What to ask potential crisis counselors

How to weed out the behaviors that give crisis and reputation management a bad rap.

A client once asked why I’m not among those who publicly opine on the crisis du jour. There are two simple answers.

One, when I’m deeply involved at the epicenter of a client’s crisis, I’m legally and ethically prevented from commenting. And two, when I’m not deeply involved and don’t have the intimate details or nuance, I shouldn’t comment. It’s that simple.

That discussion led to a deeper chat about the behaviors that give crisis/reputation management a bad rap, including offering second-guessing critiques and other head-scratching behavior. We began to brainstorm a common set questions that brands and organizations can ask to help secure the best available counselors.

Here are some of those questions:

First, how many war rooms have you personally led on crisis assignments? Will those clients validate that you were the agency lead?

Do you have clients that can vouch for your leadership approach in a crisis and can we speak to them about a reference? Can you give a sense of the magnitude of crises that you’ve led and do any of them relate to the size of the challenges our brand or organization may face?

Can you give us examples that show how well you understand the issues and crises that could harm our business’ or industry’s reputation?

How engaged will you remain as a senior specialist on our business and will you hand off our crisis to your more-junior staff?

The staff that you are putting forward to help me — do they have the experience and training to manage crises?

And what will your approach be if we disagree with your counsel? Are you a seasoned and intellectually strong debater able to negotiate with, say, the legal or compliance teams? And are you comfortable playing devil’s advocate?

How many long-term (5 or more years) issues/crisis support clients have you had?

Are you planning to write a book someday and can you confirm that our crisis will never be a book chapter, blog post or featured in your paid speeches and seminars?

Do you have a working understanding of crisis management disciplines beyond reputation management? Can you speak the language of emergency management, risk management, business resilience and continuity, etc.? Do you understand how those disciplines must work together to succeed in reputation management?

What are some of your thoughts on crisis management today and how it differs from the way crises were managed five, 10 or even 20 years ago?

If we hire you, will you be the guru or oracle that has ALL the answers? This is a trick question. If they answer "yes," I suggest you look elsewhere.

Choosing the right partner to help you navigate through your toughest moments is critical. These questions can help the right brands and organizations find the right crisis-counseling experts who will keep their interests ahead of any other.

James Donnelly ("J.D."), is director of issues and crisis management at M Booth.

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