Understand how you (and others) will react in a crisis and use it to your advantage

On September 11th, 2001, I was living and working in Manhattan. As the second plane hit the towers, you could feel the panic take over. Some people just started running. Others stood frozen in shock. Some screamed. Others wept.

If you had asked me on September 10th  how I would react to witnessing the worst terrorist act to ever occur on American soil, I would have assumed I’d be freaking out with everybody else. Instead, my journalistic training kicked in. I walked into a store and bought a cheap camera. When I came out, I started taking photographs.

I learned something about myself that day: I have a built-in crisis mode. In everyday life, I am as emotional as the next Italian-American Jersey girl. In a crisis, my inner Brit takes over: I keep calm and carry on.

The truth is, none of us know how we will react in a crisis, whether it’s  COVID-19, a natural disaster, a serious car accident, a life-or-death situation involving a loved one, or a debacle that threatens your company, your brand, and your livelihood. As a crisis consultant, I can truly say I’ve seen it all.

The following examples are composites of different people, but they embody response styles I have seen more than once:

The CEO who made too many decisions too fast, like a drowning victim holding on to whatever they could grab to keep from sinking. His crisis mode was in overdrive. In a crisis, you have to move quickly – not frantically.

What to do: Slow this person down by playing out the consequences of each decision they make. Help them understand that speed is important, but so is strategy.  Take them through the possible end result of their approach. In my experience, this typically helps this type of leader think before acting too quickly.

The board president who would freeze every time he had to make a critical decision. My client referred to this response as “turtling” – whenever he needed to assert himself, the board president withdrew into his shell.

What to do: This person is scared to be unlikable. He/she is guided by making everyone happy. Unfortunately, we all know that is not possible, especially in a crisis. But this person feels the weight of the world is on their shoulders.  Start by offering strategies and tactics that satisfy the most people possible.  Show them how they can still be commended for their decisions.  Help them see others who are still liked in your community who have had to make tough decisions. Remember, this leader needs encouragement and patience.

The hero-wannabe who insisted on handling everything himself. Letting your ego takeover is one way to miss ancillary threats and overlook important details. The ability to delegate is critical in a crisis, provided you pick the right core team.

What to do: This person usually feels they have the most experience and knowledge of everyone else on the team. They feel they are most likely to come up with the winning outcome and they lack trust in others. Give this person a sense of purpose by showing them they need to come up with the bigger important strategies and shouldn’t be burdened with the myopic details. If this isn’t enough, provide hourly updates on the status of the situation.

The scarily calm CEO. He understood what was at stake and responded with discipline and gravitas. He followed every piece of advice I gave, got a limited number of people to weigh in on their area of expertise, kept his staff informed, and responded within hours.

What to do: Only truly preparing for a crisis can produce to this type of leader.  Leading up to the crisis, we had created strategies, talking points, tactics and had an arsenal of supporters. He was confident because we had talked about every possible outcome.

The self-defensive, stonewalling manager. Because she did not feel she was in any way at fault, she would not admit to any mistakes – even though this particular crisis happened because of inadequate internal procedures. She would not give her team the autonomy to tackle the crisis. This crisis style makes transparency impossible, and transparency is critical to rehabilitating your organization’s image.

What to do: This person is defensive because they are scared. They get their power from withholding information. As hard and counterintuitive as this may sound, you must let this person pursue their own approach. You have to let them fail.

Only then will they be ready to seek help. Again, training and insight regarding their leadership style will help you tremendously should a crisis arise with this type of executive in place. This article I wrote for Inc.com on dealing with difficult people might also help.

The CMO with analysis paralysis. He knew he had to respond, he WANTED to respond, but by the time he got through all the pros and cons of a move, it was too late to make it.

What to do:  Timing is everything in a crisis and waiting can often lead to poor results. Show them examples of other companies in similar situations that acted quickly and were rewarded for their decisiveness. One great resource is the Wall Street Journal’s Crisis of the Week Column. You can find examples of companies in all sorts of industries who have navigated a crisis.

Also, this leader may need to bounce ideas off of outside consultants to gain the confidence to lead in an unfamiliar territory. Ultimately, they need someone to hold their hand and tell them their decision is the right one.

The board team that scapegoats the CEO. By shutting out the CEO as part of their attempt to blame him, the board was making decisions in a vacuum. They had an inadequate perspective on the situation and actively covered up issues that would reflect badly on the organization. The problem with cover-ups is that they are inevitably uncovered, leading to a brand new crisis.

What to do: This board is likely driven by legacy, self-interest and a lack of trust in the CEO. The CEO needs to continue to make decisions for the organization and must have a difficult conversation with board. Handled with care, the CEO needs to take back the reigns and redirect the board to focus on the right level of oversight.

Most of us have no idea how we will respond when truly tested. That’s why I have developed The Brink, an experiential escape-room training for communicators that simulates real-life crises. I can tailor these experiences to your company so you and your team can do a disaster dry run.

90-Day Crisis Coaching: Adele Cehrs heralded as a “crisis management guru” by the Wall Street Journal and former FBI hostage negotiator Chip Massey will share best practices and help you with crisis management issues with a weekly call and unrestricted email. This is not a regular offering of ours, it’s intended to help you not just weather the storm but to be part of your support system through COVID-19. Obviously, we have limited slots, the response has been awesome, write us at adele@whenandhowagency.com to sign up: $2,500 or call 703-969-9585.

Limited time offer: expires April 5, 2020