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Preventing a Reputation Meltdown — Crisis Leadership in Action

Updated: May 11, 2023

This article first appeared in April 2023 in Catalyst, which is the official publication of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)


Crisis leadership can make or break a crisis. It takes specific skills to lead in a crisis, and few of us have them naturally. In acute and volatile situations, effective crisis leadership is not about winning, losing or finding the perfect solution. It’s about recognising that while it’s not always possible to control the events, crisis leaders can control how they respond and behave.


So how can companies better prepare for what might lie ahead?

Recent research by the University of Tasmania highlights the need for crisis teams to have diverse skills to manage crises successfully and be resilient. Crisis leadership mainly consists of soft skills rather than knowledge-based competencies. These include situational awareness, sense-making, decision-making, assertiveness, communication, stakeholder mapping, empathy and emotional intelligence. Organisations have long conducted crisis training and exercise programs, which crisis team members are required to attend regularly. While such programs cover processes, best practice principles and scenario-based practice, they rarely address the critical aspect of crisis leadership competencies.


At CS&A International, we noticed this recurring gap in the performance of crisis teams, with over three decades of research observing teams during crisis exercises and real-life events. To enhance crisis management abilities in a more tangible way, core crisis leadership skills needed to be defined. We designed a Crisis Management Competency Protocol, which provides a framework for assessing and enhancing crisis leadership skills. CS&A International has since applied this model across client organizations, that have demonstrated notable improvement in their ability to lead under extremely testing circumstances and high levels of stress.


Regrettably, under pressure and without skilled leaders and teams, wrong decisions, slow response, lack of responsibility, blame and insensitivity to stakeholders’ perceptions can quickly propel the organization involved into a reputation disaster that may damage and possibly destroy it forever.


The Impact of Life Online

Today’s landscape is increasingly complex, with social media being both a help and a hindrance to organizations. This digital medium has the ability to compound the effects of crises on individual, brand and organizational reputation. Crises today will inevitably be exposed on social media; in parallel, social media has created unprecedented situations with astoundingly devastating impacts.

As a recent example, in Japan, somewhat echoing the infamous 2009 Domino’s Pizza case, reports of deliberately unhygienic behaviour led to a rise in food-related crimes, including a case where a customer wiped saliva on food destined for other diners. The restaurant industry stepped up its damage control as clips of such “sushi terrorism” acts spread on social media at dizzying speed, with one viewed on Twitter some 40 million times.


Social media allows news to spread and evolve at light speed. It is impossible to predict and/or prevent a seemingly insignificant post from exploding into a full-blown crisis.


Two things are essential to be prepared for the unexpected social media blow-outs. First, employ active global monitoring using any reliable tracking platforms available. Second, well-trained teams must remain vigilant and detect potential explosive issues early, based on a good understanding of the organization’s issues and risk landscape. By quickly assessing the situation, such teams can consider the appropriate actions and avoid knee-jerk reactions. Some large organizations have built this capability in-house, while others outsource it. The reality is that the threat of a social media crisis is here to stay and will get worse if it ever gets better. A well-oiled process and solid competencies are what is required to address this phenomenon.


The digital age and artificial intelligence (AI) have also brought additional challenges that can cause crises. Misinformation and the spreading of false news can have a severe impact on a company’s reputation. Across functions, organizations must enhance their understanding of the destructive effect of disinformation and deep fakes. This is no longer the exclusive responsibility of the communications team. The decision of whether and how to respond should be carefully yet swiftly weighed in consultation with legal, security and other experts. All in all, active monitoring, vigilance and preparation, as well as acceptance that absurd happenings will come out of the left corner, are essential attributes that can help tackle this increasing problem.


Well-practised and experienced teams manage crises best. But to be effective, crisis teams need crisis leaders. Without them, it’s like an orchestra without a conductor. Yet formal crisis leadership training for senior executives is often lacking because of the false assumption that decades of experience, day-to-day leadership and sharp business acumen will carry the day in times of trouble.


Where to Begin

Recognizing that a crisis is not a bad week at the office is the starting point. In a crisis, there is limited and/or conflicting information and less time to make decisions. The stakes are extreme, with multiple potential levels of impact, including and not limited to people’s lives, environmental damage, public and media scrutiny, business continuity and share price. Unlike in normal times, leaders and their teams cannot operate by consensus or majority decision-making. Instead, they must adopt a style of command and control. Their ability to shift from the day-to-day to crisis leadership mode seamlessly cannot be understated.


Crisis preparedness is not a destination, it’s a journey. Building an organization’s crisis readiness takes time, training, resources and funds. To build and sustain resilience, companies and their leaders must adapt and upgrade their vigilance and preparedness to the ever-evolving risk environment we live in. Only then will they be able to navigate through crises, sustain stakeholder trust, overcome adversity and possibly emerge stronger on the other side.


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