Tips for Handling Company Crises

By Volker Martens, an EO Germany – Hamburg member and founder and director of FAKTOR 3 AG, a communications agency.

As the director of a communications agency, I know all about reacting to the unexpected and preparing for media response. Having been in the industry for 13 years, I’ve had my share of incidents that tested me as a business leader. Up until now, all of these crises have had one thing in common— they have managed to come at the worst moments possible.

The last emergency reached me while I was sitting on the train one Sunday. Someone called and told me about a serious accident that had occurred at a client business. It looked bad and there were injuries. What’s more, the CEO was overseas, the presswoman was on vacation and the manager in charge could care less. At this point, 24 hours had already passed since the accident, and one of the employees involved had already been interviewed by the regional press. To make matters worse, photos had been snapped by cell phones and calls from the media were flooding in.

The ensuing media exposure threatened to damage the reputation and future of the business. It was a classic constellation of incidents that I have seen in many a crisis, and every time, the crisis management team in place never seemed to have much of a plan to follow. I am constantly encountering companies that have well-worked-out disaster recovery plans, and yet they are not fully prepared to deal with the crisis scenarios when they actually happen. Here are some key components of proper emergency response that have helped my clients collect themselves during times of crisis.

  • Consider the Scenarios: When it comes to preparing clients for emergencies, I tell them to analyze all likely scenarios. They should start by examining the probability of each case occurring, the consequences that would ensue and how the company can best prepare to face each scenario. With a little experience, the line between exaggerated lists of accidents and company-related crisis scenarios can be drawn.
  • Establish Crisis Centers: For my clients to operate their businesses successfully during troubled times, the following needs to be in effect: clear rules that can be followed in emergencies; agreement on which crisis manager is to handle which scenario; a truly functional communications infrastructure that consists of phone and e-mail lists; and top managers who are trained to withstand the media barrage.Additionally, a crisis center should be established. While the people manning the centers gather all of the information, the crisis managers’ hands are free to approve guidelines for media, employees, customers and suppliers in a quick and across-theboard fashion.
  • Measure Response Times: At the root of emergency response is the speed in which an organization will respond to the crisis. Often, it is only a question of hours before a client will find themselves facing the media spotlight. Emergencies require quick thinking, as well as expedient and transparent actions— no ducking the issues, long discussions or drawn-out deliberations of the options at hand.
  • Prepare Leadership: Preparing top management and affected employees for media attention is a top priority. I teach my clients how to handle stressful situations— being prepared gives them confidence and is a safeguard against over-reaction. My clients are then better able to set up a swift and expert decision level in the crisis center, quickly contain the media process and respond with authentic reactions to everyone who has been involved in the crisis.

As for the client crisis on the train, the company accepted the lessons learned, and they went on to develop extensive emergency plans for their employees and top management. As for me, it was back to business. Three weeks later, it happened again. It was a Saturday this time, when I heard my cell phone ring.

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