Two quotes help me think about the concept of clarity and its importance in crisis response.
The first is from Henry Kissinger.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, every road will get you nowhere.”
And the second one is from the always quotable Yogi Berra.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.”
Clarity equals direction
If we look at the arc of organizations that have managed their crisis response successfully, one thing always stands out: those that know what they believe in and stand by it can accelerate their ability to respond. Having clarity around who you are as an organization, who matters most to you, and an understanding of what will knock you off course, will help you keep you moving towards your strategic goals.
I recall walking into a client situation. The challenge in front of us was around the malfeasance of an executive that had embezzled pension fund money. The clarity of that situation – that we needed to do the right thing for the pension holders – made every subsequent decision that much easier. It didn’t matter that the embezzler was everybody’s best friend. It didn’t matter how people would criticize our lack of financial controls. What mattered most was that we were going to do right by the folks who had worked hard and contributed to the pension fund, that we were going to get to the bottom of this, and that we’d do whatever was necessary to fix things. That foundation allowed us to create messaging and a path forward that ultimately led us to improve over time.
But without that clarity, we would’ve fumbled and bumbled around trying to figure out what truly mattered and what was most important. So the challenge for all of us as crisis communications advisors is to really figure out what matters most and to figure out and understand that north star.
You’ll no doubt have experienced this yourself: faced with a difficult challenge, having a north star or true purpose will have made the decision-making process that much easier. The opposite is also true: without a clear idea of your goal, values, or purpose, deciding on the right course of action can be tricky.
So for the most common business issues that result in crises, having a clear understanding of what you stand for will illuminate the path of where you want to go because you understand where you are, you understand what matters most, and you know what’s going to knock you off course.
Clarity also means understanding ourselves
And this doesn’t just apply to organizations – we also need clarity in ourselves as crisis leaders. You need to be clear on what your role is. You need to be clear on your moral compass. And you need to be clear on your abilities and the abilities of your team.
So when we talk about clarity, it is undoubtedly about understanding the core values of your organization and who matters most, but it is also about understanding you, your values, and the things that matter to you because that’s going to directly impact the counsel that you’re going to give.
Achieving clarity is worth the investment
We all rolled our eyes at exercises where we explored our annual goals and wrote mission statements. But it is the organizations that are crystal clear on where they stand and that live those values that get crisis response right. Not only that, but they’re the ones less likely to get into trouble because crises usually stem from a series of bad decisions that build up over time. If everybody’s growing in the same direction, decisions get made more appropriately and align with the organization’s values and where it wants to go.
So how do you find this clarity for yourself and your organization?
There are five key things that you need to create clarity for your organization, the five things that we look at in our diagnostic process.
First of all, and most simply, is a set of clear values that are well understood and put in practice across the whole organization. This values alignment will allow for better decision-making as everyone views issues through the lens of what matters most. These values will have been developed over time and validated day in and day out by various managers, embedding themselves into the organization. So the first thing you need to evaluate is, do we have that clear set of values, and are they understood across the whole organization?
Clarity in your messaging
Next is messaging: the words that you put out to the public. Is there a straightforward process for developing these? Is there a clear process for approving and sharing messages internally and externally? We frequently find that clarity is lost as messages are developed and approved, well before they’re shared with the public. Legal or subject matter experts are often involved, but the authors are not in the room when decisions are made. So articulating a straightforward process for message development will ensure that you can tell your story clearly and effectively.
Understand the situation
Third is the notion of situational awareness. There needs to be a clear and well-understood process for gathering, analyzing, and summarizing information from various sources and getting it to critical decision-makers. Do you have your eyes and ears open, and do you have a way to capture everything on a dashboard, so you know what’s happening and where you need to go next? As Berra and Kissinger remind us, you need to know where you’re going if you hope to get there.
Understand your risks
Number four is the notion of risk acuity, meaning does the organization understand the risks that can impact its reputation and operations before a crisis? Are there preliminary plans to mitigate those risks? Too often, we find organizations just accept that they face a range of risks without analyzing them or taking any action to understand the implications and what they can do to lessen these. You must do this well in advance of the crisis itself, and we think our risk framework of strategic, preventable, and external risks is the perfect tool to analyze the risks that could impact your organization.
Know who matters most
And then lastly is who matters most?
I remember walking into an organization, and they needed to send a statement to employees urgently. There was a great debate within the board of directors, as well as the C-suite, about who mattered most. This was a privately held organization, and many felt that the owners mattered most. But there was also a large contingency that said, “If we don’t address this issue very quickly, it’s our employees that matter most.”
This illustrates the importance of figuring out who matters most beforehand and, crucially, understanding that this may differ, depending upon the situation. This understanding will help you speak to and support those who matter most, whether that’s customers, owners, staff, supporters, or neighbors.
Clarity is foundational
Your goal as a crisis leader is to get out of the situation and back on track as quickly as possible, and clarity will shorten the cycle of impact on your organization. Knowing your risks, what is happening, what you stand for, who matters most, and being able to share your message clearly will accelerate your response and get you out of a crisis as quickly as possible.
So what is most important is for you as a crisis leader is to slow down and ensure that you have clarity before you start taking action. Coupled with the foundational element of speed, that clarity will give you the velocity – speed plus direction – that you need to be effective as you tackle the long arc of crisis response.