The phone rang at 8 p.m. “We need you to go to our client’s office first thing in the morning,” said the insurance agent. “Their CEO was just killed in a plane crash.”
I went online and watched horrific TV news coverage of a fiery crash of a private plane at a local airport. It was difficult to think about the implications for the company; however, I managed to outline questions and a brief crisis response strategy. I wanted to be as prepared as possible for the meeting.
Early the next morning, I drove to the headquarters of the construction company in Los Angeles. Vases filled with white flowers and condolence cards were scattered around the lobby.
The risk manager escorted me to the conference room. One by one, a dozen members of the management team quietly filed into the room. No one said a word. They looked at me and waited, their eyes conveying shock and profound sadness.
I hesitated. Should I start asking questions? That’s what I’d typically do in a first meeting.
Something told me to wait. I looked at everyone and said, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I cannot begin to imagine what this time is like for you.”
It was 8:30 a.m. I knew the local media was waiting for the company’s comment about the death of its chief executive officer. I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to get to work on a media statement. But my instincts told me to hold off.
I asked, “How are you?”
Several people said, “We’re heartbroken.”
I listened as they talked. They spoke of Mark’s fine character and his many achievements. Most of them had known Mark for decades. He had started with the company when he was in his 20s. They told me he had a wonderful reputation as an industry leader and philanthropist.
Now it was 9 a.m. I resisted the urge to offer recommendations.
I asked, “How can I help you?”
That’s when the dam burst. The management team shared concerns about comments that they’d heard from employees and customers. It’s human nature to translate crises into “What does this mean for me?”
Some employees had already asked about the future of the company and their jobs. Several customers had called to offer condolences, then asked whether Mark’s death would delay construction of their project.
Now I sensed the time was right to move forward. I led a discussion about potential employee and customer communications as well as a media response.
One idea was to shut down the company for a day out of respect for Mark and provide an opportunity for hundreds of company employees and subcontractors to be together. Another idea was to start calling key customers and vendors who may not have heard the news. We reached consensus on several action steps at 9:30 a.m. Each executive volunteered to lead a specific task and returned to their office.
The president, vice president, risk manager and I got to work on a brief statement for reporters and the website. We also wrote a longer statement to email to employees and customers.
The challenge was trying to find a delicate balance between expressing deep sorrow about Mark’s tragic and untimely death while also reassuring employees, customers and others that the company had a succession plan in place and would not collapse.
We released both statements at 10 a.m. They began with the first words that management said to me: “We are heartbroken at the loss of our CEO.”
A First Step Before Crisis Response
This crisis was one of the most difficult I’ve faced in 20 years of doing crisis counseling. I was deeply affected by the executives I met that day. I was moved by their remarkable ability to transcend their grief and work together to preserve the company’s future.
Above all, this crisis taught me the value of patience. I didn’t do what I would normally do. I didn’t start asking a series of questions to gather the facts. My draft crisis response recommendations stayed in my briefcase. I stopped watching the clock.
It seems counterintuitive to pause during a crisis. As PR professionals, we know that the first hours following a crisis are absolutely critical. The speed of action (or inaction) can impact an organization’s reputation for years. Yet this case deepened my appreciation for stepping back to understand how decision makers are feeling.
Think of this as the first step toward an effective crisis response. Consider that even the best crisis plans are useless unless decision makers are ready to implement them.
Here are some ideas to create an environment of receptivity and trust:
The greatest gift you can give is to listen with empathy. Think about the last time you helped a friend or family member through a personal crisis. People tend to want to talk about how they’re feeling before they’re ready to hear advice. The same principle holds true for crisis team meetings.
If you have a crisis plan, be prepared to change it. Chances are, the crisis you’re about to handle isn’t the one that you anticipated.
Take a lead role. Stress can cause executives to respond to media and public scrutiny too slowly or not at all. Listen to all ideas, evaluate the options and offer your recommendations. Walk through the potential outcomes of their suggestions. “If we did X, then Y could happen. Is this what we want?” By this point, the team will be open to your ideas.
Motivating executives to adopt effective crisis response recommendations requires sensitivity, tact and empathy. It is a true test of our people skills and our humanity.
Joan Gladstone marks her 25th year with Gladstone International, a crisis communications firm based in Laguna Beach.