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Refocusing the chaos: What happened before? What happens next?

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Written by
Mario Nacinovich

Mario Nacinovich

Crises happen. That seems like a perfectly legitimate bumper sticker for any public relations practitioner to place on their vehicle or to hang in their cubicle. We know it isn’t what you do – but what you do next that counts. Right? Maybe.

There are two images from entertainment that come to mind when thinking about the question of what to do next when faced with a crisis. First is when Frank Sinatra sings the lyrics of resilience in “That’s Life” as he recommits his thinking and energy in a time of tragic letdown and crisis – “And I know one thing, each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race.” Second, in the uproariously memorable movie scene in The Internship, Vince Vaughn’s character Billy McMahon shares this priceless insight with his Google interviewers: “It’s not so much getting out of the blender, it’s what happens next. That’s the question.” Is it what happens next that matters most? What about what happened before? Does crisis response happen even before a crisis occurs?

Resilience may begin at the single inflection point where you shift from the recognition of an egregious error or unintentional negative situation, to refocusing on what needs to happen next. In building your crisis response strategies, these examples from entertainment may be an enjoyable and invited distraction, but you need much more to help support the path forward. While there are innumerable articles and books attempting to impart wisdom, there are recent publications reviewed below that provide some needed context – but don’t expect to read these and walk away an expert by any means. You need the full baptism by immersion into a crisis to even begin to understand the magnitude.

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
John F. Kennedy

What must anyone in a leadership position do when facing the economic realities of turbulent times? In “Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis,” former CEO of Medtronic, Bill George, offers authentic, straight talk on the path forward surviving any crisis. Beyond leading, he emphasizes refocusing on the opportunity at hand – the recommitment to long-term strategies. George shares his stepwise survival insights into how to overcome any business predicament, including how to first and foremost “face reality.” He makes a bold suggestion that it is all about “starting with yourself,” while echoing the often quoted “never wasting a good crisis.” One of his more bold lessons is taking on a winning attitude, or as he suggests, that while leading in crisis one must “be aggressive”.

“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” Socrates

Is there no real safe place to hide with scrutiny working overtime in our 24-hour news cycle? Peter Firestein brings context to the turbulent topic of reputation in “Crisis of Character: Building Corporate Reputation in the Age of Skepticism.” He explores how in a time of crisis and catastrophe, even the most exceptional leaders stagger and ultimately fail because they are simply not nimble, proactive, and adaptive. How much does reputation matter to building a stable business? He would most certainly argue it matters a lot – now more than ever. Like George, the magic number for Firestein is lucky number seven. Firestein offers seven strategies through concrete case examples from Merck to Hewlett-Packard on how to reshape corporate culture and shift strategy to navigate through any of the innumerable challenges posed by the external environment. If you are engaging the public, you will appreciate that maintaining reputation, along with good people and process, is pivotal for success.

“Culture may become criteria of sanity, it could be a shelter from the pain caused by the war, or become a way to express inexpressible.” Martina Montagu

Jeffrey Liker and Tim Ogden in “Toyota under Fire” take a deep dive into the need for a durable corporate culture and its importance as the foundation of an organization when faced with a crisis. In the cycle of management issues, they intimate how returning to normal is critical after a crisis, but how the navigation issues and the decision making that happen immediately prior to a crisis are also equally vital to sustaining an organization – “Crisis response must start by building a strong culture long before the crisis hits.” To turn crisis into an opportunity takes a strong culture. It goes beyond an individual and must be endemic in the bedrock of a company.

From 2009-2010, Toyota responded to a massive recall in a style and form reflective of its corporate culture. Its model of continuous improvement, “The Toyota Way,” allowed it to regain control of the tragedy where several died. The authors described this as the ability to: “Face challenges with a clear head and positive energy. Hold fast to your core values and your vision for the company. Always start with the customer. Understand the problems that you face by analyzing the facts, including your own failings, and understanding the root causes. Thoroughly consider alternative solutions, then pick a path, develop a detailed plan, and execute with discipline and energy.”

Liker and Ogden offer four lessons learned, the first of which is recognition that crisis response started yesterday. The second is that a culture of responsibility will always beat one of finger pointing. The third, and likely the most introspective, is that even the best culture develops weaknesses. They stress that to survive these weaknesses, clear and objective standards are required and need to be “codified in such a way that self-correction is possible” and that “having a culture that recognizes a loss of direction is absolutely critical to long-term survival.” Lastly, that striking a balance between centralized and decentralized culture that can be local and global is never an easy task. They share that globalizing culture means a constant balancing act.

“Despair is the necessary prerequisite for the next degree of consciousness. That’s absolutely a prerequisite.”
Ram Dass

Are you prepared to face reality? Have you taken pause and looked inward? As we have identified here, people are likely always watching you – will you stagger or be resilient as you face your next crisis? You most certainly need to be aware of how you are engaging with others. They are each a pivotal part of your equation to lead in a crisis and should never be overlooked. Yes, it is as much about what you do to build a consistent approach but even more so on solidifying the culture.

So to answer the initial question, yes – it is what you do next that counts, but being able to embrace the gift that a crisis creates for you is one of the purest opportunities to orchestrate. While we may fashion ourselves for risk mitigation and resolution, we know too well that it comes down to the people – those that comprise our clients’ organizations and how well prepared they are to self-correct in a timely fashion to return to their norm.

——— Mario Nacinovich is a former Managing Partner at AXON, sister company of NATIONAL Public Relations