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How Leaders Can Keep Their Cool in a Crisis

The word crisis suggests something that happens infrequently. But these days, crises have become a regular state of affairs. Brands that you’d think would be fairly immune to scandal have found themselves embroiled in controversy. And those that deal with public relations challenges regularly have still been caught off guard by a customer insurgency. Some crises disappear quickly and others never seem to go away.

When it comes to a crisis happening, the question seems to no longer be “if” but “when.” Every leader needs to be prepared. By their very nature, crises put things in a whirlwind and emotions run high. So it’s imperative that leaders keep their cool and make smart decisions.

To get inside the eye of the storm, we spoke with executives who have had to successfully navigate crises of all kinds. Here’s what we learned:

You can’t pick your crisis. The first thing to know is that you need to expect the unexpected. “Rule Number 1,” according to Jamie Moldafsky, CMO of Wells Fargo, “is that you don’t get to pick your crisis. You have to be ready.” Brian Irving, former CMO of Hampton Creek, concurs: “Your crisis is not the one you think it’s going to be.” We suspect that Skittles probably thought their crisis risk was more likely to come from a food safety problem than from campaign tweets. Others like Nordstrom and Oreo have similarly found themselves pulled unexpectedly into political debates. Regardless of the cause, the important thing is to have the right people, data, tools, process, and mindset to handle whatever might come your way.

Don’t leave it to the lawyers. When the crisis does hit, the first hours are essential. The usual response is for the CEO to huddle with his or her legal counsel and communications team. The focus is typically on assessing legal risks and figuring out how investors and the media will react. But there are other constituencies that need to be considered, too. Customers, employees, and partners are watching to see how the company reacts. Are you being transparent? Are you taking responsibility? Are you living up to your own mission and values? Involve your head of marketing and human resources early. They will have a perspective the lawyers won’t have and need to be in the room when decisions are made.

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Disclaimer: Statements in this article should not be considered investment advice, which is best sought directly from a qualified professional.