Worst-case scenario: What to do when a crisis hits and you need to respond

Smart Business magazine

The time spent preparing for the worst-case scenario in your company could ultimately be what saves the business, says James P. Sammon, director at Kegler Brown.

“You don’t want to be coming up with ideas on the fly when you’re in the cauldron of the emergency,” Sammon says. “If you haven’t already developed protocols and appropriate responses to things that can go wrong in your business, you’re playing with fire.”

No company wants to believe that it will face a crisis in which customers are harmed by their products or services. But those companies that have taken the time to prepare for such a scenario have a much better chance of making it through the calamity with minimal damage. That process has to begin at the top.

“The calming actions by the leader can have a palliative effect on everyone,” Sammon says.

Smart Business spoke with Sammon about what to do when your company is faced with a worst-case scenario.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind in the initial moments of a crisis?

First and foremost, you need to remain calm. A lot of the things you need to do should already have been thought out and in place. You must have the ability to roll with the punches and be very fluid during a crisis. Often, the companies that struggle most during a crisis are those with corporate heads who are not fluid or adaptable to what’s actually happening.

At this point, you don’t know if the crisis is going to stop quickly or if it’s going to turn left or right. You can plan for it as best you can, but you still need to be flexible. History has proven that rigidity in response to emergencies often causes greater damage than the emergency itself.

In today’s immediate information age, it is important to lock down the information within your organization before you worry about the outside world. A company should have not only policies and procedures in the employee handbook, but also confidentiality provisions and protocols for who will speak to the outside world and how the corporate message will be crafted.

How do you respond when you may not yet know all the facts of what happened?

You want to follow the KISS method. Keep it simple, stupid. You can’t answer every question that everyone is going to have, nor should you. Answer the big questions upfront and be succinct, logical and tight. On Twitter, you have only 140 characters to compose a message. The message you need to deliver may need to be a little longer than that, but the idea is keep it concise and to the point.

Don’t give people the ability to spin what you say in a manner that you don’t want it spun. Control the narrative.

If you run your company like a good military machine where everything gets funneled up the necessary chains of command, you’re going to have a system in place. Your top people are going to know what they need to know as quickly as they can get it.

What should your goal be when you speak to the public?

Perception is — more often than not — reality. Perception of a company before an emergency occurs will often dictate how a company is viewed by the public after an emergency.

If the company has been a bad corporate citizen, that company is not going to get the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong. Conversely, if up to that point, the company has been a good corporate citizen who is active, responsible and well-liked in the community, that’s also going to dictate perception.

What if it was a mistake by someone in your company that led to the crisis?

Internally, you should appoint someone, such as your legal counsel, to lead any investigation. People may fear coming to the CEO to admit that they did something wrong. But it’s important to find out all the facts you can — good or bad. You can’t have any secrets.

Externally, you may need to own up to the error regardless of the financial consequences. And in the right circumstances, saying that you’re sorry can go a long way toward helping your company heal. In the end, if it’s necessary, you have to take corporate responsibility. It is not only the right thing to do, but it can also help to stem much of the damage that can follow.