One of my friends when I was growing up in the countryside of Indiana was a boy named Billy, who lived a few houses down the street. Billy was a nice kid but not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to common sense.
We were both around ten years old when “the incident” occurred: While playing with matches in his bedroom, Billy set the window curtains on fire. He tried putting the fire out, but the flames quickly spread. Billy was so overwhelmed by the situation that he walked out of his room, closed the door and started watching TV in the living room. Really, that’s exactly what he did.
For a few minutes, he didn’t have to deal with the awful reality of what he had done, and he was able to go about life as usual.
However, it wasn’t long before the entire house was engulfed in flames. Fortunately he and his family escaped, but the house burned to the ground. I still remember hearing the sirens and watching flames shoot out of their house as firemen tried in vain to save it.
Now I understand why my mother encouraged me to make some new friends.
Billy never talked much about “the incident,” so I can’t say for sure what was going through his mind. But I suspect when the fire started in his bedroom, he was afraid he’d get in trouble for playing with matches and thought he could handle it. After all, it was just a little flame at the end of a match—at least, at first. That was MISTAKE #1.
When he realized he couldn’t put the fire out, Billy apparently became so overwhelmed with what he’d done that he convinced himself he could just close the door on the fire and it would magically go away. That was MISTAKE #2.
When I tell this story in my crisis communications seminar, people are amazed at such irresponsible behavior, and rightfully so. Billy should have known better—a raging fire doesn’t extinguish itself by shutting the door on it.
Yet, many organizations with intelligent, well-educated leaders often take the same approach to dealing with a crisis in their organization.
Rather than face reality, they try to ignore the crisis or put a lid on it.
More often than not, the crisis grows and becomes consuming, and in the process devours time and resources. Sometimes the organization’s reputation is severely harmed, and out of the ashes investigations suddenly appear.
It’s not unusual for negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside, which often occur during a crisis, to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control of the situation and concern about what might happen next.
Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the fire it has set. If the organization is caught off guard, it may be forced to divert valuable resources to fight the fire.
More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus among senior management, which only makes the situation worse.
Facing reality and engaging the crisis in its early stages will make the situation more manageable and less damaging.
When a crisis strikes, those charged with managing communications should have three primary objectives:
- Maintain control of the message
- Minimize damage
- Achieve accurate and balanced coverage through the news media and Internet
One of the best ways to help maintain control and minimize damage when a crisis strikes is to have a flexible crisis management plan in place.
The plan should:
- Contemplate the types of crises that could occur
- Set forth policies to deal with them
- Identify all audiences and the best ways to communicate with them
- Have a pre-selected crisis management team in place
- Establish a system for communicating accurate information quickly and effectively
The only thing worse than not having a crisis plan is having one that is not communicated, reviewed or tested by those who ultimately will have to implement it.