A modest proposal: ditch the crisis plan

In this post-Panama Papers, post-Donald Trump nomination, post-Brexit era the wise words of German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke never rang truer: "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

Denial is not a river in Egypt, Montieth M. Illingworth observes
Denial is not a river in Egypt, Montieth M. Illingworth observes
This can be easily applied to what many organisations experience when a crisis hits and they grab their crisis management plans off the shelf. 

The first thing of practical value is often who to call. Next, it’s clutching the carefully crafted holding statements. 

But then, one of the first calls goes to the lawyers who generally sanitise every public statement to the point of making them virtually antiseptic, and the robotic spokespeople, draining the organisation’s public persona of humanity just when the opposite is often needed.

A bit of an exaggeration, yes. But not far from what often happens. Herein what I’ve learned about crisis management:

It’s Not the Plan But the Mindset: Of course you need a plan. But more important is how you "live" with it as you pivot along a series of public moments, answering, explaining, apologising, contextualising. BP had a crisis management plan to handle an exploding offshore oil drilling platform. We all know how that turned out. Absent from BP’s mindset was understanding the white-hot power of public outrage when top executives can't appropriately identify with the victims. It was a corporate mindset that was too inward-looking; solipsistic navel-gazing. That mindset nullified the efficacy of the plan.

Denial is Not a River in Egypt: It’s human nature to think things won’t get worse. The problem is they often do. But because the company has a crisis plan, there’s a false confidence in thinking it’ll be ready when the real crisis hits. Many people are reluctant to call something a crisis because they want to seem in control (and maybe some of them feel they’ll be blamed for the crisis, hence, deny there is one). The problem is that as the situation deteriorates, the company gets in a much worse situation than it ever imagined. The crisis plan becomes largely irrelevant because most of the damage has been done. The PR challenge becomes damage limitation and reputation recovery. The conceit of many crisis management plans is that they're supposed to stop things getting that bad.

Remember Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: The PR variation on that timeless quantum mechanics insight is that the more you think you know something the less you actually know. The core fault line of many a crisis plan is the scenario analysis. It has to be done but it’s important to see the limitations of scenario thinking. Think of a crisis like this: you are not so much observing some static thing as being cast "into" a rolling current of totally new experiences moving at a multi-speed pace; new information is coming at you constantly; and judgment is more valuable than marching to a plan based on faulty scenario assumptions.

Integrity is Better Than the Plan: The fact is people, and organisations, make mistakes. Hiding those mistakes is only exceeded by lying about them as a sure blueprint for destroying a corporate reputation, perhaps forever, not to mention inviting years of regulatory scrutiny and litigation. Sometimes, real leadership is not just admitting you’re wrong, but being willing to pay the price too, if one needs to be paid - and often one does. That’s part of the essence of what makes all of us truly human. Decisions like that can’t be put in a crisis plan. Just ask David Cameron.

Montieth M. Illingworth is president of Montieth & Company

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