business meetings

During a CRISIS – Who needs to be in the room?

August 20, 2018

Who needs to be in the room when developing crisis response?

‘Is everyone here?’

It’s a pretty standard and innocuous question at the beginning of most meetings or conference calls but working out what we mean by ‘everyone’ during a crisis can be difficult.  Unlike a standard meeting, where there is a set schedule, agenda and attendee list, crises can occur at any time and may be due to a wide range of situations. In a crisis, getting the right people to start tackling the problem ASAP is critical to success.

But who are these people?

Unfortunately, part of the answer is ‘it depends’ but in my experience, you can still plan ahead to ensure that the right people are available, aware and prepared to be part of the response.

The first key thing to ensure is that the people involved fall into one of two categories: decision-makers or subject matter experts.  Decision-makers – those with real authority within the organization – must be represented as, without their involvement, no actions can be taken.

However, the decision-makers won’t always have all the information they need on hand so ensure that the relevant subject matter experts (SMEs) for the situation are also there.  You will know who the decision-makers are in advance so that is easy but the SMEs will differ depending on the situation (this is the ‘it depends’ part).  Therefore, make sure each department and function has a few people identified and prepared to act as an SME.

Similarly, the size of the group will also depend on the situation.

I’ve been in conference rooms where we needed 15-20 executives to figure out what’s going on and what to say next. (BTW – it was a mess) Meanwhile, other firms had only three: the CEO, general counsel and someone responsible for external issues / communications.  While there is no set size for these teams, the key thing is to keep them as small as possible. Big teams will simply slow things down and it is too easy for large groups to become sidetracked but groupthink.


a note about too many

The second key element is to have people in the room that the CEO trusts, people that can make clear decisions and people that can keep their head when they’re in a crisis situation.  Lastly – and most importantly – these all need to be people who can actually get the job done.

Keeping these two key elements in mind will ensure that you have the right decision-makers being fed the necessary information in a proactive, solution-focused environment built upon mutual trust.  I have found this to be a great recipe for success. Lots of folks “think” they want to be in the room. But they don’t need to be in the room. Check in to see that you have the right people.

These are important guidelines as far as the type of person who needs to be in the room but let’s get a little more specific and identify some of the key people.

Obviously, as the key decision-maker and ultimate authority, the CEO or equivalent needs to be involved. (Although this is pretty obvious, you would be surprised by the number of times I have been told that the CEO will ‘join as needed. This could be culture or style but basic math makes things slow if the situation requires their involvement.

The other two main ‘players’ I suggest you always have involved are legal and external affairs. This ensures that the CEO always keeps the legal and external perspectives in mind as these are the areas where the biggest threats to the organization lie.

In addition to this core team of three, representatives from HR, finance, operations and safety / security are also commonly represented but their level and frequency of involvement will depend on the situation. You may also find that certain situations need other SMEs such as IT or compliance.

Two other participants I often see being overlooked are worth keeping in mind.

First, is the Chairperson or Board representative.  While they are not going to be in the room as such, the CEO needs to keep them in mind as they often have a say on how a major event should be handled.  They are also a vital source of advice and support for the CEO. Remember, crises are lonely times for the senior executive so having someone else to consult with candidly can be a great benefit.

The second group to think about is a small administration team or secretariat.  Although they won’t participate in decision-making, having a couple of people keeping detailed notes, logging actions and simply administering meetings will help immensely.

My final point would be to stress that the people listed here are the people you want around for strategy development and decision-making.  Who gets involved for other things will be very different.

For example, strategies thrive with robust, informed debate so have as many constructive people involved and use all the time you have available.  On the other hand, press releases and statements are strangled in committee. This slows your response down and results in reactive, rather than proactive, communications which will thwart your response.  Statements are best prepared by someone from the communications team with an SME to hand to help with accuracy and details. Releasing the statement still involves the senior leaders, but this is for their approval, not as additional editors.  So while the decision-making team will need to know what is in a statement, when it is being released and to whom, they shouldn’t be part of its development.

This leads on to a bigger topic of what the structure for an effective response looks like which I cover in the ‘Action’ section in Critical Moments.  I will tackle response structures in a later post but the main thing to keep in mind for now is that we are discussing the most senior decision-making team here and that there are several other parts to the response.

So although there is a degree of ‘it depends’ involved in this answer, I hope that you now have a better idea of who should be in the room when the CEO asks, ‘is everybody here?’.

Importantly, whomever these people are, they must be trained and prepared for this crisis role because the discussion they are about to be part of will be very different from what they are used to in day-to-day meetings.

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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.