Keeping Your Eye on the Ball during a Crisis

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Crisis management mistakes can cost you. In this guest post Tim Scerba, multinational reputation and crisis management expert, explains a deceptively simple problem that impacts crisis teams around the world.

There is a lot going on during a crisis training. The Crisis Management Team (CMT) is sifting through real-time information to understand what is happening to be able to make the best possible decisions, media and other stakeholders are clamoring for information and they want it now,  members of the CMT are usually discussing – and often arguing over — what to do next, and the desktop simulation itself is moving forward (usually in accelerated time to cram a day’s worth of crisis into four hours) whether the CMT is ready or not.  Add in some adrenalin, uncertainty and a dose of being unprepared and you have the perfect recipe for mistakes – mistakes that can mean the difference between successfully containing a crisis versus having it take on a life of its own.

In my experience leading crisis training workshops for a variety of companies and nonprofit organizations, I can tell you that the vast majority of mistakes made by CMT and individual executives all have one thing in common.  And that thing is that someone in the crisis-management chain lost focus – or, to use a sporting phrase, they “took their eye off the ball. “ Here are some examples of what I am talking about:

  • After a day of training, it was time to trigger the crisis in the desktop exercise for a pharmaceutical company that was preparing to launch a new product. The trigger was a mock front page of a leading daily newspaper with a headline about how the Surgeon General described the new product as “ineffective” at best.  The CMT, understandably furious and concerned, made the decision to try and find out why he said this.  They ended up wasting precious time in this futile effort rather than identifying allies in the medical field who could support their claims and vouch for the product’s effectiveness and safety.  I eventually had to pause the simulation to help them realign.  What happened?  They took their eye off the ball and began focusing on the wrong thing – why the Surgeon General “betrayed” them – rather than on the right thing, which would have been activating their network of endorsers and offering them to the media.  Had this been a real crisis situation, the CMT would have lost complete control of the story.
  • Things started getting a little frazzled during a recent workshop with a petroleum company. The desktop exercise involved one of their transport vehicles driving off a road and creating an oil spill, contaminating a large area of recreational wetlands.  During the commotion in the CMT war room, someone inadvertently issued an additional, follow-up press release.  Unfortunately, no one checked the date of the release and it turned out to be from the previous year’s crisis simulation.  This created a double news cycle for the company and they ended up having to deal with two crises instead of one.  What happened?  They took their eye off the ball and started to focus more on getting information out rather than focusing to make sure the release they were sending out was the correct one.  Had this been a real crisis situation, they would have made things geometrically more complicated and lost precious time in the process.
  • A recently-minted consumer-goods company CMT was managing a desktop exercise dealing with product tampering and product contamination. As with any situation where life-and-limb are at stake, the media calls started before the CMT could even digest the case.  They logged all calls, effectively used a holding statement and started to get ready to prioritize the callbacks.  Then news hit that there had been a fatality.  This created a new set of challenges for the CMT.  A national media outlet called at exactly that second (remember, this was a “worst case” simulation) and began pressuring the spokesperson for more information than the holding statement contained.  When the reporter told the spokesperson that he was going to run with what he had if she didn’t tell him more, she snapped and yelled at him saying “run with whatever you want.”  The reporter did just that much to the detriment of the company and the spokesperson.   What happened?  The spokesperson took her eye off the ball and started to focus more on what was happening around her than on the reporter she was speaking with.  In a real-world setting, this would could have severely damaged the credibility and the reputation of the company.

There are more examples that I will share in future blogs, but these should give you a good idea of how important it is to remain calm, centered and focused during a crisis exercise.  Practicing this will help you be ready to do the same when it really counts – when you are confronted with an actual crisis situation.  Your company’s license to continue to operate will depend on it.

Tim Scerba
Senior Counselor

Tim Scerba is a recognized international strategic corporate and marketing communications expert with extensive experience in all aspects of crisis and sensitive issues management, including risk audits, team preparation and simulation training, crisis inoculation and active situation management and recovery. His sector work includes aviation, food and beverage, construction, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, financial services, manufacturing and consumer products.

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