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Be Cool in Crisis: Lessons From the Secret Service Scandal

How a management team prepares for and manages a crisis is what sets a great business apart from a mediocre one. Here are a few steps key to PR success in the face of disaster.
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One could argue the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has made every public relations mistake possible in mismanaging the recent Secret Service scandal. In doing so, it has inadvertently escalated a manageable crisis to one that's reached DEFCON 5, to borrow the military parlance, if I may.

Let's be honest: Every organization will sustain a crisis at one stage in its lifetime. But, how a management team prepares for, manages, and subsequently measures its post-crisis performance, is what sets a great business apart from a mediocre one.

Here are five proven tips you can use to avoid public disgrace, business disruption, or some horrible combination of both.

1. Anticipate and simulate.

The worst time to test your crisis plan is in the midst of an actual crisis. Best practices call for anticipating every conceivable crisis that might threaten your organization, assembling your senior line managers and simulating how they respond in real time. We've worked with clients in multiple industries to simulate (and evaluate) their teamwork and effectiveness in addressing everything from a product recall and a cyber hacking to a hostage incident, and a CEO kidnapping.

The result? Senior managers now know who’s responsible for what, how best to monitor an unfolding crisis and, critically, how to constantly upgrade their response system after the fact.

2. Know every single audience you have.

As sure as the sun sets in the West, every organization we've trained in crisis preparedness completely overlooks a key constituent audience in its response plan. For instance, in a rush to assure every employee is safe from physical harm, one senior management team forgot to inform key customers. Another team, addressing a simulated security breach, overlooked Wall Street and institutional investors.

The single best crisis tool I've ever used is called a constituent audience matrix. It's simple and effective. It lists every key audience, which executive has responsibility for keeping what audience current, what message to send and how to track the audience’s reaction. Just imagine if Arthur Andersen had had such a simple tool in the aftermath of the Enron crisis. By listening to a legal team that was more interested in winning in court (as opposed to the court of public opinion), Andersen first lost its key clients and then its key partners. Chapter 11 came next.

3. Be slow to promise, but swift to deliver.

Nothing is worse than being caught unaware. Clearly, the Secret Service agents weren't acting out for the first time when they reached Cartagena, Columbia. Their superiors should have known about it and, either replaced them while changing policies and procedures or, at the very least, should have anticipated what might happen when such rogue agents aren't reprimanded. The Homeland Security response was also laughably slow in addressing the mushrooming crisis.

Crisis response is now a 24/7 reality. While its crutical to gather facts and establish who did what, an organization needs to be front and center in communicating its version of what happened. The Pepsi Syringe crisis of the early 1990s is a textbook example. After a few syringes were discovered in Pepsi cans, the company initiated an immediate investigation, determined the crisis was isolated to one line in one manufacturing plant and communicated accordingly. So, instead of recalling every Pepsi can and suffering a major hit on the bottom-line, the company mitigated its losses while clearly communicating its actions every step of the way.

4. Make sure senior management is accessible.

Remember the BP Gulf crisis? Do you recall CEO Andrew Heyward's inaccessibility, cavalier attitude, and sailboat joyride in the midst of the crisis? He should not be your role model. Should your organization suffer a serious crisis, it's absolutely crucial that the most senior executives be visible to (as well as caring and compassionate in their communications with) audiences, beginning with employees. The latter are your front-line ambassadors with every other constituent. Nothing demoralizes a workforce faster than learning second-hand about a crisis or key development in an unfolding crisis. While there are exceptions to the rule, your CEO should always be the face of the organization in the midst of crisis. 

5. Post mortem: Measure for success next time.

The best way to become a better crisis-manager is to conduct a post mortem on how you handled a previous one. Use the constituent audience matrix to honestly evaluate how well you communicated to each key audience, how they reacted to the updates and whether the crisis strengthened or weakened the relationships. Johnson & Johnson actually improved market share through its adept handling of the original Tylenol crisis (of course, today's J&J is a textbook example of how not to manage multiple, unfolding crises).

Your next crisis may be just a phone call, email or breaking news story away. How will you prepare for it? As Winston Churchill famously said, "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

IMAGE: dissolved via Flickr
Last updated: May 2, 2012

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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