Kevin O’Neill: Are You Prepared?

A situation

You have a small business, an electrical contractor doing residential and small business work. Three electricians work for you. You have three trucks, and all are on the road moving from job to job every workday.

One day your electrician gets into a traffic accident with a hothead. The hothead becomes aggressive. He pushes your employee, and your guy decks him. The police are called, and they in turn call paramedics to treat the hothead for a broken cheekbone and likely concussion.

Bystanders with smartphones start recording the incident as it escalates and post the video on social media. It has been tweeted and re-tweeted thousands of times with the simple title “Electrician sends man to hospital.” There is no context explaining who started the altercation, and your truck is prominent in the video.

You first hear about the situation comes when your phone rings and reporter from the local television station is asking for your comment. By then the video has gone viral, and your business is taking thousands of verbal beatings.

How about this one…

Your company sells its products online. One day, a hacker penetrates your cyber-defense; and the hacker is bragging about it… with a cartoon caricature of your logo saying, “Noob, you’ve been hacked!” on your website’s home page.

It would have been nice if visitors to your website had contacted you, but they didn’t. Instead, someone shared the altered home page via Facebook and Twitter; and the news is halfway to viral before you have your first inkling that there is a problem. Local news organizations have re-tweeted the news and posted it on their Facebook sites; and their reporters are calling to ask for comment.

One more…

You’re CEO of a major airline, and there is an incident on one of your airplanes. I’ll spare you the details other than to say that a 69 year old doctor has been forcibly removed from his seat, dragged down the aisle of the plane, and taken back to the concourse because your employees wanted to be on the flight.

Before you hear word one about the incident, other passengers have posted recordings on social media; and the video was viral in 25 minutes.

Your comment, please!

Are you prepared to comment? If not, maybe you will be lucky. Maybe you won’t say something you will regret.  Maybe you won’t make yourself the subject of ridicule.

Or maybe you will take a lesson from the United Airlines. Maybe you will prepare yourself to comment intelligently so that people will respect you and your business because of the way you deal with a bad situation.

What could go wrong?

The first step is practice. Of course it isn’t possible to imagine everything that could go wrong; but the more you exercise your crisis management thought process, the better you will be at responding on the fly.

Read case studies. Invent your own scenarios – big disaster scenarios and smaller nuisance situations. Outline your responses, and ask people you trust to critique them.

If you practice, you have a good chance to comment intelligently in real time. If you don’t practice, your chances are greatly diminished.

The principles of a good response

Before you’re ready to utter word one, take yourself through this thought process.

  1. Who needs to hear from you? One or more of a public statement, a message to employees, and a statement to customers might be appropriate; and while the content of each communiqué might be different, you can count on all of them becoming public. Be consistent.
  2. What media are appropriate for your statements? Social media? News conference? Press release? Letter? Email? Try not to overreact, but be sure you don’t underreact.
  3. What are your values? Be sure your statements reflect them; and if people (employees and customers) aren’t at the top of the list, revise your values.
  4. Say what you know, and say what you don’t know. Don’t fill in the blanks with speculation.
  5. Don’t be a weasel. Using words like United’s “re-accommodate” and “politely asked” engendered as much criticism as the situation itself.
  6. Consider possible litigation. You can express concern for those adversely affected by a situation without admitting fault even if that proves to be the case as you learn the facts.
  7. Support your employees. Employees need to know that management has their backs. That doesn’t mean that anything one does is condoned; but it does mean that the employee’s side will be heard, and it does mean that employees will get the policy and procedural support to deal with situations that will arise in the future.
  8. Promise follow-up. Then follow up. Few people expect problems to be resolved immediately, but most expect good faith efforts to resolve them quickly.

Great communicators aren’t born. They’re just more prepared than everyone else.


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