By Dale S. Laszig
Castles Technology Co. Ltd.
The hyper-connected world reacts immediately to everything. News is broadcasted and tweeted at a dizzying rate. Images unsuitable for wide distribution and careless comments that might have passed unnoticed a decade ago are blasted across the blogosphere to the embarrassment of people in all walks of life. But a faux pas, if managed decisively, need not end a career. Mistakes happen. It's how we handle them that counts.
Whether you work for a large corporation or have your own consulting practice, you'll have plenty of opportunities to hone your crisis management skills. There's an art to accepting responsibility for things that go wrong and responding appropriately when someone asks to speak to a manager.
Don't take it personally when a merchant asks to talk to your supervisor. It's a typical response to many situations and a bona fide selling opportunity. Fulfill the request by promptly referring the client to your boss and offering additional support if needed.
When moving massive, enterprise-scale bloopers up the chain of command, it's best to go all the way to the top. Having a chief executive officer do damage control demonstrates that the matter is being taken seriously and shows the direction the company will take to resolve the situation.
According to leadership consultant John Baldoni, who blogs for the Harvard Business Review, the best way for high-profile leaders to communicate is to:
"Establishing expectations is critical," Baldoni blogged. "Explain what your actions will entail in clear and precise terms." Leaders can also use this process as a challenge for people to think and act differently. Explanations then take on broader significance.
In addition to framing the message properly, striking the right tone is important, especially when making an apology. Recent examples include the public apology of Toyota's president, who bowed deeply when expressing remorse for the company's delay in resolving manufacturing issues.
Likewise, Maple Leaf Foods' CEO publicly apologized for shipping contaminated food. The company launched a recall and provided status updates throughout the entire process, boosting confidence in the company's humility and transparency.
Over the years, news anchors have become more aggressive in interviews. Anyone preparing for a television interview would do well to rehearse with qualified coaches. No CEO can afford to look like a deer in the headlights when asked the most difficult questions.
Effective communicators exude confidence and professionalism. A marketing department can prepare a public statement; senior executives may contribute their views on how and why things went wrong. None of this preparation will make any difference if the designated spokesperson walks into a meeting or press conference and chokes.
Public statements are most effective when aired immediately following a crisis, before speculation surfaces about a company's lack of response to allegations. Social media postings and full-page newspaper ads are popular ways to apologize for transgressions and disappointments.
As Steve Pendlebury commented on HuffingtonPost.com in February 2010, Toyota was one of many organizations to apologize in ads. He cited two other examples: Domino's Pizza's ad campaign touting its reformulated pizza recipe and admission in commercials that its old sauce tasted "like ketchup" and the crust seemed "like cardboard." And in early 2010, the Chicago Bears football team placed full-page ads apologizing to fans for the team's miserable season.
It's customary for a company leader to hold a post-mortem review with managers to dive deep into the root cause of a failure and formulate corrective measures to improve performance and educate personnel. These measures must include a companywide, scripted response. It's better for employees to say nothing than to downplay bad situations, shift blame or try to justify mistakes.
Economist Paul Romer's 2004 statement that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste" has become a rallying cry for politicians, executives and academic professionals. Manchester College President Jo Young Switzer recommended going back to basics in the aftermath of a crisis. She suggested posing the following questions:
Leaders can't assume messages are heard. The Maple Leaf Foods campaign was effective because of repetition and message reinforcement. And the CEO did more than apologize and walk away.
A summary of the crisis-response basics will help you and your organization recover and move on:
The court of public opinion can be fair and even forgiving when an issue is addressed promptly, honestly and with a modicum of humility. Sooner or later we all do something we regret. Sometimes, the best way out of the hot seat is simply to step up and say, "Sorry, my bad."
Dale S. Laszig is Senior Vice President of Sales in the United States for Castles Technology Co. Ltd., a manufacturer and global provider of smart card, contactless and POS solutions. She can be reached at 973-930-0331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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