Reputation Challenges: Hilburg’s five essential lessons in Crisis Management

Alan Those who get themselves to GIBS in Inanda, Johannesburg tomorrow evening are in for a treat. The world’s foremost Crisis Management guru Alan Hilburg will be talking about Protecting Brands, Trust and Leadership in Times of CrisisAfter an interview last October  on CNBC Africa, I had the privilege of breaking bread with him, getting to probe deeper into his vast experience in a subject where few South African executives have much clue. In November this author of two New York Times best sellers wrote an excellent piece for Biznews  and has followed it with perhaps an even better contribution today. Hilburg is in the process of opening an office on South Africa. I have no doubt he will be inundated.  – AH  

By Alan Hilburg*

Crises can be reputation killers, brand killers and trust killers … or not. These five key focus areas I’ve found differentiates those institutions that mitigate and rebound from a crisis intact, from those that don’t.

  1. Commitment to business continuity. Crisis management is foremost about business continuity, protecting the brand and galvanizing trust.
  2. Commitment to being responsive versus reactive. A crisis responsive institution responds from the existence of a plan. A crisis reactive institution reacts from the absence of a plan. At first sign of crisis, the ignorant don’t panic because they don’t know what’s going on, and then later they panic precisely because they don’t know what’s going on, in the absence of a plan.
  3. Commitment to a culture of values. Values define decision-making, promote “good behaviour” and help to mitigate risk in a crises.
  4. Commitment to protecting brand resonance. Brand loyalty is earned by making daily deposits into the goodwill bank.
  5. Commitment to defending the relevance and pride of the institution’s character. Who you are is more important than what you do.

Having been a pioneer of crisis management and litigation communications, the crisis management business is not for everyone. There are too many ‘professionals’ who dispense ‘Mother Goose” clichés that contradict what my 35 years of global experience has proven about how the real world works. There are too many conventional public relation people who buy a beautiful piece of wood and a gloriously expensive paint and adorn their office door with the sign, ‘crisis management experts’.

Crisis management is not resolvable through conventional public relations strategies, tactics or approaches where crises are viewed organically and resolvable through ‘good’ communications. For example, in real crises there is always more than the ‘event’, the catalyst of the issue.

There are real ‘back issues’, and even more threatening, real visible and less-visible opponents. These are always the overt and covert adversaries who are at the genesis of the crisis. They work in opposition to your crisis team. They are trying to keep the crisis alive, fan the flames of fear, and, they wake up every day trying to undermine your credibility and the confidence of those who are essential to your success.

They can include competitors, trial lawyers, the traditional and new media, regulators and politicians, those looking to leverage stock prices, well resourced NGO’s, and even disgruntled and very disengaged employees.

At its essence, crises are a war. And effective, experienced crisis management is similar to a high-stakes chess game whose objective is to protect the integrity of the brand, the pride of the employee family and the trust of the marketplace. But most importantly, experienced and skilled crisis management veterans understand that, at its root, crisis management always strives to protect the institution’s character.

An institution’s ‘character’ is an extension of how organisations make decisions. Crises normally involve accentuated, exaggerated and news-making demonstrations of ‘outrage’. Outrage increases the stakes and amplifies the emotional component of the crisis. What does this suggest?

One of the first objectives in effective crisis mitigation and management is removing the emotion. Emotion lies in the victim. The news media needs victims in order to have the theatre that makes for great journalism. Like in all great theatre, there must be a protagonist and an antagonist. Guess who is the antagonist? You. Remove the emotion and we remove the magnet that attracts media attention.

There are many effective strategies in managing and eliminating the emotional drivers in a crisis. Here are ten that reflect what I’ve learned from 35 years of experience and some very smart professionals who I had the privilege of working with. They represent a directional understanding of how experienced crisis management thinks.

  1. Focus on addressing the apparent and less apparent human needs of the perceived victim.
  2. Unless you know for sure, don’t over-reassure.
  3. Put reassuring information in subordinate clauses.
  4. Acknowledge uncertainty but the commitment to finding answers no matter how hard they try to hide.
  5. Share dilemmas and challenges. Show your character and showcase your values.
  6. Acknowledge diverse opinions and transition to your ‘must airs’. These are the issues you highlight in interviews.
  7. Tolerate early over-reactions, don’t minimize public emotion but through your humanity and values migrate toward balance.
  8. Let communities know what to expect.
  9. Acknowledge errors, mistakes, deficiencies in the context of values/decision-processes.
  10. Engage your ‘hidden’ army.

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ The one stroke represents danger while the other represents opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but always be cognisant of the opportunity.

Every crisis is an opportunity. Yes, “every crisis is an opportunity”. To be effective in mitigating a crisis, inspired leadership recognises this reality. A crisis is a stage. Your ‘audience’ are your employee family, your customers, their customers, your shareholders, your financial partners, your shareholders, the media, the regulatory and legislative communities, your neighbours and family. There are also dozens of obvious and not-so-obvious ‘audiences’. How you respond to a crisis presents multiple stages and the opportunity of multiple appearances allowing the face and voice of the brand to remind your key communities why they trust you, or should.

Author Paul Brunton once said, “Every crisis successfully met is rewarded by some growth in intuitive knowledge, strengthening of character, or initiation into a higher consciousness.’  Brilliant and inspired strategies such as the successful management of the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crises have these key learnings.

Alan Hilburg is President of HilburgAssociates SA a global specialist on crises mitigation and management. He is the author of two New York Times best-sellers on leadership; Twelve Hats of a Company President and Russell Rules: Eleven Lessons in Leadership From the Greatest Winner or the 20th Century.