There are lots of great tips out there for dealing with a crisis. One of the nicest, most succinct ones we’ve seen comes courtesy of Melissa Agnes and addresses the Top Ten Crisis Management Take-Aways from 2013. So, the team at Capstone decided our Christmas gift to you is the Ten Days of Crisis Management – You won’t find any maids a milking here, but you will find the Capstone team’s deeper dives on Melissa’s list. To read Melissa’s original list, click here.
# 3. “Good leadership manages a crisis with both the head and the heart.” – Melissa Agnes
As a young Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DAS), I saw a fair number of crises. During each crisis, I have vivid recollections of how calm, cool and collected my Executive Assistant (EA), Larry Shockley was. At the time, I was a thirty-something DAS and Larry was a fifty-something Air Force Colonel JAG. While I may have been his boss, there is no question in my mind who was the teacher and who was the student. Shockley was the real deal.
Everyone trusted Larry’s sound judgment. He had ice water running through his veins and yet conveyed a sense of empathy in the plight of others.
He would approach a crisis with three critical characteristics that I think are at the center of leadership in a crisis – trust, empathy and calmness.
Think of Governor Chris Christie confidently striding through storm-ravaged Jersey Shore, comforting residents… and compare that to embattled FEMA Director Michael “Brownie” Brown, who did a heckuva job in New Orleans losing the public’s trust.
Trust is perhaps the most important quality of a leader and nowhere is that more evident than when things go wrong.
Empathy and calmness actually go hand in hand to me. If you’re an empathetic leader who is a wreck, that doesn’t do much for those around you in times of crisis. Conversely, if you have someone who is calm but with the emotional IQ of a turnip that also isn’t a very good combination.
For crisis communication, one needs to show that they are caring for those who are affected, especially if loss of life or injury are involved. It’s insulting to watch a reporter or a spokesperson talk about someone’s plight while you can see the indifference oozing out of their pores. You have to feel it and show it without being over the top. Some are so bad at it, there is no expression of caring – only self absorption. The PR world has written volumes on the now infamous Tony Hayward, BP CEO, “I’d like my life back!” The quote struck a nerve – here was a leader who was completely detached from those who were truly harmed by the explosion and gas leak. No one trusted him, and he certainly showed no empathy.
Part of leadership, of course, is the ability for others to follow. If the tone you are setting for your organization is frenetic then that’s the message you’ll convey for your organization- out of control. If you are professional and calm, a sense of control starts to permeate the crisis at hand.
The one constant in any crisis is that there is no constant: crises are fluid situations with new information emerging all the time. Leaders should remember that early information is often inaccurate – even the FBI will tell you that 50% of initial reports are wrong. Be sure to verify your information – and in the national security parlance – never rely on single source intelligence. Have multiple sources independently confirm key points so you don’t end up embarrassing your brand or yourself.
The last piece of advice for leaders is this less than comforting knowledge: A crisis will occur – plan on it! Get your house in order in advance. Make sure your social media platforms are set up, line up your PR firm, and if you know where your crisis is likely to occur – draft your message points in advance and make sure that you or your spokesperson (you may not be the best at this) gets some formal training on how to act on camera and with reporters.
John C. Rogers is the CEO of Capstone National Partners.
The views in this blog post represent the viewpoints of individual team members, not Capstone National Partners as a whole.