Crisis Recovery Q&A with Bob McNaney: How to bounce back from a crisis – stronger than ever

Senior Vice President Crisis & Reputation ManagementBob McNaney is Padilla’s senior vice president of Crisis and Critical Issues. He counsels global corporations through crisis situations. An award-winning investigative journalist and reporter, McNaney conducts crisis training across the country and teaches executives to successfully communicate their messages to their intended audience. His expertise includes spokesperson coaching and issue management. Connect with him at [email protected]

McNaney answers questions about how to bounce back from a crisis stronger than ever.

Q: What does crisis recovery involve?

First, let’s define crisis. A crisis, unlike a common business problem or challenge, poses a discernable degree of risk to your reputation, financial wellness or business survival – or a combination of all three.

Crisis recovery describes the period after the crisis when your organization is intact, has resumed normal operations and – this is important – has restored its brand to its original or higher position. That doesn’t happen by accident.

You’ve heard the saying, “if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail”? That’s absolutely true in today’s volatile marketplace. Every organization needs a current crisis communications plan, along with training and practice sessions. A dusty binder on a shelf won’t prepare you for effective crisis management.

But there is a silver lining to a properly handled crisis – it can actually raise your industry reputation.

Q: What are the top recovery tactics?

That is the #1 question to ask – before a crisis. And every organization should assume that it’s not a matter of if, but when, a crisis will strike.

The essential recovery tactics we recommend are 1) confronting the problem, 2) maintaining visibility and transparency, 3) communicating clearly and often and 4) monitoring key constituencies.

When you’ve identified a crisis, the first step toward recovery is to walk towards it. Confront the problem. That’s the pivotal point we make with our clients because you can’t fix a problem until you face it – and own it. It takes courage, honesty and a degree of humility – and it’s not easy.

Chasing after a problem goes against our instincts to deny, minimize, blame or hide. You might feel like a kid whose baseball just broke an angry neighbor’s window: It’s easier to hide in the bushes or blame your kid brother. But if you face the music, you’ll earn the trust and respect of your employees, board members, shareholders and public.

Q: After you’ve confronted the crisis, what then?

Throughout the recovery process, it’s important to maintain visibility and transparency – at the highest levels. Being visible and accessible takes the grist away from the rumor mill, reassures employees and affirms to your public that you’re working through the issue.

Clear, consistent and regular communications are essential during a crisis – and not just with the media. Begin by communicating with your own employees, your customers and your board. Too many companies put the business press or general public before their own people because they don’t want the world to know what they’re facing.

Remember that employees are like your family. When you’re in trouble, it’s best to tell your family first so they don’t discover it on their own. They are your foundation. They will run through the fire for you – if they know you care about them and respect them enough to be honest.

If you don’t communicate with your staff, they’ll find out anyway – and make their own judgments. In the process, you’ll create distance, which generates distrust. It’s a slippery slope that leads to a loss of morale, productivity and loyalty – challenges that have taken plenty of businesses down.

Finally, your organization needs media monitoring tools to understand exactly how the crisis and fallout is affecting your reputation and your brand. By tapping into the concerns of your constituents, you’ll know whether you need to address specific issues – or you may learn that coverage is dwindling. In that case, let the story die.

Remember that the public has a short attention span. When your 15 minutes of infamy are over, walk away. If the firestorm is subsiding, don’t give it more air.

Media Interview

Q: Are there tactics to be avoided?

Yes – telling the media “no comment.” It may be common legal counsel, but you can’t slam the door on a questioning public and hope to regain their trust.

Even if you manage to maintain total radio silence, litigation can still surface at any time. What organizations need to do is choose their words carefully – and reaffirm the genuine concerns that are out there.

That said, legal counsel is essential in a bona fide crisis. It’s one component in a recovery plan. You should have a three-legged stool to weather a crisis: your internal communications team, outside legal counsel and outside communications counsel.

Q: Any examples of what not to do?

Data breaches have become so ubiquitous among retailers, banks and even health care providers that some organizations essentially shrug off their impact, limiting their response to little more than consumer notification. And it’s rare to hear anything at all from the organizations ultimately responsible for protecting that personal data.

But these crises have a very real and personal impact on customer privacy, trust and financial security. Your response should reflect those concerns.

Airlines have had their share of technology glitches, too – incurring the wrath of irate passengers. But Delta Airlines set a great example in the way they handled a systemic power outage last August.

If you recall, thousands of flights were cancelled during the three-day outage. They immediately owned up to the crisis and ran toward it. Through it all, their CEO gave interviews, they communicated with passengers and they compensated loyal customers. Delta admitted they didn’t have answers at first and never focused on the failure of the technology. Instead, they acknowledged the very personal impact on passengers and their families. That’s the right way to handle a crisis.

Q: Any promising new crisis recovery tools?

One dynamic tool that’s proven very effective is a tabletop exercise and training program that prepares any organization to manage crisis situations. This crisis simulator lets an organization safely deploy and test their crisis plan by training their communications team to respond to internal and external audiences on social media.  Companies can assess their crisis IQ first by taking a free, five-minute quiz.

Another tool I recommend is social media monitoring. We have the technologies, worldwide partners and processes to effectively gauge the global social media landscape on an hourly basis, if needed. Businesses we work with are using this monitoring with great success, including a multinational organization that operates on seven continents.

Q: Can a crisis really have a happy ending?

Absolutely! And I’ve seen it time and again.

Think about it on an individual level. You often hear survivors and disaster victims say they wouldn’t change a thing if they could turn back time – because they’ve emerged from their struggle stronger, more focused and more compassionate.

The same holds true for organizations with good intent and the willingness to learn from their mistakes. Any business can look good under ideal circumstances. But those who rise to the occasion on a bad day are viewed as more accomplished, more trustworthy and more successful.

By handling a crisis well, you will serve as a model to your industry and your public. It’s how you conduct yourself during the worst of times that’s the measure of your integrity.


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