likely developments for the specific situation but always remain flexible.)

Fourthly, keep the senior executives of your company engaged. Let them know that your team is in place, what and how you are monitoring. Explain that you’ve set up some thresholds or markers to identify if the conversation changes and outline how you might react differently. Share what you are seeing but be careful to explain between what’s ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ and highlight where you think you are approaching a decision-point. That way they remain engaged, are able to understand the implications of what they are seeing in the media and are better prepared when a decision has to be made.

Last of all, don’t wait until you see the critical moment to start monitoring. Always have an eye on social media as well as listening to subject matter experts that are on the front lines of relevant topics every day. That way, you are more likely to spot a critical moment approaching and be able to head it off well before it reaches crisis proportions.

Active monitoring → active decisions → action

Active monitoring supports active decision-making but it doesn’t end there. Once you’ve made a decision – React? Overreact? Do nothing? Continue to monitor? – it’s critical that the leader remain engaged, because you’re not out of the woods yet. Deciding to react will require active management of the crisis as will non-action (someone will need to explain to The Board why you aren’t doing anything) and monitoring.

Often, fear leads to inaction in a critical moment or crisis and disaster ensures. But the majority of disasters happen when people take too passive of an approach. There is a significant reward for those organizations that take situations seriously and lean in, doing everything possible to address the critical moment as early as possible. At other times however, the right answer is to do nothing. Only the specifics of your situation will tell you which course of action is best but be prepared to ‘overreact’ if necessary.

Whatever decision you are part of, ensure that it is taken actively and based on the best information available. Make sure your CEO and senior leaders get good data from your active monitoring, understand the potential implications of what you are seeing and, if or when they need to engage, know exactly what to do.

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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.