Two men looking out a window

A Tale of Two Executives

June 28, 2018

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” is the well-known opening to Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities.” However, the second part, regarding wisdom and foolishness, isn’t quoted as often as the first.

When we walk into crisis situations in need of a rapid response, it is often when companies don’t know what to do next and are looking for an experienced outside perspective.

In these situations, we find two different types of executives.

One type, such as a senior communicator at a large enterprise, thinks about crises in the context of: “We’ve got a really sophisticated team. We’re ready when the situation arises.”

Whereas another Fortune 1000 executive might say: “We know crises are inevitable. We are really good at doing our day job. But we want some thoughtful advice and wisdom from outside, so we can manage this disruption from our day job most efficiently.”

The first senior executive is completely well-reasoned that managing critical moments and crisis situations are best managed in-house. They don’t have the time to introduce a new outsider into the unique culture of their organization. And they don’t have a budget to bring someone along just in case they might need crisis support at some point.

The second executive realizes it’s these disruptions that define their organization. She recognizes training and forward-thinking about risk can help them avoid the disruption of crisis better than an over-reliance on their internal team.

The second executive has confidence and assurance about a relationship they have built with a consultant — someone they’ve worked with in the past who has the ability to address the four most critical things.

Develop a Relationship With an Outside Expert

First and foremost, the second executive understands crises do happen. They strategically seek to develop a relationship with an advisor or an outside expert in advance. This gives them the comfort and confidence of having someone to call on when they go through a crisis situation, which is an incredibly emotional and stressful endeavor primarily because it’s so subjective in nature.

Seeking outside expertise is already common within most organizations. For example, a marketing executive working on packaging a product will seek out a market research firm to help determine what changes are necessary. And they will typically get one, if not two, crystal clear directions on where to go with a particular product.

However, a senior executive responsible for crisis response doesn’t have the luxury to make those types of strategic choices when a crisis occurs because the responses are subjective and speed is of the essence.

There is a range of options they can choose from. With this stressful and emotional endeavor and the subjective nature of responses, it’s very important to the second executive that they have a consultant or someone they’ve worked with to turn to and ask questions — a seasoned professional who can provide insight in the same way a marketer learns from research firms — yet in a short-circuited or rapid-response type of way.

The first executive managing crises internally doesn’t get this helpful insight because their internal team may or may not have been through a situation like the one they’re currently facing. Unfortunately, you get into group-think within an organization. And all eyes are on the communications executive to help them decide what to do next. They don’t have the luxurious support all other business groups have when they execute.


Importance of Rich Experience in Different Types of Crises

The second critical point is the second executive has someone with rich experience across a number of different crises because it’s all they do. And that experience gives them a level of deep confidence and comfort about what to do next.

If you need surgery, you want a surgeon who has specifically done that procedure repeatedly, because it’s all they do. You could find a general surgeon who can perform the procedure relatively well. But most people would want someone who has done it many times.

Most senior communicators in most organizations don’t have to confront crises and critical moments all day, every day in their job. They don’t have what I call “pattern recognition” with crisis issues — not because they lack the basic skill sets to figure it out, but they don’t have the experience of having seen these things play out over time.

They haven’t faced similar crisis situations over and over and had a chance to become an expert at handling them. Knowing the consultant you’re working with can provide the services you need provides a deep level of confidence and increased level of comfort. It’s a far better option than relying on the improvised desires of people in your own organization to get through the crisis. As with going to a specialist for surgery, having someone with crisis-management expertise is important because these critical moments impact the nature of your organization for the long term.

Find an Objective Sounding Board

Thirdly, it’s important to understand the second executive has an impartial, outside sounding board who can provide wise assessments and doesn’t get stuck in the cultural nuances of your organization or become overly focused on sacred cows. That individual can give clear advice and wisdom based not just on experience, but also on what is ultimately in the best interest of the organization in the moment as well as long term.

That impartial, outside voice can focus on how the organization got into the current crisis, and the blame element becomes somewhat secondary to how the company can get out of the crisis and move forward. So having that impartial, outside voice to give wise advice is critical for an organization, and it can be very hard to come by when you try to find it inside your organization.

I recently wrote a blog post about this in which we referenced the ecosystem of advice. Where do people get advice when they’re in critical moments? Where do people get advice when they’re looking for critical insights? The number one answer is they turn to their network. They look to people who are outside of their organization. A few executives responded internally, but when the stakes are high and you turn internally, you can run into cultural biases from within your organization, with people overly respecting sacred cows and being fearful of speaking up to challenge the status quo.


Create a Crisis Simulation Plan

The fourth point is the second executive has an individual they trust to turn to with questions they can’t ask anywhere else. And it’s a relationship they’ve developed in advance.

Too often in my career, I’ve been thrust into corporate situations as they are on the brink of a crisis or in the throes of a crisis. And it’s not an organization I’m familiar with. And I certainly don’t know the players within the organization, and very quickly we move to the head of the room in order to provide real-time rapid response advice and counsel. We excel in those moments because we understand the public. But there is no alignment with the culture of the organization and some of the issues, not necessarily sacred cows, but how they respond and why they respond in certain ways.

A major financial company in New York is a client of ours. And we have, for years now, done a series of crisis communications simulations for them, in which we’ve simulated risks they’re concerned about, working with their teams and training their executives, to try to figure out the best response. That then goes into their crisis planning work. And then we identify the gaps in the plans they’ve developed. Through that time we’ve been able to develop a relationship with them, understand their culture, and understand their chain of command and how decisions get made.

Fast forward to a recent weekend earlier in 2018 when they had an actual crisis situation, and they called and asked for immediate advice. I was able to give them critical advice on how to accomplish what they needed, but I also understood the processes they had to go through in order to get there.

Had random company X called me, I would have given them excellent advice and a path forward. But it wouldn’t have been as rich had it not been influenced by the fact that we’d worked together doing a simulation, and I had some basic understanding of their organization, their culture, their chain of command and what their talent could truly execute.

And so the quote the client gave to me was: “You help us think about things and ask questions no one else asks.”

Because I understand what’s happening on the inside, I have the ability to speak more freely to the internal issues, to the challenges and to their inefficiencies, particularly around talent. I can speak very clearly to that because I understand it, and because I’m from the outside. I also have the experience from other verticals and other situations. And I can provide a perspective that is very unique relative to their crisis response.

And so when considering “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” it’s helpful to understand there’s wisdom in the second executive’s approach of making sure you’ve found a crisis consultant in advance — someone you’ve worked with on simulations who understands the internal nature of your organization and the decision-making pathways.

It’s the second executive who has someone with expertise to turn to when necessary. They’ve been working with somebody who has pattern recognition and is mostly able to develop those relationships that can encourage faster decision-making in order to make crisis situations move more smoothly. The first executive is certainly not foolish in their approach, but it’s not enriched with the wisdom of the second executive and their approach.

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.