A damaged image, plummeting stocks and an ugly shitstorm. Since a United Airlines passenger was forcibly dragged from an overbooked flight – and on camera, no less – the company has received nothing but criticism. Since then, it’s only gotten worse – scorpions falling onto passenger’s heads, a groom and his bride-to-be booted from their flight to the wedding… And the CEO Oscar Munoz? He’s become a symbol of how not to handle a crisis. But how should one maneuver through a sticky situation like this? We spoke to German crisis expert Bettina Zimmerman to find out.
Executives who can’t keep their cool in a crisis risk damaging their image, perhaps forever. The right communication strategy is the key to success.
Why is Crisis Management So Important?
A crisis, by definition, is unexpected and results in a strong impact on a company’s brand, usually with plenty of public interest. A truly damning crisis can be a death knell for an organization. It’s not up to a company to decide what counts as a crisis; but rather, the general public. However, a crisis doesn’t have to mean the end of a company – it simply needs to be dealt with correctly.
Those who know how to handle possibly risky situations and their consequences, even in good times, have already laid a solid foundation for efficient crisis preparation. Establishing an internal company crisis management strategy should be based on the size of the company, and tailored to the organization itself. A yearly crash course on crisis measures, and another session dealing with the company’s foreseeable strategies in the face of shitstorms, are both practical and necessary.
Key Points in Crisis Communication: When should what be communicated (internally and externally) – and how? How important is transparency?
One of the most important ground rules for crisis communication: Internal before external. This means that all employees should be informed of the company’s official stance and strategy before the general public – or at least, at the same time. Employees should never learn from the media what’s going on in their own companies. The selection of the appropriate communication channels is also an integral component. For example, in the case of the death of an employee, this information should be shared personally, not via email. In large companies, this can prove to be a challenge, but by informing relevant department leaders, it’s possible.
We’ve learned from experience that open, honest and transparent communication is a clear component of success. Journalists are quick to notice when matters are covered up or purposely misleading. And phrases like “Our company has no comment,” or so-called “salami tactics” have no place in crisis management. Journalists are overstepping boundaries more and more in today’s media world to gain information. They’re not afraid to disguise themselves as priests to get access to a hospital bed, as was the case with Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher. Or consider journalists who present themselves as doctors or firemen to get information and photos. To avoid such sneaky attacks, one must consider preventative measures to protect employees, victims and employees.
Who should be included in the Crisis Management team in your company?
The crisis management team of a company should be made up of employees in leadership positions. Generally, this includes executives, as well as company department leads. The crisis team should spring into action whenever extraordinary circumstances appear that disrupt daily business. The crisis management team is responsible for determining how to handle and decide on important matters facing the company. Examples of known crises include the gas emissions scandals with Volkswagen, the shooting spree at a wood preparation factory in Menznau, Switzerland, blackmail or bribery allegations, cyber attacks on companies, and much more. These are all incidents that can seriously hinder a company, in the short-term and the long-term.
How does one choose the right members for a Crisis Management team?
The nomination of employees to a crisis team is an incredibly important factor in how crises will be handled. Unfortunately, it has been our experience that the significance of a serious evaluation of the crisis management team is severely underestimated. As many organizations fail to anticipate any crisis that may affect their companies, more and more people are nominated to join a crisis management team without any real qualifications for it. In the case of an actual crisis, this can come back to bite the company. We recommend that companies clearly indicate the expectations, as well as the requirements for each individual function that a crisis team should have, and select the members accordingly. We establish crisis management teams in companies in half day, custom-tailored crash courses. This means that members are trained in short theory blocks and practical crisis management exercises for several situations.
Feminine strengths are also crucial in crisis management. What tips would you offer women as part of crisis management?
As described above, existing crisis management teams are usually made up of members of the management, and as we know, management teams are typically overwhelmingly male. Even when I’m called in as an expert in crisis management to help other companies, I’m often the only woman. This can even come as a surprise, as usually the men don’t expect a woman as a crisis manager. This requires a confident approach. The crisis management team should sense my experience and my know-how. It’s important in a crisis situation to also value soft skills, and these are usually stronger in women than in men. Especially when it comes to death or injuries, it’s important to show the outside world the emotional side of a company. The threat of a damaged reputation is also seriously affected by soft factors.
How can teams make the most of the synergy between men and women?
I believe that everyone involved in a project is generally interested in a project’s success. So it follows that we select team members to bring together the most skills and competencies to create a solution-oriented and trustworthy atmosphere. Men and women have different thought processes and skills. In my own experience, mixed-gender teams work best when everyone is aware of their own personal competencies and contributions. And as a woman, I’d like to speak to my fellow females: “Don’t feel the need to armor yourself, if you have the feeling that you need to be equal with men. Stick to your skills, and be confident that they are important and valuable.”
A crisis management team is placed under serious stress during tough times. How can they best overcome it?
One of the most important measures is a well-prepared and trained crisis management team. Remember that pilots must regularly train in flight simulators so that he’s prepared for the real thing, and the very same idea applies for a crisis management team. A crisis management team that has survived test exercises, and recognizes how crisis management can be mastered with the right processes, will feel much more secure and better prepared in a real crisis situation. After a crisis has passed, it’s very important for every company to analyze their learnings – what worked well, and what could have been done better. We do the same in our company after each crisis. A structured conversation helps with all kinds of event management.
About the Crisis Expert
Bettina Zimmermann, 47, is a crisis manager and advises companies, unions and politicians in difficult crisis situations. She’s a stakeholder and member of the executive board of GU Sicherheit & Partner AG and serves as a docent for several educational institutes.
Zimmerman is a co-author of the „Praxishandbuch Krisenmanagement“ (Midas Management Verlag) and author of the book „Weiblich und mit Biss – Erfolgsstrategien für Frauen“ (Midas Management Verlag).