Post-Crisis: Debrief in 2 Parts, Include Lawyers and Avoid Finger-Pointing

[Editor’s Note: This edition’s dialogue looks at post-crisis debriefs, often a neglected topic.

Indeed, our dialoguers April Margulies, founder, Trust Relations, and Thomas Graham, president, Crosswind Media & Public Relations, tell us it’s often a chore to schedule post-crisis sessions. “Nobody wants to air their dirty laundry,” Margulies says. Adds Graham, it’s a luxury to have the time to “press pause” and consider what worked or didn’t during a crisis. Most of the time, he says, companies are moving so fast, facing other situations, there’s little time to stop.

On the other hand, Margulies and Graham highly recommend debriefing, both in a preliminary session right after a crisis and weeks later, where a more detailed discussion occurs.

In addition, they urge including lawyers when circumstances dictate and discussing negatives and positives, though avoiding finger-pointing.

Margulies and Graham also discuss why not every bad event should be called a crisis.

Their remarks were lightly edited.]


Crisis Insider: What makes a good crisis debrief? When should you schedule it? Who should be here? What topics do you cover?

April Margulies: It’s smart to schedule a meeting with the key people, five to seven of those in your inner sanctum. Get it on the books a couple of weeks after you perceive the crisis is over. And then have an open dialogue. Don’t put too many things on the table. Record the discussion so you can transcribe it.

Your role, if you’re leading, is to draw people out. Ask, Did we follow our crisis communication plan? What could we have done better? Did we address all our stakeholders?

And then be positive. Bring up something we did well. Pat yourselves on the back. And also ask What surprised us? If we could go back in a time machine, what would we have done differently? Did we forget anything?

Then take all that dialogue and put it into a debrief.

Thomas Graham: I agree. Yes, you want to do a brief dialogue two weeks after the crisis is considered over. Emotions will still be raw at that point; there’s potential for blame to be cast. You want to avoid all that. So, yes, as April said, keep it very positive.


Crisis Insider: What would you add here?

Graham: I wouldn’t recommend recording; there would be the potential for litigation…always have your general counsel or of counsel involved so, ostensibly, you’re protected by attorney-client privilege.

To me, the real debrief occurs not sooner than 45 days after the incident and not later than 90 days after. So, you do the initial debrief and then you come back and do the real, blow-by-blow debrief.

Guerrilla Debrief Comes Later

By that time emotions have waned a little bit. You want to do an absolutely honest internal communication assessment and media assessment, a guerrilla assessment of internal and external communication and see how that flowed.

What happens a lot is you have someone say, ‘I did this wrong.’ But I agree with April, you want to start with what we did right. Let’s make a list.

We use CPR+, which is Crisis, Preparation and Response. The plus stands for Public Leadership Under Stress. That’s the media or public looking in on how you make these decisions during a crisis. We believe crises are opportunities for leadership to define your organization.

We recommend you identify the five elements that were done really well. And you also want to list the five things that you did wrong. Don’t stop at one thing.

Typically, a minor mistake leads to a minor mistake leads to a major mistake. So, we recommend not to end the meeting without identifying five good and five bad.

And then, what are the five specific actions, activities or changes to the crisis communication plan that you recommend? You might not make those changes, but you want to evaluate for the likelihood of change.

Again, as April said, keep it positive, it’s for the good of the organization.


CI: April, your reaction?

Margulies: Thomas makes some really good points, especially about litigation. Depending on the crisis, you really want to have a lawyer present [at a debrief] and not leave any incriminating evidence behind you through the conversation.

Once you get pen to paper [after an initial debrief], you consider what changes you want to make to plans and communication.

CI: Do you recommend separate debrief sessions for different parts of the company?

Graham: Yes. You have two sets of people involved. First, you have the day-to-day operations people who make the decisions and do the fire drills.

And then you have the executives and C-suites, who may or may not be active during the crisis. But they’re going to have opinions about what you did.

So, I’d separate the two [groups in a crisis debrief]. Do the blow-by-blow with the operations guys. That’s about a half-day session. Then take what you have to the C-suite and find out what they saw and compare those notes.

Probably each of those is a facilitator-led discussion, with [a third-party person] leading and, as April said, drawing people out and focussing on the goals of the positive outcomes. You really are doing these sessions to learn how you can improve.

CI: Speaking of separate sessions, when you have leadership in a debrief with rank-and-file employees, is the staff less likely to speak up and be honest?

Graham: They certainly are.

Margulies: Yes, absolutely. You don’t want internal politics squelching honesty.

Graham: Good senior executives and CEOs will recognize that and will communicate empathetically through the organization during times like this. That’s where real leadership stands out.

CI: Is it your experience that people, after a crisis, want to move on and not talk about it? As outside crisis counselors, do you have to fight that?

Margulies: Absolutely.

Graham: Absolutely.

Margulies: People don’t want to air their dirty laundry. But, as Thomas said, the more you can keep blame and shame out of it and emphasize we’re doing this to move forward and do a better job, the better.

Graham: Part of that, as we said, is having a quick debrief a couple of weeks after [a crisis] and then coming back 45 days later with an objective assessment.

And it’s on the communication team to do the media assessment and internal report [for the later, more-in-depth debrief].

Ask Did it take three hours or 10 minutes to send out that email. Did our tech system work? Did our phone tree work? Our HR policies?

Whomever the crisis team reports into, their leadership is crucial at this moment. They have to be transparent and the CEO has to give them the latitude to be open and honest for that self-evaluation.

CI: How easy is it to get buy-in for a debrief, where you stop and reflect on a previous crisis?

Graham: That’s one of the big problems. Especially when you have two or three other things going on at the same time. If you work for a global organization of any size, you’re pretty much going to have issues non-stop.

So, taking the time to push pause, do an evaluation. What is an emergency? What is a crisis?

Margulies: Identifying crisis triggers also is a good thing to do at this point. See if the crisis revealed new crisis triggers. Add those to the mix and make plans to respond to them in the future.

CI: Thomas, you brought up a good point about levels. Not every difficult moment is a crisis, though we in the media tend to label every one of them a crisis.

Graham: Typically, the client will call and ask for, to your point, a crisis communication plan.

We recommend on the front end doing an enterprise risk assessment. So, determining the hierarchy of threats to the ongoing viability of the organization. They can range from a data breach, regulation problems to a plant explosion, which has the potential to truly cause the company to cease to exist. That’s an emergency.

So, evaluate the risks and threats and then develop categories: emergency, crisis, issue and incident.

Then you create scenarios in advance that address those potential threats. And then routinely practice or do desktop drills, at least semi-annually, quarterly ideally, so you can respond.

Margulies: I agree with everything Thomas said. We put together a risk-severity matrix, with an X and Y axis…so you have catastrophic at the top, high, low, insignificant and then possibilities on the other axis…then you have color codes. Green is insignificant-remote; don’t stop things. If it’s code red, all hands-on-deck; it’s a real crisis.

Graham: That’s an excellent approach.

Margulies: And you also have to evaluate during the event if the color code has changed. If you thought something was yellow initially, it might grow to red. It’s a benchmark for each scenario.

Graham: Right.

CI: That leads to a question about knowing when you are out of a crisis. Is that data-driven, such as fewer stories are written about it?

Graham: In reality, no crisis is ever over because the media coverage of aspects of it could quickly reignite.

Margulies: It’s specific to the situation. Sometimes, yes, media coverage has died down, or a lawsuit is settled.

Graham: April’s absolutely right, it’s specific to the situation. Sometimes it’s when the families affected have some resolution and the organization can effectively manage and move on and address changes that need to be made.

Margulies: It’s also important to provide stakeholders with a post-crisis summary. And make sure you’re certain things have evolved to the point where everything’s OK.

What you don’t want to do is make predictions and then find out something else happened unexpectedly and you have to re-trace your steps.