Toss Your Involved Crisis Plan, But Ensure You Lead with Internal Communication

[Editor’s Note: This month, we discuss in-crisis moments, after you’ve determined you’re in a crisis. Our dialoguers are veteran communicators and authors Eric Dezenhall, co-founder and president of DC-based Dezenhall Resources, and Chris Rosica, president of Rosica Communications of NJ. Both whack at a few sacred cows in this dialogue. For example, Dezenhall tells us long, involved pre-crisis planning is largely useless. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”  Similarly, Rosica emphasizes a simple, three-pronged approach to planning that emphasizes the entire company, as opposed to focusing on the center. In addition, he also offers a monthly plan for building an organization’s crisis acumen. Moreover, while many crisis pros concentrate on external messages, Dezenhall and Rosica lead with internal communication. Their remarks were edited lightly. A shorter version of this dialogue will run in October’s Crisis Insider.]

Crisis Insider: I know we wanted to talk about in-crisis issues, but we have to ask about your view of pre-crisis planning as it’s so different.

 Dezenhall: [Pre-crisis planning is] largely useless. As soon as the crisis starts, it goes out the window. The industry sells crisis communication plans because they give the client the illusion of control. I used to do a lot of them. People feel if they have a very thick plan, it inoculates them. But they’re not really crisis plans; they’re essentially Xanax. Actually, [plans] go right out the window immediately [at the start of a crisis]. The only thing a crisis plan is good for is basic, fundamental logistics.

CI: But you’re OK with basic crisis planning, right? Knowing roles and responsibilities and setting out a chain of people to contact before a crisis starts, for example?

Dezenhall: Yes, of course. The difference is you have a three-page crisis plan, not a 300-page one.

CI: What about planning, Chris? As Eric said, ‘Have a three-page crisis communication plan not a 300-page one.’

Chris Rosica: I agree. I also think about planning slightly differently. People at all levels of an organization need to know:

  • What constitutes a potential crisis
  • To whom to turn when one occurs
  • When they need to notify a crisis point person and who they need to notify on all media and community-related inquiries.

CI: You’re saying people throughout the enterprise need to play a role in crisis prep. So, for example, if a salesperson in the field sees something that has crisis potential that person needs to recognize it and report it back to the center.

Rosica: Yes.

CI: Speaking of planning, you have written about building a monthly program.

Rosica: I’ve proposed building a crisis plan incrementally and doing it internally. You don’t need to hire an outside resource necessarily, although many companies do because they lack the expertise and bandwidth.

[Create your basic plan] over time, so you’re not paying six figures for a crisis plan. You’re taking the priority crises you need to be prepared for and writing one plan every month for a different scenario. So, by the end of the year, you have 12 scenarios you’re prepared for. This includes developing statements, messaging and internal processes so that you know all the facts and you’re communicating in a way that makes the most sense, starting internally, with stakeholders that matter the most to you. Of course, there are a lot of nuances.

CI: Fair enough. Eric, even with a three-page plan, do people sometimes forget they have it during a crisis?

Dezenhall: Yes. The nature of human behavior is that one of two things happen during a crisis: panic or freezing. People think it’s always panic. It’s not. Sometimes there’s a strange sense of quiet.

CI: We see a lot of claims that say, ‘We can control your crisis.’

Dezenhall: Well, you can’t always. And you can’t ‘get ahead of the story,’ which is one of the more ridiculous clichés.  I think of [my crisis role] as being captain of a small ship on a very large and violent ocean. You can be a good captain and have a lot of experience in storms, but you can’t control the oceans.

CI: Let’s move from sea captains to doctors. Honest doctors admit they can’t always control disease. They can’t guarantee they’ll make patients well.

Dezenhall: Oh, yes. One of my most profound career conversations was with a heart surgeon. He told me he fired a patient. That blew my mind. I asked him for more information. He said, ‘I’ve been telling this patient for 20 years to lose weight and stop smoking. He didn’t listen. He now wants me to operate on him and I’m not going to do it, because when I operate he’s going to die and I’m going to get sued.’

I thought that was an incredibly brilliant lesson for me and I adopted it in my business.

CI: So, we’re in a crisis. What do you recommend? What things do people forget in the heat of the moment?

Dezenhall: Number one, resist the temptation that you have to be constantly providing information and responding immediately to everything.

Get rid of the 1980s cliché that you have to respond immediately. Responding immediately is a convention that came from a time when there was a daily news cycle that ended at 4:30pm, unless there was an international incident. In the 1990s you had an hourly news cycle. In the 2000s, with social media, you have a nanosecond news cycle.

So, 40 years ago ‘respond immediately’ was a smart thing, because it meant getting something to the media before they went to bed. Now what happens is, everything you get into the media ignites another round of horrible attention. Communication begets more crap. You don’t always want to be introducing more data into the news stream.

Now, that should not be interpreted as do nothing. It means rapid response might be useful sometimes, but not always, and there are other things that are more important.

CI: For example?

Dezenhall: We’ve experimented in the last few years with doing less and that’s worked well. So, instead of hourly updates, you amortize [information] into a few big drops. We often say, ‘We’ll know more in two days. And rather than making things up now that we’ll regret, we’ll tell you in two days.’

And rather than have the CEO do 72 interviews, have him or her do one.

We also take the time to shore up internal audiences rather than concentrate on the media, which has no interest in being convinced [that you’re handling the crisis well]. They’re interested in hurting you and saying the crisis is being mismanaged. With internal audiences, they have an investment in you. What a lot of companies do is concentrate on trying to get people who hate them to like them. That’s not going to happen.

CI: Chris, what’s your reaction to what Eric said?

Rosica: I agree in general, but there are other considerations. I’d like to suggest you can be bold and confident, instead of silent [externally], particularly if you are armed with facts and information that might dissuade a reporter from writing [a negative story that could lead to a crisis].

In some instances, reporters will decide not to write [an explosive story] because you’ve given them information that causes them to question their source or whether or not they have all the facts.

In addition, I like to know right away what the reporter’s deadline is. They all have deadlines. I realize the news cycle is constant now, but there are deadlines still.

Then, of course, you need to gather all the facts, if you haven’t already done so, and provide [media] with as much information as possible to help manage the story as best you can and to get the client’s authentic point of view to be part of the narrative.

CI: Do you have an example?

Rosica: Yes. We had a large supermarket chain as a client and it had a problem in the produce department. An employer sprayed Raid on the produce to kill flies. There was a [media] deadline and we found out what it was.

Then we gathered the facts and found the employee had a disability. And we found it was not supermarket policy to spray Raid [on the produce]. The supermarket wanted to support the person, so the individual was moved to another job [where public safety was not involved].

So, when we spoke to the reporter and several other media outlets, we provided information about the incident. We informed the media about the incident and that a number of workers were certified in food safety. We armed them with facts about the chain’s best practices. For example, they discarded all the produce.

It became a non-story because we provided the facts. Regardless of the fact that the news cycle seems to be never-ending, there are always deadlines associated with stories. It’s our job to get as much information from the reporter about what their story is; they’re usually very forthcoming.

CI: Chris, like Eric, you’re big on internal communication.

Rosica: Yes. Sometimes people forget about internal. One of our five core crisis considerations is ‘Start from Within.’ With a board, you have to notify it immediately.

Now, I’m not saying you have to disclose everything to everyone. That’s not always warranted. Sometimes there are a lot of unanswered questions and there’s an investigation going on, whether it’s formal or informal. There could be a legal team involved in the investigation or an internal team, say Human Resources.

We believe it is extremely important to start internally first. And internally might mean your employees. If you’re dealing with a school, it means the school community, so that’s all the parents, not just staff and faculty. So, be mindful of what’s going out [from you and others], to whom and when. If you’re communicating for schools, you must follow parent groups on Facebook, for example.

Also, take into consideration the most effective channels by which to communicate with each audience. So, if it’s an older demographic, email might suffice. For a younger demographic, a video from the CEO might be in order. You also should consider other social channels.

It’s really a balancing act over what’s disseminated to whom and when. We believe if you start internally you’re going to build your internal advocacy base and make sure you don’t fuel that rumor mill. Rather, you provide enough information so that you can quell concerns.

CI: Eric, what’s another in-crisis maxim you rely on?

Dezenhall: Leadership trumps planning. One of the biggest problems I face is that my client has no decision-making authority, because nobody wants it.

CI: You’re saying you want to deal with C-suite people?

Dezenhall: Yes. What happens is I walk out of the room when the head of communication is named the chief of the crisis. They never have the power to be the decision-making authority. When I’m dealing with the CEO, general counsel and the board, I know I’m in a lot better shape because they have that authority.

CI: Chris, your thoughts on decision-making authority?

Rosica: One thing we want before we arrive [at a company in crisis] is for it to have a crisis communication committee. And it needs to be empowered to make decisions. So, yes, as Eric said, it needs to have C-level people on it.

We also believe legal counsel is a component [of that committee]. In most situations, we’re collaborating with the company’s legal team. They know they’re not communicators, and we know we’re not attorneys. So, the combination of the two is very effective.

What usually happens is we create a statement and legal approves it. But that happens only after a discussion with the crisis committee and we get a sense of the general direction [the company wants to take].

CI: Do you find many organizations lack a crisis communication committee?

Rosica: Yes, or they don’t have it established early on.

CI: What’s another in-crisis issue you deal with?

Dezenhall: You have this endless process where people are looking for quantifiable ways to measure if the crisis is being effectively managed, as opposed to just managing it.

So, what you have is, like in [HBO’s] “The Wire,” people ‘juking the stats,’ playing with statistics to show they were beating crime.

With crisis, you have people obsessing over how to quantify [managing crisis] so they can go into their boss or the board of directors and show, ‘We have this many clicks or hits.’ The emphasis is on ‘How can we quantify success so we can impress people?’ rather than ‘How do we have a leader who can make good decisions?’

It’s one of the things that’s really hurting the industry. You have PR firms selling clients on how to put together great PowerPoint presentations instead of managing a crisis.

CI: Number three?

Dezenhall: I have clients with thousands of employees but they can’t find one who will talk publicly. The reason why is whoever talks publicly is going to be fired for mishandling [the crisis]. The immediate response to the crisis is the next round of stories, [which cover] how you mismanaged it with the media.

So, what you have to do is choke down the inevitability that the crisis will be deemed [in the press] to be mismanaged. That either means find somebody who can take the heat or don’t put somebody out there because you know, initially, the crisis will be deemed to have been botched.

And you have this meta problem that nobody wants to manage the crisis because they think they’re going to be fired. And they’re not wrong.

Those are the first few things.

CI: And apologies?

Dezenhall: Then you get to apologies and you realize you might not be apologizing [genuinely], but you’re apologizing to go through a rite of passage where you do the apology…as part of the Kabuki dance…you’re doing it just to check the box.

CI: Other in-crisis issues?

Dezenhall: With personality-driven crises, like when the CEO is at the center of a crisis, they really don’t know, until weeks in, what exactly is happening to them.

CI: Why?

Dezenhall: Strong personalities go through life with the belief that they’ve been chosen. And that [a crisis] is going to be over very quickly because of their chosen-ness. So, what they often think is, ‘Let me get back to being charismatic, because that will fix things.’ Rather than [acknowledge that they are] are facing congressional hearings, shareholder revolts, employee revolts, consumer actions, stock drops, management shakeups. The human mind is not wired to handle crises.

CI: Is it important to give people in a prolonged crisis time off, time to rest?

Dezenhall: What you’re saying is perfectly reasonable. I’d put it a little differently. A problem in a crisis is the obsession with evaluating how you’re doing every hour. Don’t judge the patient mid-surgery. The patient looks awful mid-surgery. They’re pale and there’s blood everywhere. This is not the time to judge everything.

I get the same question from the media all the time. ‘Do you think [fill in the name of a big company in a crisis] is going to survive?’ And my answer is, ‘Yes, of course. But they’re having a bad day today.’

If people make decisions based on the short-term, we’ll all hang ourselves. There’s all this desire to assess based on immediate things. And you’re not just going to win in the short term. Crises are meant to be resolved in the interim or long-term.