I'm often asked for my opinion of the very best example of crisis management. Everyone expects me to cite the Tylenol product tampering case of 1982.
In what is now a legend in crisis management circles, Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, came out of the crisis even stronger, through an unprecedented and extraordinarily aggressive campaign that was marked by the speed with which they responded, the candor with which they communicated, and the profit-be-damned commitment to public safety that they demonstrated at every turn.
Unlike the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, or the Firestone tire fiasco, Johnson & Johnson didn't think first about lost profits. The reason that J&J was able to rescue a high-profit product that at the time commanded a whopping 35% of the OTC analgesic market, was that they immediately ordered a massive recall of more than 31 million bottles (with a retail value of more than $100 million), which assured the public that J&J had put the public's health and best interest first.
But surprisingly, the Tylenol product tampering case is not what I consider the "best" example of crisis management.
The best crisis management cases are the ones you never hear about.
Mostly, the reason you never hear about them is that the company (and most likely their PR agency) realized that a crisis can happen to anybody, at just about any time, and they prepared for how to act and respond when it inevitably does happen.
Here is the short version of what you and your company should be doing NOW, in advance of the inevitable chaos and scramble that a crisis will bring on:
1. First and foremost, agree that managing your organization's reputation is always "Job One." Hold close to your heart the admonition of Warren Buffet who once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to lose it.”
2. Conduct a "Vulnerability Assessment." What are your greatest risks? (make a list). Ask your CEO what keeps him or her awake at night? Identify and prioritize worst case scenarios.
3. Then fix what you can in advance.
4. Assign responsibilities and contingency accountabilities now, while cool heads can prevail, and outside of the glaring spotlight. Hash out any potential differences now with lawyers (who often want to immediately take over and stonewall the media -- which is almost always disastrous). Remember that somebody has to keep flying the plane (in other words, you still need to be able to do business while the crisis unfolds). Make sure you that you have someone at a high enough level whose job it is to NOT be immersed in the crisis, but to make sure that business continues as normally as possible.
5. Identify your media spokesperson, and have a back-up in case that person is unavailable. Then make sure they are professionally trained in how to best communicate with and through the media. (I often say that dealing with the media is a lot like playing golf. Virtually ANYBODY can do it, but it takes a fair amount of talent and a good deal of practice to shoot under par.)
6. Develop a briefing book with background materials and "talking points" for potential problems.
7. Like it or not, your employees are front line – get them ready. Publish policies that proscribe their speaking about the company with the media, but also put measures in place to communicate with your staff, giving them as much information as you can.
Almost all crises have consistent elements, which you can -- and should -- plan for in advance. In today's world, the media cycle is down to seconds. The Internet has made widespread communication almost instantaneous. Blogs allow rumors spread by your competitors.
Remember the old saying, "The news never changes, it just happens to different people." A crisis can happen any time and to any company. If you aren't prepared to tell your story, it is entirely probable that someone else will do it for you. Can you really afford NOT to be prepared?