The Globe and Mail had a great article in their June 11, 2010 issue, on how BP’s CEO – Tony Hayward, was handling the oil leak disaster. It was a great reinforcement of the key components of a good crisis management plan, so I have condensed the article down for you, highlighting their key observations and recommendations.
Mr. Hayward was criticized for initially down playing the extent of the leak. While hoping for the best, a leader should come clean from the beginning. Stone-walling ultimately turns public opinion against you. Best to admit the situation is serious, but that you are doing everything possible to limit the damage. Trying to minimize a growing problem, hoping it will go away, just makes you sound naïve and out of touch with reality.
A leader in a crisis needs to keep the flow of information pouring out steadily, and be the person responsible for it. You have the opportunity to diffuse or eliminate possible criticism of your handling of a situation if you are the point person in front of the camera, at regular intervals, explaining the situation as it progresses.
Stay in Full View
A leader in a crisis needs to be physically on the scene and not ensconced in an office. During crises, people look to leaders for guidance and reassurance, they want to know that someone is in charge, and no matter how bad it looks, that things are in control. If you show up, regularly, people will believe you care about them. If you fail to show up, the inference will be that you don’t care and it will be nearly impossible to re-capture your credibility.
Off the Cuff Doesn’t Cut It
There is no substitute for carefully preparing communications in a crisis. A leader needs to focus on a set of key messages that need to be delivered, and prepare statements in advance for the types of questions that are likely to be asked.
Focus Future, Not Past
While leaders should certainly acknowledge what has happened, they should focus more on what they will do going forward. There is no question that what people want to hear from their leaders is that, no matter how bleak the situation looks now, it will be alright in the long run.
Don’t Pass the Buck
The person in charge needs to have the strength in a crisis to say “Not only am I in charge, but I am ultimately responsible for what happens.” The public isn’t interested in who might be legally or contractually responsible.
It’s Wise to Stand Firm
Turning tail and running, mid-crisis is not a wise tactic because it can just make a situation seem worse than it is and, in the process, permanently taint your record. It’s just too important that the executive team be aligned in a crisis. If the situation improves, the leader can still get the credit for staying the course and finding a solution.