In my last blog post, I introduced the concept of Crisis Confidence, and that confidence is born out of speed, clarity, and trust. Over the next three weeks, I want to dig in on each of those elements and give them context and specific recommendations on what you can do to improve all three.
Being Crisis Confident Starts with Speed
For me, the key differentiator between good and great crisis response is speed, but it’s difficult to be fast for fast’s sake. The ability to be fast is much more complicated than that, and you’re probably asking questions like;
- I’ve seen my organization be slow. How can I get my organization to be faster?
- How can I get my organization to be faster when there’s only limited information in a crisis?
- Doesn’t speed sometimes equal sloppy? What if we get things wrong and make things worse?
I believe the answer to all of these is yes. Yes, you can get faster. Yes, you can move forward and meet some aspects of the public’s expectations with limited information. And no, it doesn’t have to be sloppy.
You can practice and prepare your organization so that you can move quickly, create space to learn, and engage in an ongoing dialogue as the situation develops.
What do we mean by speed?
Speed means being fast in several critical aspects of an effective response. Quickly filling the information vacuum created by the crisis event with facts. Sharing your perspective and point of view. Speaking to different stakeholders in a proactive, timely fashion. Getting the right people together to make decisions, even if the information is limited.
You need to be fast in determining who matters most, and you need to be fast in your ability to recognize patterns so that you can see where these situations are going to go. Conversely, you have to be able to quickly identify when the situation changes course.
Speed is the foundation for the equation – that your mission and values plus your chain of command equals speed. That is the building block for the concept of crisis confidence.
An opinion writer in a national newspaper wrote critical, snarky articles about a client of ours every time they misstepped or the public misunderstood their actions. One of the strategies we employed was to meet with the writer and try to understand where she was coming from and allow the organization the opportunity to share its perspective. One of the specific things that came up from the reporter is this quote,
“Every time I call you guys with a question, I imagine you gather everybody in a conference room, and about 10 to 12 experts dissect and parse what I’m looking for to try to find some hidden agenda or angle. And then, two or three days later, some spokesperson gets back to me with a canned response. When in reality, what I’m looking for is just your take on a particular topic, but obviously, since I’ve written things that you don’t like, you don’t respond quickly.”
With this insight, the organization started answering her questions quickly and with greater confidence. They knew what they were doing was right because they were rooted in their mission and values, so they didn’t need to gather everyone in a conference room to parse the questions each time.
A Lack of Speed is Debilitating
The opposite example is just as revealing.
We had another client who contacted us when they were in a crisis, but they’d left it until 36 hours or so after the initial news story. They hadn’t issued an initial statement and felt unable to make any statement because they didn’t think they knew enough about the situation. Everything was made worse because they didn’t have enough clarity about who they were speaking to or who mattered most: they had no sense of who their stakeholders were. Finally, the general counsel wasn’t fully read-in on the topic and hadn’t spoken to their outside counsel, so he was reluctant to allow anything to happen.
Eventually, it took another 18 hours before we could get them to say anything to anyone, by which time, we were now more than two and a half-day days after the actual event. However, even though it had been so long since the event, they were finally moving forward, realizing that they could modify or improve their messaging as they gathered and learned more information.
(However, I’d caution about speed without direction. We have had clients that have been so fast they responded with so little information it was effectively like saying “no comment.” So make sure your speed has purpose and direction – something you’ll get from your values.)
I hope by now you’re bought into the idea of speed: of having a fast, agile organization in the face of crisis. But you might be wondering how to get there. Here are two things we’ve seen work time and time again.
How to build speed
Know how to differentiate between smoke and fire
First and foremost is practice. You can go to your team with a handful of simple scenarios and ask them to determine how you should respond (or if at all). You can follow up with some more specific questions like who’d be your spokesperson, what facts could we share, and who needs to be a part of the decision-making process? But the critical thing is to start to get your teams to think about what’s serious and what’s not – sometimes we call these “smoke versus fire” exercises – and what initial steps they should take.
This simple, quick exercise is something you can do over lunch or even an extended coffee break using nothing more than that day’s business headlines and asking the team, “what would we do if this was us?” The simple reps will be building an institutional muscle memory that will pay dividends when an actual event hits.
More complex scenarios and simulations can follow to really sharpen the saw, but, at first, keep things simple and work on improving your team’s reaction speed.
Prepare a toolkit
The second thing to do is to get a small group of people, including the CEO, general counsel, and head of communications, together and craft initial holding statements on any topics of concern or your more severe risks. The holding statement will be straightforward – a summary of the facts, acknowledging the situation that happened, and saying that you’ll be responding in the next 12 hours – but it gets the process moving forward today and in the event of a crisis. So not only are you able to say something faster in the event of things going wrong, but you’re also getting key decision-makers to think about what they might need to do in such as situation. It’s a more in-depth version of the smoke-vs-fire exercise above.
Moreover, getting comfortable using limited information is crucial to indoctrinating your organization into the concepts of moving more quickly. Being able to say, “here’s what we know, here’s what we’re gathering, and here’s when you’re going to hear from us again” is a learned skill and one you’re better off mastering before a crisis hits.
I’m aware that all of this is more easily said than done. There are cultural alignments that need to be created. There’re organizational alignments that need to be created. Your communications team needs to put pen to paper, and their outputs need to be reviewed by your legal team.
But the effort is worth it because you then have clear steps and processes in place to get the right people together, to understand the situation that you’re in, and to be able to say something meaningful, even when information is scarce.
Being fast needs to be a focal point because you know that filling that vacuum of information is a critical step for you and your organization in a crisis.
That’s why speed lies at the heart of being crisis confident.
(If you want to learn more about making an organization fast, perhaps through simulations or workshops where we can help you unpack the barriers to your speed based on our experience, please reach out to us.)