I came home on the afternoon of Saturday, 27 October after spending three solid days in a "war room" for a client in the midst of a crisis. That's what I do: help companies navigate the reputation mine field that is part of any operational, financial or corporate crisis.
But on this occasion I came home to a looming crisis of my own: Hurricane Sandy.
My family lives along the Connecticut coast, and all predictions were that we would be hit hard. Little did I know how hard.
My home sustained significant damage. I had my own crisis, and it was time for me to practice what I preach. This experience affirmed for me the value of the theory I offer to my clients, and demonstrated that what works on a macro scale is equally effective on a personal level.
Manage the threat before it escalates. The first lesson here is a simple one: Take the threat seriously, and prepare for the worst case outcome. I call this “imminent threat management.” Too often companies think in terms of probabilities… what is likely to happen based on past experiences. But it is a trap to think in terms of probabilities, because it lulls companies into thinking the crisis will only be as bad the last crisis. Organizations must prepare for all eventualities. While we took the hurricane threat seriously, we didn’t allow enough time to prepare, and our home suffered more than it might have otherwise had we spent more time getting ready. The lesson for companies: Identify the risk as early as possible, begin planning promptly and plan for all scenarios.
Be realistic. Have reasonable expectations for the outcome of the crisis. A desired outcome is not always possible, and a return to life as it was the day before the crisis occurred is not likely. I speak in terms of “first prize” outcome and “second prize” outcome. As they say in the Olympics, there is no shame in a silver medal. In my situation, we braced ourselves early on for the possibility that our home would sustain enough damage to render it unlivable, and we began preparing for alternate acceptable outcomes.
Emotion trumps reason. This is one of the oldest rules of crisis management: Unless you can get emotions in check (whether your own or your audience’s), you will not be able to think rationally, or have a rational dialogue with stakeholders. Almost every discussion my wife and I had since the hurricane either begins or ends with the expression, “We’ll make it.” In essence we are acknowledging the emotional concerns, anxieties, fears and anger. And by doing so we are then able to think more clearly.
Regain control of the agenda. Crises can overwhelm people and companies to the point where they feel they have lost control. Don’t let the crisis overwhelm you. Break it into its parts. Tackle one problem at a time. Don’t lose sight of your goals, but don’t think you can fix every problem at once. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I have seen too many neighbors express the sentiment, “I don’t even know where to begin.” The first step is to identify all the individual tasks (contact FEMA, schedule the insurance adjuster, etc.), and think in terms of individual objectives, not the grand scheme. And don’t let others dictate the agenda. For my situation, that means controlling the insurance adjusters, not having them control me. For companies, that means controlling the media (among others), not vice versa.
Don’t rely on a single means of communication. There are two dimensions to this. First, communications experts should not assume a false sense of security with a single communications device. In the week following the hurricane, I found that at any given time, I could not get wi-fi access for my laptop, there was no signal for my mobile phone or no 3G signal for my iPad (all reliant on different service providers). But at least one of them was working. If I had only one means of communication, I would have been toast. For communications professionals in the midst of a crisis, nothing is worse than an inability to communicate.
The second dimension to this lesson is about the channels of communication. Again, no single channel is adequate. In the world we live in, people access and process information from multiple channels. One informs the other and all carry varying degrees of credibility. In the days immediately prior to and following the hurricane, I have seen communication as simple as police and firefighters going door to door and using bullhorns, to sophisticated Reverse 911 systems and social media practices. No one system will work. But when well-coordinated, a communications strategy employing multiple channels can be very effective.
The power of social media. This truth was brought home to me (literally) when I saw a video posted on YouTube of the storm damage on my street. There, on YouTube, was my house. Across Facebook people were reaching out to and helping each other. Twitter was an enormously effective tool as a magnifier of information (news links, updates from utilities and government agencies, etc.). Companies that ignore the power of social media in a crisis do so at their own risk, even if it is for no other purpose than to stay in touch with employees.
Not all crises are as life-threatening or disruptive as a hurricane, but scale alone doesn’t determine the trajectory or outcome of a crisis. Effective crisis management will pay dividends regardless of the scale. Corporate executives and reputation managers alike should pay attention to the lessons of Hurricane Sandy.
Chris Gidez is global head of risk management and crisis communicationsat Hill+Knowlton Strategies.