Managing a Crisis during a Crisis

What happens if a second crisis hits when you’re already facing another?

[Editor’s note: This guest post from our colleague and BCM team member Tim Scerba digs into a topic many businesses are hoping to avoid confronting in the midst of all the coronavirus issues – what happens when you’re struggling to cope with one crisis and another appears? We’ve already seen it for a number of our own clients, with issues ranging from supply chain disruptions to HR issues to negative news coverage, and unfortunately we expect to see it for more organizations as this pandemic drags on. For advice on how to avoid letting these crisis double-ups become permanent problems, read on.]

I always like to start a crisis management workshop by sharing a cartoon that I once saw years ago.  It shows an executive sitting behind his desk while an ugly beast with bulging eyes and a big, toothy smile is outside looking in through the window.  The caption on the cartoon is “There can’t be a crisis today, my schedule is already full.”  This is a great way to make that point that a crisis never, ever will happen when it’s convenient or when you’re sitting at your desk, having a coffee and wondering “which project should I start today?”

Because of this “when you least expect it” constant of a crisis, companies investment substantial amounts of financial and human resources in crisis prevention and management programs, plans and trainings because they appreciate that when it comes to a crisis, it’s not a question of whether their company will be faced with one, but rather when it will happen.   The ROI on this investment is they are always prepared and ready to do all they can to anticipate and try to prevent a crisis and, when one does occur, to contain it, manage it, and recuperate from it to be able to resume normal operations.  For the most part, this strategy functions quite well and because of this, most companies feel more secure and confident about their ability to survive a crisis situation.

What should a company do, though, when they are suddenly faced with their own crisis while they are already managing their way through a larger crisis happening around them that eclipses their own in terms of scope, impact and reach?  Many companies may be finding themselves in this exact situation with the current COVID-19 pandemic.  The understandable temptation would be for the company’s crisis team to tell itself, “well, given the magnitude of this other crisis, we can probably hope that no one really notices ours nor gives it much importance or visibility.”  But, as with any other temptation, falling into it always has negative consequences.

The fact that another, “bigger” external crisis may distract your stakeholders’ attention, does not mean that you can just ignore or minimize your company’s crisis, or that it does not demand an adequate and appropriate response.  The bottom line is that the larger external crisis does not shield or protect your company from neither the communications needs nor the consequences of your crisis.

In fact, I would argue that having a company crisis during a larger external crisis increases and makes more urgent the need to adequately respond, since it can:

  • Call attention to any weaknesses that may exist at your company
  • Generate additional (and unwanted) speculation about your company’s crisis and its causes
  • Create opportunities to look for links between the two crises even though none may exist
  • Reinforce existing negative perceptions about your company for not responding
  • Contribute to the confusion and lack of information that results in speculation and rumors

In general, if people are more predisposed to believe the worst about a company during a crisis, they will be even more so during a larger crisis that is coloring its perceptions of the world at large.

While the temptation may be to do the absolute minimum level of communications during its own crisis, companies need to do exactly the opposite:  communicate more rapidly, more often and via multiple platforms to ensure their messages reach key stakeholders as quickly as possible and in a way that they will notice them.  This is the only way to make sure that you will successfully break through and reach your various key audiences.  It’s also important to develop messaging that is as focused as possible to the needs and concerns of your various stakeholders within the context of the larger crisis to help ensure that the messages do not fall through the cracks.

At the same time, keep in mind and follow the basic principles of crisis communications:

  • Protect people (your permanent priority)
  • Demonstrate empathy with those impacted by the crisis
  • Neither assume nor assign blame
  • Truth and transparency – always
  • Have your company’s crisis response plan handy and follow it

Depending on the depth and extent of the external crisis, it is possible, and very probable, that it will dominate the news cycle and keep the attention of your stakeholders for a while.  But have no doubt – at some point these same stakeholders will realize that your company had its own crisis as well.  And, when that happens, chances are that they, the media and others will take a closer look at what happened to your company and, more importantly, how it managed the crisis.  The question will be, “Was the crisis handled correctly and adequately, or did the company try to use the larger crisis as a shield and excuse for not doing what it was supposed to do?”

Remember that during and after a crisis, people will always look for someone to blame – make sure it’s not your company.  Follow the practices of good crisis management and you will minimize the chances that your company will be the villain of the story.

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.