Crises are no longer rare, random or peripheral events. They are an inevitable part of modern corporate, governmental and political life. They can be of enormous consequence, and they are defining moments as to what we do, how we are seen and what our future will hold.
Indeed, we often judge governments, public officials and campaigns precisely on how they respond to crises. So you may not know when a crisis will strike, but that’s no excuse for not having a plan. Effective crisis management is the art of reducing as much risk and uncertainty as possible to allow one to achieve the greatest possible control over one’s own destiny. The best crisis management can obviate impending doom for an official or candidate.
Not all crises can be prevented, but they can certainly be managed more effectively once they strike. The key is to identify and implement safeguards that can manage, resolve, and maybe even help your campaign emerge from a crisis on top.
Have a plan
Noah, you will recall, began building the ark before it started raining. Understand that a campaign plan and a crisis management plan are not the same. A crisis management plan can identify the risks the campaign faces in attempting to successfully execute its campaign plan, the steps that will be taken to effectively manage these situations and the specific roles and responsibilities for carrying the plan out. However, no matter how well-designed a crisis management plan might be, it’s of little use if it’s just gathering dust in a three-ring binder. Crisis management plans need to be continually reviewed, trained, tested and revised so that they are current and are fully understood by all the necessary participants.
Establish a broad but manageable crisis team with clear roles and responsibilities. A plan needs people to bring it to life, and decision making is exceptionally difficult in a crisis atmosphere. The intensity of the issue, the magnitude of what might be at stake, the glare of public scrutiny and the urgency of the situation all combine to undermine effective problem solving. You can mitigate this by having people and processes in place before a calamity erupts. It speeds the organizational response, improves decision-making and helps ensure unity of purpose and message.
Perhaps there is no better example of this than the effectiveness of the rapid response war room the Clinton presidential campaign set up in July of 1992. An old school war room might seem dated in today’s campaign environment, but the fundamental concept remains: timely and coherent responses crafted by the campaign’s decision-makers will help ensure you don’t go of the rails during a crisis.
Just as a campaign needs to have a strong internal structure to deal with crises, it also needs to have an external base to provide appropriate support and assistance if necessary. The time to build such relationships with key stakeholders, allies, supporters, and even the media is well before a situation reaches a crisis point.
Get the facts
Once your campaign or organization has reached full-fledged crisis mode, what’s the best course of action? A basic tenet of crisis management is to try to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. Within a crisis situation, there is almost always a need to stop the bleeding. To most participants, this means acting fast. But there is a cardinal rule that often gets pushed aside in this rush to action: gather and understand the facts first.
It is only after one has the facts and has fully assessed their implications that a successful strategy can be undertaken which will truly resolve the crisis, rather than just address the most immediate and apparent manifestations. The challenge is that the intense pressure of the moment seldom seems to permit enough time to assemble all the needed information. Crises are seldom static, and of course one really never knows what one doesn’t know. What begins as one critical situation can quickly turn into a series of related yet distinct turning points, each of which can lead to yet another crisis. The continual assessment of new developments and new dynamics is essential.
Control the flow of information
Campaigns and candidates can help build a bit of room during a crisis by taking control of information flow. Such a strategy should be aimed at reducing tension, demonstrating commitment to an appropriate resolution to the crisis and involving others in constructive activities to provide positive outlets for their energy. In order to do this, the individual or organization needs to show real empathy, focus on people and problem-solving and demonstrate concrete actions that would be seen by other participants and the public as acceptable steps to bring about a resolution. This cannot just be spin. It has to be accompanied by actual behavior. Experience has shown that the best way to resolve a crisis quickly is to act promptly and decisively, based on the facts, their implications and the organization’s crisis management plan.
Where some liability exists, it is imperative to accept responsibility. The blame game seldom works. Instead, it is important to explain in clear, unequivocal terms any and all remedial or corrective action that the individual or organization is prepared to take. If restitution is appropriate, it should not only be fair but should slightly exceed what would be expected by most impartial observers. Where appropriate, the public or third parties should be invited to participate in the corrective process.
Always tell the truth
No matter how serious the situation, it will always be compounded and prolonged if the individual or entity is found to be untruthful. Once credibility is lost, it is virtually impossible to regain. This, in itself, creates yet another set of crises. Think of how many times we’ve heard: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” Honesty isn’t just the best policy; it’s the only policy.
Realize that crises do come to an end, but even when their negative consequences have been averted, it is important to understand that the world has changed. Things may be whole again, but things are always different both inside and outside the organization. At this stage, it is essential to evaluate the impact of the crisis, capture any lessons learned and make any necessary changes, which may include revisiting the crisis management plan. After all, there could be yet another crisis brewing right around the corner.
Michael D. Edwards is an adjunct professor at The Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. He teaches courses in Crisis Management in American Politics, Issues Management, and Lobbying and the Budget Process.