At the moment of crisis, a company or organization must act immediately and decisively to solve the problem and to prevent harm to people, property, reputation and organizational interests.

On June 4, Guy Giorno presented “Crisis Management: The Essentials,” a seminar hosted by the International Association of Defence Counsel. He shared with the audience lessons drawn from two decades of experience helping companies and organizations to manage crises quickly and efficiently.

Giorno, a partner in the Ottawa office, is former chief of staff to the Prime Minister of Canada and former chief of staff to the Premier of Ontario. Clients regularly benefit from his experience in crisis management and crisis communication. He defines a crisis as “Any external or internal occurrence that is not a reasonably expected consequence of your plans and that has the potential to harm people, property, business, value or reputation or otherwise to prevent your organization from achieving its strategic goals.”

A crisis is defined by its unexpected nature. Problems that are the predictable results of business decisions should not require “crisis management.” For example, a plant closure or mass layoff may trigger negative political, media and community reactions, an environmental assessment application may spark interest group opposition, or a corporate announcement may cause stock prices to tumble. All of these problems can be serious, but each development is foreseeable and therefore the plan to address it should be ready in advance.

“Crisis management,” on the other hand, should be limited to surprises. Giorno explained that an organization should never let poor handling of the expected and anticipated (or that which should be expected and anticipated) force it into crisis-management mode.

The objective of crisis management is to eliminate the potential harm and allow the organization to resume execution of its strategy.

Giorno reminded the audience that many crises threaten to do harm to reputation. In fact, reputation is often the asset most at risk during a crisis. Sometimes businesses protect other assets in a manner that ends up worsening the damage to their corporate reputation. A good crisis management strategy aims to balance and protect all of a company’s interests.

To this end, Giorno shared with the audience a set of tips which he calls the 12 Rules of Crisis Management:

  1. Making the problem go away is different than remedying its consequences. Both must be tackled immediately.
    In responding to the immediate consequences, it’s easy to lose sight of the need to fix the underlying problem. Consider assigning different people to these two different goals.
  2. Practise quick response, with the emphasis on quick.
    Corollary: Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. By definition, every moment lost to crisis management is valuable time when you could be advancing your agenda. Aim to have the crisis resolved within the minimum time possible – ideally, a single business day.
  3. Protect people before property.
    In a crisis, being perceived to put business interests ahead of the public interest risks damaging both.
  4. Gather a crisis management team that represents all relevant departments and whose members’ time is dedicated to managing the crisis.
    Crisis management isn’t something to be “fit in” among other duties.
  5. Identify in advance the outside professionals you will use during a crisis.
    Don’t scramble to retain legal, accounting, environmental or technical expertise. Have your crisis management professionals designated in advance.
  6. Require organization-wide cooperation with the crisis management team.
    Everyone must understand that when the crisis team calls, it needs immediate results.
  7. Caveat: To the extent possible, those not responsible for crisis management should avoid distraction and carry on with their duties.
    The goal of crisis management is to minimize lost productivity and get the organization back to implementing its strategic plan. One reason for having a crisis management team is so that everyone else can stay focused on business.
  8. Establish a rapid, “one window” process for obtaining approval of the few decisions that your crisis management team cannot make on its own.
    A crisis allows no time for long, complicated decision-making processes. Also, if too many of the team’s decisions require approval from another level, then you don’t have the right people on the team.
  9. Gather all the facts – complete and accurate facts – as quickly as possible.
    Basing decisions on the wrong information can be disastrous. So can giving inaccurate facts to the media and the public. And nothing beats information that you collect first-hand. Consider visiting the site yourself.
  10. Identify a single external, credible spokesperson.
    Consistent, disciplined messaging is essential. So is media training for your spokesperson.
  11. Be open and up front with the public and the media.
    Corollary: Communicate bad news on your own terms, before others do it for you. The issue is not whether bad news will get out, but when and how. Don’t allow others to put their spin on your story.
    “No comment” doesn’t prevent news coverage. It just keeps people from hearing your side of things.
  12. Communicate with motive. Tell people what you are doing for them, not what this means to you.
    Let everyone know that your priority is protecting people (e.g., employees, consumers, members of the public) and that you are doing everything you can to fix the problem.