Editor’s Note: The idea for this month’s Crisis Dialogue springs from something we hear often from crisis pros: ‘That person/company is difficult.’ So, we talked with Chanel Cathey, founder/CEO, CJC Insights, LLC, and Daniel Roberts, a corporate crisis specialist, about handling uncooperative executives during a crisis. The conversation was edited for space and clarity.
Crisis Insider: Please give us examples of common traits of difficult executives during a crisis.
Daniel Roberts: [A difficult executive in a PR crisis will] sets unrealistic expectations, is not fully honest and speaks down to [crisis] advisors like us. There are so many things that cascade from there.
Chanel Cathey: I agree. There could be a personality clash or they struggle taking guidance, directions and cues from us.
But Daniel’s point about unrealistic expectations is huge. It’s similar to media relations, where everyone comes to you and says, ‘I want to be in the New York Times or on “Good Morning America.’”
You can’t just let that go. You have to convey that it takes time and then you outline a strategy and level the expectations.
CI: So, in an ideal situation what happens?
Cathey: You set expectations honestly and early.
It’s important to have a rapport [with top executives], even if one of them is the point of challenge and conflict. Relationships are key.
Crisis Insider: How do you build a relationship with a difficult executive?
Cathey: Be direct. For example, don’t always send information [to that person] through someone else. Do it directly. But don’t always do it in an email.
A paper trail is great; with difficult clients, however, if you say something to them in person and it’s not written down, that can be a problem. Cover your bases. If they come back later, after a conversation with you, and they’re combative, you have a paper record.
CI: What else is important?
Cathey: Provide direct and honest feedback in real time. This can be challenging, especially if you’re friends.
Often, difficult people are not receptive to feedback. Part of your job is to figure out the best way to offer feedback.
But, [crisis pros] sometimes are reluctant to give feedback in real time, so they wait and let things fester. Three weeks later, they [raise the issue and the executive] looks at them and says, ‘Why are we talking about this now?’ They’ve moved on.
[In addition] you, as the advisor, also must be receptive to feedback.
CI: When the CEO is difficult, what sorts of issues occur?
Cathey: [Problem] CEOs, at times, have difficulty making decisions quickly. And they’re risk-averse.
Streamline Info, Time Crunch
CI: So, what do you do?
Cathey: Don’t bombard them. Streamline the information process. Give them updates consistently and be transparent, but don’t overwhelm them with details.
[Bombarding them] can add to their stress. And if they’re difficult, adding stress will make them worse.
Also, when a CEO is difficult, get a small group of advisors [from the company] to help make the call. That will relieve stress [on the CEO] and us.
In a crisis, you have to move fast. People often take too long getting to a point where they can respond.
So, as an external hire, when people are in panic mode, the first thing I do is go to the CEO and find out who the most immediate parties involved are and get information to make decisions quickly.
Time is the biggest thing. People spend so much time trying to figure out who’s answering to what that you’re already behind the 8-ball in your [crisis] response.
It depends on the crisis, of course, but one thing I like to do is keep my circle of contacts [within a company] small.
Everyone’s spinning their wheels during a crisis. So, go to the source, to leadership, and keep it contained.
Work Behind the Scenes
It’s our responsibility to gather information, do scenario planning and then give them your best options for responses.
But don’t [gather information and plot strategy] in front of the C-Suite...If you involve too many people you’ll never get anything done.
It sounds very basic, but it’s the breakdown in that key area–who is taking charge and who’s managing the decisionmakers–that can escalate a situation.
Roberts: I like Chanel’s point of going to the CEO and convening a small group. But sometimes that’s not possible.
So, say you’re working with the head of communication. You realize [he/she] is getting a lot of pressure from [the C-Suite]. They pass that tension on to you. My advice is to stay calm and demonstrate you’re actively listening and be as communicative as possible.
Stay Calm, Disarm the Executive
Also, don’t get offended. Emotions are high. The executive sometimes is going to be choppy, short and crass. As a crisis professional, you can’t get offended.
Next, disarm the executive. As Chanel said, communicate that you are working quickly toward a solution.
Emotions overtake people when they realize there’s a lot at risk. It could be thousands of employees being laid off, millions of dollars lost. They are not in their typical headspace, so processes could be skipped. That is not a good thing in corporate America. Processes are there for a reason.
And a Checklist
So, have a personal checklist. That might include having a copy editor look over everything that goes out the door. Even if you have a deadline with a reporter that you can’t miss, get eyes on whatever you send.
And make sure Legal approves it and leadership signs off on it. I think it’s fine to miss a deadline, on something that comes up unexpectedly, by a few minutes [as opposed to] sending out something that’s inaccurate or makes the situation worse.
Take the Heat
Chanel: I agree. The ultimate win is keeping the client calm. Our job as communication professionals is to shoulder the worry.
CI: The difficult executive says, ‘There’s no crisis. We don’t need counseling or to apologize. This will blow over.’ What do you say?
Cathey: I’ve had that said to me so many times. Being young and a black woman, I’ve been undercounted and underestimated at every turn. I’ve also had amazing executives who’ve trusted me after I’ve shown what I could do. But, in our roles, we’re constantly challenged.
CI: What do you do when the client is not responding to your advice?
Cathey: You use examples of other companies that went through something similar to what they’re going through.
Use the worst example. ‘They did this and look what happened.’ Show them this can get big. And then you say, ‘Here’s my plan to make sure that doesn’t happen.’
I like being on record saying that. If they don’t take my advice, I’m already working on how to get them out of the mess they’ll get into.
And, I agree with Daniel; stay calm. That’s the hardest thing for me, not taking things personally.
Roberts: Let me flip Chanel’s advice. I’ve advised executives who say, ‘X did this, which is much worse than what we did, and they escaped unscathed. So, we’ll be all right.’
You have to point out that X’s reputation is damaged, whether they realize it or not. It might not be obvious from media coverage, for example, but chances are there’s some damage.
So, don’t just give worst-case examples, but counter their arguments in real-time. The way you do this is to include data, analytics and metrics, especially with C-Suite people, who are data- and numbers-driven.
CI: Daniel, do you have more takeaways?
Roberts: Don’t take anything personally, particular if an executive doesn’t take your advice.
Trust your gut, especially when you’re dealing with a quickly evolving crisis.
And, it’s OK to step back and stop before deciding on something. ‘Stop for 30 seconds or 20 minutes and let’s get this right.’ It’s...appreciated and often gives some really great results.
Cathey: Look at the personal side of crisis. Clients often become your friends. When you have to give feedback it becomes very difficult. The most prevalent thing is when people are not self-aware. It can be damaging to themselves and their brands.
I like to find fun ways for executives to ‘look under the hood,’ whether it’s for themselves or their businesses...If you can find opportunities to do pressure-checks and give them advice, you won’t have to course-correct so many things during a crisis.
CI: What about speed? Crisis, speed and calm don’t often end up in the same sentence.
Roberts: Speed is two-sided. Reporters can throw up a story [online] in 20 minutes. But in the digital age, they can also update a story if you miss the deadline.
Chanel: Getting ahead of things is great. Some things you can call ahead of time. You’re in Minneapolis and the [Derek Chauvin] trial is going on, you know you need a game plan for if X verdict comes down and people are frustrated.
People are caught off guard because they don’t scenario-plan. [In addition], they don’t know ahead of time who is handling social [during a crisis], who is updating the CEO.
Also, decide what’s the best platform for your message. You don’t need to use 16 different assets at the same time…Trying to get your message out everywhere on every platform at the same time creates more opportunity for error. Picking a few [platforms] will help your speed.
Roberts: I totally agree. Your role as a [crisis advisor] is to be the voice of reason. And the best ones think 10 steps ahead. To Chanel’s point, you’re proactively providing materials to the executive so they are doing the least amount of work in the moment.
From the start, we are working on a holding statement or pulling the one we drafted a week ago; we’re pulling strategy documents and a message to stakeholders. We’re making our plan for today, tomorrow and 10 days from now.
CI: Other best practices?
Roberts: Rely on your past experiences. We know what worked and didn’t. You have to trust your gut. Our expertise is why you hired us.
Cathey: In this moment, there’s something else, too. We are seeing so many people messing up because they do not have a diverse set of folks…advisors, leadership, etc. in the room to make these fast decisions.
Maybe you have an older team and there’s an ageism miss…you could have a statement that has nothing to do with race but the way that it comes out seems privileged and you end up in a whole different conversation.
So, there needs to be a diversity component in the room. And there needs to be respect for who’s at the table and then a respect and admiration for their experiences and what they’re recommending.