During crises, leaders have to provide company perspective

When it comes to crises, most would prefer Henry Kissinger's sentiment, "There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full." Those were the cheeky good old days. Now, life for communicators consists of full schedules due to the crisis this week, last week, and next week.

When it comes to crises, most would prefer Henry Kissinger's sentiment, "There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full." Those were the cheeky good old days. Now, life for communicators consists of full schedules due to the crisis this week, last week, and next week.

Eric Dezenhall, in his book Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong, blames the change on the culture of attack. We live in a time of schadenfreude, he writes, which is the enjoyment of someone else's misfortune. And not only has the frequency of crises grown, the definition has morphed. The old definition was anything that can negatively impact reputation or business. In a 24-7 media world where everyone can spout anything, that definition is too broad. Trying to address whatever could have bad consequences would tie resources in knots and make staff so depressed they may not get out of bed in the morning. To really understand crises and to be ready, something more precise is needed.

The Davis theory is that crises fall into three categories: 1. something caused by an outsider, 2. something committed by an insider; 3. crisis by perspective.

With the first two, there is a clearer path to resolution. A certain amount of sympathy and public pathos comes with an act caused by an outsider, such as the Virginia Tech shootings or even the oft-discussed poisoned Tylenol pills. The job for the organization with the aid of the chief communicator is to respond with compassion and responsibility.

When a crisis is brought about by actions inside the organization, definitive steps are required to rectify the situation and bring back trust and/or shareholder value. Cut out the cancer. It's the third category, crisis by perspective, that poses the biggest challenge.

Crises by perspective are usually rooted in emotional or moral issues with elements of truth on both sides. There is no such thing as a killer fact - information that will erase all doubts and rally the world to one side.

For example, BusinessWeek ran a damning cover story on hospitals partnering with financial or credit companies to recover bill payments from patients. But nonpayment of bills is an urgent problem that is threatening hospitals' ability to provide quality care. Who's right? Who's wrong? Yet, in every crisis there is a victim, a villain, and a hero.

Crises by perspective are like wars. They take time and have multiple skirmishes and varying tactics. Standard crisis management advice calls for assessing vulnerabilities, creating a crisis management plan, developing advance materials, training spokespersons, etc. Dezenhall provides a better strategy for crises by perspective: wrap arguments in principles, highlight the hypocrisy of the other side, promote good works, broaden the debate and hit back.

Success is measured in many ways - stakeholders remain supportive; reputation and sales rebound; the media gets away from the front door - but it's dependent on one thing: how well leadership shapes the perspective.

Lisa Davis is VP of corporate communications at AstraZeneca. Each month, she looks at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at lisa.davis@prweek.com.

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