How to Handle a Disaster, Not Just the PR Fallout
There is no shortage of advice on how to step up your PR efforts to survive a disaster. That's important, of course, but the emphasis on preserving your public face misses something vital: If you don't fix the problem, you may not last long enough to live anything down.
Every single company will experience at least one disaster and, depending on your luck, perhaps many. If you need big examples, look no further than the automotive industry. Just as Toyota comes to grips, via a $1.2 billion settlement, with its problems with cars that accelerated when people didn't want them to, GM faces a gazillion malfunctioning ignition switches. Recalls are only on 1.62 million cars. So far.
The Definition of Disaster
Let's get the definition straight first. A disaster isn't just a problem. A disaster is something that can, or seems like it could, critically injure your company. For example, the bank balance is rapidly dwindling and the large deal you've been hoping for seems like it has about as much life as the Norwegian Blue parrot in the famous "Monty Python" skit. Disaster is the first time a privacy issue blew up in Facebook's face (before it learned though experience that not enough people would get angry to matter).
Or it could be when Hotmail--before being acquired by Microsoft--had a massive data loss a year after its launch, as described below by Scott Weiss, employee 13 at Hotmail and, these days, a partner at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Roughly a quarter of all users lost all their data:
Understandably, they were pissed. CNET and ZDnet were both on the horn wanting to know what happened. Customer care was inundated with angry calls and (ironically) emails. We figured out how to restore a few thousand customers, but millions were completely unrecoverable. While the calls rolled in, we were trying to figure out how to fix things.
The exact nature of "bad" changes, but you know it when you've hit it. Or, as Weiss calls it, WFIO, which stands for "We're f****d, it's over." Pronounced wiff-ee-oh.
Some people are born to handle a crisis. Some learn how to. When you're an entrepreneur, you absolutely, positively must fall into one of those camps. Weiss has some great suggestions of how to get better at responding to a crisis. I'll add some of my own.
Realize it's really not that bad.
No, really, it's not that bad. One of the biggest problems in addressing a crisis is that you freeze because you're sure life is hopeless. Go through the mental exercise of asking yourself what is literally the worst that could happen. Company goes out of business? Really bad, but it could be a lot worse, presuming this isn't the sort of disaster accompanied by body bags or the sun turning supernova. Keep things in perspective and you're more likely to know a solution when you see it.
Get all the brains around the table.
Weiss says that the common reaction is to close ranks and not tell people what it going on. His point is to gather the "smartest people in the room and work through every angle." I'll go a step further: Get everyone in the room who might know something that could help. Don't assume that the very clever people at the top, who may have made the disaster possible in the first place, are the only ones to address it. Gather all the talent and brains and you may find someone has an operational fix, an effective shift in manufacturing processes, or an unrealized revenue source. Get help from the people who have the most to lose and gain.
Prioritize like mad.
In an emergency, you need to focus on what is most critical, then the next most important thing, and so on. It's triage in an emergency room. Stop the bleeding to stabilize someone and then layer on the other necessary treatments.
Lead like there's no tomorrow.
No matter how scared or freaked out you might be, it's time to step up and lead your team. Maybe you'll make the wrong decisions, but letting things follow their natural course is likely even more dangerous (assuming that you've got a clear view of exactly how bad things are). Take control and get people moving on what they need to do. If you panic, everyone else will and you're sunk.
Enjoy the process.
Sounds completely crazy, doesn't it? If you're not some demented adrenaline junkie, how can you enjoy a disaster? It's not the danger that you should embrace, but the process of bringing things home safely. You need the calm spot from which you assess information, make decisions, and take action. It can be an amazing experience and will teach you more about leadership than you realized was possible to learn.
You can't outfox all disasters. There may be times that the best you can do is face defeat with as much composure and character as you can muster. But never give up until it is undeniable that you are at an end. It may be in the metaphorical last few minutes that you find a way through the mess and come out stronger than before.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.