Surviving crises begins with preparing for the unexpected

As Monty Python used to say, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. And when it comes to crises management, it seems no one expects deep sea oil wells to blow up or accelerator pedals to stick.

As Monty Python used to say, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. And when it comes to crises management, it seems no one expects deep sea oil wells to blow up or accelerator pedals to stick. In fact, in most crises, someone has generally cut all of the budgets for preparing for a crisis or decided that crisis fire drills were a waste of time and money.

But as recent crises show, failure to prepare for the unexpected can quickly cost global companies $10, $20, or even $30 billion. Good communications, of course, could never have solved or prevented these events, but it could have made them less costly and less painful, particularly with the right plan and thinking in the first 48 hours.

For example, first and perhaps most important in the BP and Toyota crises, don't downplay events without the facts. If you are not sure what is going on, better to say that you are evaluating it than to say it is a drop of oil in a big ocean.

It is also important to understand the difference between what lawyers suggest to avoid legal liability and what needs to be done to avoid a public and regulator lynching. The lawyers play a key role, but sometimes you just have to get out there and communicate.

Remember: You can't rebuild a house in the middle of a hurricane; that has to wait until the storm is over. During the crisis, you have to focus on keeping everything running as smoothly as possible. You must defend against false allegations with facts, concede the reality that is before you, and reassure employees there is a clear path out to prevent defections. People get angry and often tense. The key element is having a single, centralized decision-making process that works. And polling can greatly help separate out chatter from what is really going on with elites and consumers.

Once the hurricane is over, the cleanup commences. Most companies can recover from the damages of an unexpected crisis fully in two to three years with a determined campaign. It starts with taking clear and affirmative action on what caused the problems in the first place. It then involves a broad campaign to regain the trust of consumers and DC regulators. It's a long process, but it is one that has been successful time and time again.

These crises are usually highly complex, but the 24- hour news cycle demands instant clarity. If you haven't truly dedicated the resources to be ready, you will likely falter until you get organized - which can be costly. So plan ahead to stay ahead.

Mark Penn is worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller.

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