The critical importance and value of crisis leadership has perhaps never been more apparent than it has been during the past few years, as companies across the globe have felt the weight and impact of one societal crisis after another. Each and every time a leader delivers a message – be it a board meeting, media interview, keynote, community meeting, or social platform, their reputational piggy bank sees a light deposit or heavy withdraw. Thinking strategically about what the right message is and how it will resonate with many micro, diverse communities will help assure both your reputational and cash balance pays dividends over time.
I’ve learned from so many incredible leaders who communicate spectacularly under duress. It is an art, not a science. The best communicators I know are obsessive about every syllable they utter, piece of clothing they wear, and message point they deliver. They’ve learned how to steer clear of organizational jargon, are detail-oriented and compassionately deliver messages in a conversational manner that quickly and emotionally connects with those who consume their words. They are analytical, well-timed and process loads of information, almost instantaneously. And they are never too high or too low – they have a steady hand under pressure no matter the gravity of the situation or tightness of deadline. They understand the big picture – it’s what they do best – see the whole room and move people to proper perspective, balance and action.
Mishandled, crises will cost you time, money, stakeholder confidence, careers, and in the worst of scenarios, freedom and lives. Make no mistake about it, the decisions you make today will be judged by many for years to come. In my view, you don’t spin your way through crisis, you lead your way through. It’s not about shallow window dressing, it’s about long-term sustainable change. Real leaders emerge when the chips are down, and the stakes are at their highest. Let’s face it, anyone can lead when the sun is shining, profits are high and company culture is beaming. After decades of helping people during life’s most critical times, I’ve come to realize that crisis is not to be feared. In fact, crisis is a growth strategy. That’s right, a growth strategy, as counterintuitive as that may sound! Remember this…reputation leads to trust, and trust leads to valuation. YOUR reputation leads to trust and trust leads to valuation…and, not all currency is financial.
I’ve had the privilege to critically advise leaders in large health care, academia, financial, legal, hospitality, and insurance organizations, along with many other public, private, government and nonprofit entities who are fighting for their futures. The key is to understand each organization’s navigational fix, where’d they like to be then chart the path forward using a deep well of instinct and experience. Make no mistake, crisis leadership is an art, not a science where every nuance counts, and a predictive mindset is a nonnegotiable asset.
To illustrate, I’ve worked with those in the health care space on a myriad of issues, including accusations of patient dumping, mismanagement, sexual harassment accusations and medical malpractice claims, to name a few. There is no shortage of issues to contend with in this industry, and many are insured by captive insurance companies. Generally, those filing claim will lay their case out with an aggressive demand for settlement. Layered into the claim is often the subtly veiled or overt threat of “going public” if the demands are not met. At that point, the health care client, and their legal/risk teams, have a decision to make – do we settle and avoid the court of public opinion or risk reputational damage for the sake (1) saving dollars and/or (2) doing what’s right. This is a tricky balance as the court of public opinion weighs heavily in favor of the plaintiff as their legal team is often first to market, putting the health care organization on defense. Many types of entities evaluate this type of risk while the vice tightens.
To manage this dynamic, the forward-thinking legal teams I’ve worked with quickly engage to conduct an analysis of this treacherous traditional and digital landscape – the who, what, where, when, why and how of storytelling – in other words, how will the story land on varying media platforms to the varying micro-audiences who care, and what impact will the news have. Concurrently, there is a ton of due diligence to ensure all of the facts are known; spokespersons are identified and trained; ambassadors, detractors and influencers are accounted for; media market is sized-up and executive alignment is in tow, to name a few dynamics. This is literally a real-time chess game whereby filings or press conferences can occur at any moment.
A few critical tips to ensure your reputational piggy bank continues to overflow:
Never erode your integrity. Misinformation breeds distrust. There can be an immense pressure to “make your organization look good.” Many want you to press your nose up against the ethical window of truth and transparency. Do not cave into others who would like you to lie, distort the truth or leave vital facts behind which alter messaging and perception—this is tantamount to a lie. Once lost, you will never fully restore your integrity.
Be relevant. As the art of traditional and digital press relations evolves within a changing worldwide media landscape, I hear about more and more leaders not returning reporter calls, delaying the release of information and simply refusing to feed the “media monster.” If you choose to stick your head in the sand and not respond, you quickly make yourself irrelevant and ineffective. Remember my mantra, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And, when someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told.”
Know the facts. A common mistake of many who speak publicly revolves around not fully preparing and gaining a sound understanding of the facts before articulating their position. Too many times I have seen professionals jump out on camera or in front of an audience with either no substantive information to deliver or relying solely on the “I can’t comment on that” or “I don’t have that information” phraseology. Not knowing the facts or relying on the “no comment” phrase will quickly make you irrelevant to everyone – it is unacceptable. Know your position, know your craft; it’s your legacy.
Be predictive. When preparing to deliver a message, be certain to plan for every question and eventuality. There is often a tendency for folks to want to go on camera without fully preparing because they are used to speaking publicly or know the organization very well—chief executives are good for this. Push back and demand ample preparation. Failing to plan is planning to fail. An eight to fifteen second media soundbite can ruin your career—just ask BP’s former Chief Executive Tony Hayward, who recklessly uttered “I want my life back” after one of the world’s most damaging oil spills that killed 11 people more than a decade ago. Don’t wing it; prepare for every interview no matter how mundane or harmless it may seem.
Build relationships with those who have editorial control. Know those who tell your story – yes, the news media…but know all of your ambassadors, detractors and influencers. You want to get the benefit of the doubt when people tell your story. It’s not about an unfair advantage, but rather balance. When managing the media, intelligence gather from reporters and news organizations—ask them what angle they plan to cover, who they are speaking with and what their position is. They are under no obligation to share these details, but you’d be amazed at what they will tell you, particularly if there is an existing relationship or future mutual need.
Video doesn’t tell the whole story. A video account of what happened does not factor many variables—what each party said, body language from all angles and what transpired before and after the footage. In today’s digital world, everyone is a citizen journalist with an opinion, and many want to be the next YouTube sensation (and possibly get paid). More is recorded and shared than at any other point in history. Make no mistake about it, the emergence of video has changed all professions. But be very careful when making a judgment or decision based solely on what video has to offer. Treat video for what it is: another tool in the search for the truth. Perspective is everything.
Practice, practice, practice. It is imperative you relentlessly practice public speaking. Practice on camera within an authentic, safe environment. The underpinning of success is the ability to communicate effectively. When one word or syllable can change your life, mock interviews and preparation will increasingly stack the odds in your favor.
Seek Advice from Colleagues. Take a look at how others have responded during times of crisis and leverage their lessons learned to your advantage. Your colleagues, peers and competitors are invaluable pools of knowledge and can serve as the single most important “case study” resource. Be a student of your peer experiences and learn from other’s successes and missteps. Of the many leaders I’ve worked with during life’s most critical times, there are two benchmarks of success which allow leaders to quickly maintain control and weather the storm. First, they put their hand in the air and recognize they are in trouble and losing control – they don’t let their ego get in the way. Secondly, they ask for help from their trusted circle. Recognition of trouble and decisiveness in action will help you turn short-term adversity into long-term advantage.
Rob Weinhold is chief executive of Fallston Group (www.fallstongroup.com), a global agency that builds, strengthens & defends reputations. He served in the core executive ranks of public and private organizations throughout his distinguished career. Rob is a leadership, strategy and communications expert who keynotes and serves as an on-air media expert. He is the author of The Art of Crisis Leadership and serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council for Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business. Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.