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Crisis Management 101

October 4, 1999
by Pat McClellan

As I begin this article, I'm waiting another 20 minutes before I can call again to the Air Courier dispatcher. I'm hoping to get the number and schedule of the flight that will be carrying a CD-ROM with mpeg files I was supposed to have received 2 days ago. (The wrong CD-ROM was sent.) Looks like it'll be a very late night... or early morning, depending on how you look at it.

I'm currently a minor player (contractor) in a mega-million dollar multi-national exhibit that will be opening to the public in nineteen days. Construction, paint and decorating crews are working around the clock, as are dozens of lighting, show control and AV crew. Which brings it back to me, onsite with the objective of installing interactive programs I've been producing over the last few months. The clients to whom I am reporting have been working 18 hour days without a day off since... a long time ago. Pressure is running as high as the thermometer, which is tweaking triple digits most days. Oh... and the largest hurricane in the last 40 years is looming offshore, so there's a possibility that we might have to evacuate at any moment. This sure seems like the perfect setting to contemplate crisis management.

Large Friendly Letters

There's a reference manual which is indispensible in nearly any difficult situation: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (which also happens to be the name of a wonderful novel by Douglas Adams.) Though I've never had the fortune to own this tome, this imaginary guidebook reportedly has its prime directive printed on the cover in large friendly letters: Don't Panic. True enough, when a crisis hits, cooler heads prevail. So exactly how do you not panic?

Every crisis is different, and without fail, the one you're in now is the worst ever. Still, there are some time-tested methods you can use to resolve the situation and come out smelling like a rose. Strangely enough, you will generally have a stronger client relationship after working through a difficult situation than if nothing bad ever happened. That's not to say that you should create situations, but just to assure you that if you handle the situation correctly, you'll probably actually strengthen your client rapport.

Attitude

Your attitude can be the most critical factor as you encounter a "situation". I've worked with some people who seem to always be in crisis. It's not that bad things happen to them any more often than to anyone else. Rather, it's that they have the particular attitude which seems to turn any difficult situation into a crisis. It's a strange sembiotic relationship, not unlike trailer parks and tornados. If this is you, it's not an admirable trait and nobody thinks you're cool.

When bad things happen, the instinctive business posture is "CYA" (cover your ass.) This is unfortunate and leads to a lot of wasted time and energy -- at a time when you need all time and energy focused on resolving the situation. CYA is contagious too. As soon as someone starts blaming you, the tendency is to look for someone else on whom to dump. It's a trap and everybody ends up being dumped on.

Back in college, I read a book on positive mental attitude by self-made millionaire W. Clement Stone. One of his gems of insight is this: don't give excuses -- your friends don't need them and your enemies don't believe them. That goes for clients too. That's not to say that you won't need a full explanation at some point, but just make sure that your factual presentation is never an excuse.

Instead of CYA, I'd suggest that you're default mode in a crisis should be "LFI" -- let's fix it!

The real key to having the right attitude is maintaining perspective. Here's what I mean by that: think back to the worst professional crisis you ever encountered. I know I've been through some bad ones. And yet, here I sit, crisis over... problems dealt with. The lesson is that a crisis always seems worse when you're in the middle of it. Some of them are actually kind of humorous in retrospect.

So next time you're in the middle of the mess, here are some valuable thoughts to help maintain your perspective:

Communications

Effective communications are critical to your productivity in a crisis. In many cases, you are dependent on other people for information or to accomplish tasks. The attitude you convey with your communications will be the biggest single determining factor in your success. Interpersonal communications are complicated to say the least. And I can't attempt to cover every possible situation, but there are a few techniques I've found to be very helpful.

Number one on my list is "don't lie". Though a little white lie (or even a big, juicy whopper) can momentarily appear to be the most expedient way to move a crisis along, there's no way in hell that it won't come back to bite you in the ass. Don't lie.

Second, don't yell. Or if you do yell, do it because there is a clearly thought out reason for doing so. I've never found any reason in any circumstance where yelling was productive. In most cases, it is counter productive.

Take names. That sounds worse than I intend it. I simply mean that if you're on the telephone (or email) with someone who you're depending on to help you, always start the conversation by politely asking their name -- first and last, and write the name down immediately. This serves several purposes. To start with, you have solicited some measure of personal accountability from the person. When someone gives you their name, there's a certain amount of pride which should also go with it. When you have their name, you can begin to build a personal relationship; introduce yourself, explain your situation, get them on "your side". Lastly, if you get disconnected or have to follow up with another call, you'll know who to talk to and you won't have to explain the situation again.

Ask for help. This sounds really obvious, but you'd be surprised how this one eludes people in times of stress. Emphasis here is on the word "ask" -- don't demand. Just because it's a crisis on your end doesn't mean that it carries the same urgency for those who can help you. Therefore, making demands is not likely to promote productivity. Instead, ask for help. Make the person realize that they have the power to assist you, and that their assistance and positive attitude will be appreciated. Use the carrot, not the stick.

Talk to the right people. If you find that a person is unable or unwilling to help you, ask them to help you contact someone who can. Make sure that it doesn't come off as a threat... you don't want them afraid to pass you up to their boss.

Talk to your client. Keep them updated on your progress and aware of your plan. Whatever you do, don't make promises that you aren't sure you can keep. Over-confident promises are not a comfort to anyone and will quickly errode your credibility.

Remember the Stress

When you're under stress, it's perfectly natural to make mistakes. So be careful, write things down, double check your work, and if possible, work with a partner on critical decision making. And spend extra energy on interpersonal relationships -- especially the relationship with your client.

Follow Through

When it's all over, be sure to follow up. Find out what went wrong and how it can be avoided in the future. This is a fact finding task -- not a blame-assigning junkett -- and that must be apparent in your demeanor to avoid eliciting "cover-up" behavior from others. Report back to your client, as well as to those who played a role in solving the problem. Don't forget to apologize for your mistakes (if you were at fault) and thank those who help resolve the situation.

Sometimes there is no avoiding a crisis, but with the right attitude and good communications, most situations can be suitably resolved and your client can see what a great problem solver you are. Good luck.

PS. I am completing this article the day after the public opening of the exhibit I mentioned at the top of the column. All situations were resolved -- and even the hurricane avoided us. The client couldn't be happier and all the problems are long forgotten in the afterglow of success. Time to go home and catch up on some sleep!

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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