When the new Obamacare health website started crashing last year almost immediately after it was launched, no one took accountability, at least not in the early stages. And that’s what many of the public conversations focused on: no one said, “I’m sorry.”
During my career I’ve handled the communications, the “human” aspect of major issues or crises. Experience has shown me that what usually trips us up isn’t managing the logistics and details of the actual crisis — it’s the human element.
Here are my six common sense rules of what leaders need to do at the first sign of a crisis.
- Move fast to fill the information vacuum or someone else will. Many well intentioned leaders have encountered sharp public backlash because they and their organizations didn’t respond quickly enough. The general rule is that leaders have only a short time to respond and then they’re playing catch up.
- The more serious the situation, the more your most senior leader(s) must be involved. This rule is absolute if death or serious injuries occur and I am a strong believer that leaders need to be visible in any crisis that threatens health and safety. Too bad no one gave XL Foods that advice two years ago when four people died and others became seriously ill from their tainted beef.
- Be transparent in your communications. In a previous post, I talk about how transparency is a test of true leadership. In the 2000 Pine Lake tornado, I worked for Edmonton’s health region. We were told to expect upwards of 200 injured people, but as the night wore on, and only a few patients arrived, we began to wonder. Given the fluid nature of a disaster, it’s hard for the people on the ground to give an accurate assessment at the time it happens. As the media spokesperson, I had little to go with and decided to focus on the emergency response plans we had put in place. My goal, regardless of the outcome, was to assure people we were ready.
- Show your humanity. Sadly, it’s one area that leaders do not always do well. In the western world, the stoic, decisive, virtually emotionless leader is held up as the model. The key is to share yourself; the values and beliefs that drive you. If appropriate, offer condolences, an apology.
- Depend on your emergency response plan. Any responsible organization that’s in the public spotlight has a comprehensive plan ready to pull out. Experience has shown me that being able to rely on a toolkit of materials — templates, checklists — centres and gives us that few extra seconds to breath and plan the next steps.
- Feed your networks. Long before a crisis strikes, successful organizations have built social media networks and established connections with the people and groups key to their success. For leaders, this is gold. Here you have ready-made channels for your information and opportunities to start conversations and gauge the response and impact of the crisis.
The chief communications strategist. Next week I will discuss why organizational success requires leaders to take on the role of chief communications strategist.