Eden Gillott is active in the Los Angeles chapter of Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO)'s business Accelerator program, which empowers entrepreneurs with the tools, community and accountability necessary to aggressively grow and master their businesses. As president of Gillott Communications, a crisis PR and bankruptcy communications firm, Eden helps companies protect reputations and build trust. As the author of A Business Owner's Guide to Crisis PR: Protecting You & Your Business' Reputation, we asked Eden how leaders can best navigate sensitive situations during a crisis. Here's what she shared:
The COVID-19 pandemic is spawning business crises at an alarming rate. As you experience sudden, unexpected change to your company and industry, you may find yourself at the helm of such a crisis and in uncharted territory if you've not managed one before.
Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes in a crisis manager's mind? On TV, Ray Donovan, Olivia Pope and Eli Gold handle crisis communications with incredible (if scripted) ease--making quick calculations as they overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
In real life, the best crisis managers exhibit similar skills. It's almost as if they have an intricate Excel model in their heads, allowing them to make complex computations quickly and decisively. Every new bit of information is factored in and has the potential to change the entire forecast and strategy.
Here's the framework of a crisis manager's mental Excel model:
Take a moment to calm your mind. That pause will give you clarity. When crisis strikes, your adrenaline spikes and your mind races a mile a minute. That's when you're most prone to making mistakes. Resist the urge to react in haste.
Telling the truth should be your guiding light. Secrets don't stay secret. This affects organizations of all sizes in all industries, from top-tier global companies to local firms and everyone in between. If you're caught lying or concealing the truth, your credibility will suffer, and people won't believe you the next time.
Know the facts. While it's important to be transparent and communicate what's happening (sometimes as it happens), it's vital that you know what the actual facts are. If you spread misinformation or allude to issues that aren't there, you will quickly lose trust. It's okay to let people know a situation is fluid, but resist the urge to speculate.
Remember: How facts are framed and presented determines how things are interpreted.
Set realistic goals. This is a critical reality check. It requires you to take a deep and unvarnished look inside yourself. It also requires you to manage your expectations. If what you'd like to have happen isn't possible, what are the alternatives? Once you know that answer, work backward, and map out how to get there.
Of course, you want the problem fixed quickly and thoroughly. Whether you get your wish depends on how you answer these rapid-fire initial strategy questions:
- Are the allegations or rumors true? If so, how deeply did you step in it?
- How much time has passed?
- Is the information already public? What's the likelihood it'll become public?
- What has--or hasn't--already been done or said?
- What do people already know? What more might come out?
- Who might try to block you from achieving your goal? Who would be a good ally?
- Has this situation happened to you before? Has it happened to anyone else?
- What have you already said or done? Were those initial statements and actions aligned with your goal? How do you correct course without appearing to backpedal?
Now it's time to craft your messaging.
Who are your key audiences? For some organizations and individuals, it's not the media. How broadly or narrowly must you go to reach those who are important to you? You can't effectively shape and share your message until you identify your audiences.
It's not me; it's you. Shape your messaging from the perspective of the recipients. No matter what the situation is, they always want to know one thing: "How will this affect me?" If you address their concerns before they even ask this question, you buy tremendous goodwill and gain trust.
Stick to your talking points. Talking points keep you focused, increase clarity, and create better understanding. Ideally, you should have only two to three key message points. If you have more, it creates clutter and risks having people focus on issues that aren't important to you.
Focus. Focus. Focus. Make every word count.
Choose your spokesperson. Your spokesperson must have credibility, exude authority and be comfortable fielding tough questions. If it's a companywide issue, people prefer to hear from the business owner or CEO. If the situation is highly technical, select an expert in that field to speak to it. If your employees typically receive such information from their managers, keep it that way. And stick with past precedent in meeting with employees either individually, by department, or companywide.
The spokesperson(s) must be trained and prepped on both what to say and not say, including anticipated questions. If the issue is public, make sure everyone in your company knows to direct questions to the appropriate spokesperson.
You may not need to pivot, but you must be ready to. Even the best-laid plans are thrown curveballs from time to time. But don't confuse "backpedaling" with "pivoting." Backpedaling is inherently negative: It's the messy clean-up you're forced to do after you've rushed out too quickly or were careless with the facts. "Pivoting" is positive: Sometimes you need to adjust course as new information comes in, which changes the calculus of your mental Excel model.