The most critical skill in a crisis is…

September 18, 2018


I’m often asked, “What are the keys to crisis response success?”.  After 25 years in the field, I have a ready stock of answers (a whole book’s worth in fact).  However, many of these articles have been from the standpoint of what the company should do, how fast they should respond or who should be in the room.

However, I’m a communicator at heart so I wanted to take a look at this question from the very personal perspective of the lead communicator, the person responsible for telling a story in the wake of a reputation crushing crisis.  After talking to dozens of corporate communicators, watching real events unfold, and evaluating what I do when engaged in crisis situations, I believe that there’s one secret, a key skill for successful crisis response that’s often overlooked by communicators.

The key to a successful crisis response is the ability to ask great questions.

Asking great questions is the key to unlocking the knowledge you need to solve the puzzles and challenges you will be faced with in a crisis situation.   So your ability to ask questions, to get the facts and understand the situation is one of the most important tools that you have. Sadly, it’s also one that is often overlooked and I believe that all communicators should master this skill.

Importantly, you need to be able to ask good questions both up and down.

Firstly, as a communicator it’s likely that you’re not going to have a ton of knowledge about the specific issue or event.  This is particularly the case if you’re part of a complex enterprise with many moving parts and stakeholders. Obviously if you have just started working with the organization – a common situation I found myself in as a consultant – this knowledge gap is particularly pronounced.  Good, pertinent questions will help you understand what is going on and most importantly, the implications of these events.

Secondly, you need to understand what the senior leadership team is thinking.  Without a clear understanding of their objectives, the background to key decisions and the myriad other factors they are considering, you won’t be able to translate their intent into actionable messages.  Therefore, asking good questions of your executive team as they’re making decisions about the crisis response is the single best tool that you have.

Some people have years of experience, and the ability to see patterns, and often they can tell the leadership team what’s going to happen next. Sometimes people can map out a range of options that could happen.  At Kith, we pride ourselves on our ability to ‘look around corners’, to tell you what is likely to happen based on our years of experience in crisis situations.

But we can only do this if we understand the situation.  So even those with experience need to be able to ask questions.

Much like everything in life, we aren’t simply born with the ability to ask good questions, just like we aren’t born with the ability to ride a bicycle. But in the exact same way that we can learn to cycle, we can learn how to ask better questions.  We just need some steps to help and I recently read a great article which laid out five key steps to asking great questions.

First is focus. What specifically do you want to know? And if it’s not a simple yes or no question, how can you obtain deeper knowledge?  Ask specific questions to get a specific answers. Also, do you need to ask everything right now or can you have a sequence of questions that you return to as events progress? Focus on what is critical at that time.

The second is purpose.  Be clear about why you are asking this question and how this information is going to move the process forward.  Also, differentiate between trying to collect facts versus gathering opinions. Both are valuable in a crisis situation but facts sometimes outweigh opinions when we’re trying to do rapid response.  ‘What do we know about…?’ is a very different question to ‘What do we think about…?’.

Third is intent. Is the question to start an argument or are you trying to open a discussion? Should you know the answer already or are you trying to glean useful information at that particular moment? Are you asking out of frustrating or curiosity? Do you really care about the answer?

Hopefully your questions have a clear purpose but also think about why another person is asking something.  Maybe they just want to start a fight or perhaps they are trying to express concern about the direction the organization is taking.   Considering your intent – and the intent of others – will force you to ask and think about better questions. It might also help you notice a good question that might otherwise seem out of place.

Fourth is framing.  We’ve all watched or sat with reporters who have asked questions that are incredibly leading.  Their biases and opinions are built into the question itself. But we are all guilty of this, maybe not even consciously.  How we frame a question and the examples and language we use will influence the answers we get whether we mean to or not.

So you need to think if that the best way to ask the question?  Is the question really neutral or are you introducing bias that will affect the results you get?

Lastly is follow up. Did you get a useful answer to your question or is there more you need to know? I’m really fond the concept of the ‘five whys’: you ask why, why, why, why, why to really get to the bottom of something. In a crisis situation you rarely have time to do that but do  make sure you really understand the answers you receive. So you might get an initial answer from a senior executive and then seek out the right subject matter expert and ask them ‘why’ for as long as you can.

I think that these five steps –  focus, purpose, intent, framing and follow-up – form the basis of good questions.   But I would add one more consideration of my own that you should apply before you ask any question.

This relates to President Eisenhower’s quote:

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”.

Often, successful crisis response boils down to an organization’s ability to triage and prioritize problems because time and resources are scare.  This leads to a tendency to focus on the urgent at the expense of the important so before you ask anyone else a question, you need to ask yourself ‘is this urgent or important?’.

The next time you are faced with a crisis, make sure you differentiate between important and urgent and keep these five thoughts in mind when you are thinking about the questions you need to ask.  These thoughtful, precise questions will be the keys to unlocking the knowledge you need to develop and deliver the messages that will help you tell your story.

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.