Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Secret Skill of Great Crisis Communicators

I've spent the last few weeks on the road conducting crisis communications workshops (and battling a nasty bout of food poisoning that laid me low in Chicago for a week). It got me thinking about crisis communications and the difference between unpredictable crises and unthinkable crises. The big difference is planning. You can plan for an unpredictable crisis. Workplace violence, for example, is a crisis that you can plan for but not predict. An unthinkable crisis, on the other hand, can't be planned for. If you can't conceive of something happening then you can't plan for it.

So What is the Secret Skill?

I'm talking about the kind of imagination that makes your co-workers wonder about you, but not the kind of imagination that it prompts a visit from the good folks at Homeland Security.

I'm talking thinking of your worst-case scenario. The US Environmental Protection Agency requires facilities that have large amounts of certain chemicals on their sites (think chemical plants, refineries, etc.) to model worst-case scenarios and to tell people outside the fence line what that scenario is. The great part about that program is once people know what you can do to them, they want to know what you're doing to prevent it from happening. It is a useful exercise that gets companies thinking about prevention and risk reduction.

Communicators should put themselves through the exact same exercise.

Lack of imagination is what gets companies into trouble. It's the kind of thinking that leads people to say "The big disaster will never happen today." Until it does. (See Titanic, unsinkable)

I encourage my clients to put together a list of things they think they might face. Most good communicators I know do the same thing. Where they can improve their efforts is in planning for the second- and third-order effects once the crisis hits. I did an exercise for the Wisconsin Healthcare Public Relations & Marketing Society a while back and I'll share it as an example. 

This is an exercise, Development One
Time: This morning

You are the Director of Marketing for a healthcare system based in Madison, Wisconsin. Your system includes hospitals in four cities including Madison, Milwaukee, LaCrosse and Green Bay. In addition to the hospitals, the system employs 360 physicians, 2,500 employees and operates a network of 32 primary care and specialty clinics throughout the state.

You were awakened at 6:30 this morning by a call from your Chief Operating Officer. She told you that one of your clinics was burglarized overnight. Windows were smashed and the burglars made off with some medical equipment and drug samples. Authorities also believe that at least three computers and an undetermined number of patient records were stolen. The computers contain data on hundreds of patients and have security software protocols installed that allows access to the data network for your entire health care system. The system CIO is in Montana on a hunting trip and unreachable for the next week. She suggests strongly that you get your team together right away because, “It’s going to be a long day.”

We did a round of interviews and talked through this first development. It's a pretty basic scenario. Someone broke into the clinic. Patient privacy is at risk. Everyone did pretty well. Then we gave them the second development.

This is an Exercise, Development Two
Noon Today

You receive a call from your chief operating officer. She tells you that she got a call from the wife of the system’s Chief Information Officer who relayed the following story:

The hunting lodge where the CIO was supposed to be on his hunting trip called to report that he had yet to arrive. He is two days overdue. Further, the wife says that her husband had been acting strangely in the weeks leading up to the hunting trip. Most disturbing of all, the CIO didn’t take his hunting rifle when he left, but he did take his work computer and a handgun. She told the COO that she has no idea where her husband is. She has filed a missing persons report with the police department. The officer that took the report told her that this would probably be a low priority case in that the CIO appears to have left voluntarily and that it doesn’t appear that any crime has been committed. 

This is the kind of development that can derail a crisis response if it's not planned for. Now, will you be able to predict every detail of every potential crisis? No. What you can do is realize that crises will take unexpected twists and turns and you can practice and plan for those. 

Use your imagination so that your team and the executives you support are better equipped to deal with the craziness the real world will send your way in a crisis. 

When someone says "There's no way this could ever happen" it means you're doing it right. 

Bill Salvin


  1. I couldn't agree more, Bill. In fact, for a few years now, we at Ketchum have been training clients on developing the proper crisis management MINDSET -- which is built around credibility, focus and imagination. It's part of our Executive Crisis Management Academy (ECMA) curriculum. We beleive that too many trainings focus on systems (plans/teams) and approaches (top-10 things to do in a crisis), without beginning with the foundation of the right crisis management mindset.

    Imagination is the one that surprises people and it has equal weight with credibility and focus.

  2. Thanks for reading JD. I appreciate your comment. So many people would love to reduce a crisis to a checklist because then they can "never make a mistake." Checklists are great for making sure you don't forget things and in that way they are useful, but how you think during a crisis is the most important part of a response. You need to be nimble and responsive to actual events. When people judge your response, they aren't going to praise you for the quality of your checklist.

    Thanks again for reading. Good luck!

  3. Exactly! A written plan is not a capability. And a checklist is not a plan! Keep up the great posts...I'm an avid follower.

  4. ...and of course there is often too much focus on the operational solution and not enough understanding of the communications implications. The two need to work hand in hand. That too is about mindset.

  5. Andrew-
    You hit on an extremely important point. You can have great operations and lousy communications and that = a failing response. On the other hand, you can have great comms but lousy operations and that = fail, too. Operations and communications BOTH have to be in sync for a response to be effective.
    Thanks for reading and contributing.