I was listening to NPR this week and they had a great segment on how to deal with a crisis at a business when something major goes wrong. The reason I bring this up is that as leaders we are so often dealing with growth issues and minor issues in the company that we never really prepare for the big crisis. The one when your product, service or people damage or hurt something or someone.
The expert said handling a crisis is really very simple, but by no means easy, and it boils down to three steps:
- Own the crisis or situation and apologize quickly.
- The CEO needs to be the one to own it.
- Overcorrect for the problem.
He then went on to describe multiple situations where companies had done it well and where they had not done it so well.
The first step in the formula is probably the hardest, actually owning the actions of your company whether it caused death or destruction for someone or something. The toxic water spill by the EPA that happened last week is an example of getting it partially right. Authorities were notified right away, but no one really took responsibility immediately. It was a good 24 hours before the EPA finally came out and said their contractors accidently did it. Later they said how. It would have been better if they immediately said they believed they caused it, apologized and explained they were looking into how it happened and said they would provide an update when they had all the facts. Owning it and apologizing at the same time and quickly is critical. Any stall leads people to suspect a cover-up, even if that’s not the case.
The second step can be tricky. Sometimes the CEO is not immediately available, such as at a large organization like the EPA, so someone else takes the bullet with the announcement. When that happens it makes it look like the head of the organization is passing the buck. Make sure you have a crisis management plan in place to immediately be able to find the CEO should something happen so they can be the face. It’s important to the company, the community and to those affected by the crisis.
The last step, overcorrecting for the problem, means being generous and doing whatever it might take to make those affected whole and preventing further damage – recalling every product, even if only a few batches were tainted, full replacement of value, even if people were not harmed, etc. The public wants to know that you care and that you are doing everything humanly possible to protect them in the future while correcting the problem and making it right for those affected.
Hopefully, nothing this dramatic or tragic will ever happen to your organization. However, having a plan in place and knowing how to quickly react if it does is often the key to survival after a crisis.