Monday, June 4, 2012

Manager Mondays: Messaging In A Crisis

Last week I had a last-minute showstopper threaten one of my projects.  It involved a regulatory glitch that suddenly surfaced.  We were advised that all freelance workers scheduled for a certain job needed to fulfill a certification requirement.  It appeared that we had less than two weeks to contact everyone and find out whether they had documentation to show that they were duly certified to perform the work. It was too late to sign up other workers. If this was indeed a deal-breaker, we would be forced to reduce the size of our crew,  meaning we would probably fail to reach our project goal due to lack of manpower.

Things were still sketchy, though.  There might be a loophole.  More authorities needed to be consulted.  It was like we were playing telephone with a string of bureaucrats, and each message we got from them raised more questions.  Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

A problem comes up, and you need to alert everyone immediately, but you don't know all the details yet.  What do you do?  If you manage people, you have nightmares about developments of this kind.

Here's what I've learned after being in this hot seat on a number of occasions.

1.  Start Communicating Right Away

When bad news breaks, it usually doesn't help to sit on it.  Prepare the affected parties right away with a warning message.

In the story I mentioned above about the regulatory glitch, we were in a no man's land of uncertainty.  We were hoping for a reprieve when all the experts weighed in.  Nonetheless,  we still elected to send out an email to all of our freelance workers, advising them that a problem had just come to our attention.  We didn't want to wait for a final answer and risk losing more precious response time.  So we put the wheels in motion as soon as we had enough basic facts to write about.

2.  Address The Worst Case Scenario

Don't hedge.  Make your warning message terse and to the point.  State the problem, then state the worst thing that might happen.  People need to know what they're up against.

We explained the regulatory issue briefly in our warning message.  We did not shade our messaging for the various groups involved.  We used  forthright language to frame the problem, and we identified the level of risk that it brought to the project.

3.  Make Your Response Strategy Clear

Before you send out your warning message, have a strategy in mind -- or at least have a strategy for determining a strategy.  Explain what you will be doing to address the problem.  Give enough details so that your teams can understand what they may be called on to do.

We said that we were still finding out details, but for now we were asking our team captains to contact each of the workers who reported to them, tell them what documentation might need to be produced, and get their certification status.  We explained that we would be researching further and would send out more details as they became available.

4.  Provide Details, Rationale or Talking Points as Needed

In crisis situations where there is a risk of bad PR or negative reactions, you will need to communicate internally (within your organization) deliberately and consistently.  Your goal is not just to deal with the crisis, but to contain the damage to your organization's goals and reputation.  One of the ways to do this is to present the main action steps to your people in bold font and bullet points, then in a separate paragraph offer more details to help affected parties paint an accurate mental picture of the situation, both in their own minds and in their ripple-out conversations with friends, family, and the inquisitive media.

I have a motto about this.  It goes, "When there's a gap in information, people will fill it with their own information -- and it's going to be negative information."   In other words, you need to message the situation appropriately to manage the spin.  So make sure you send enough knowledge out there to cover any gaps that could spell trouble.

For the certification issue, we gave a bit of background about why it became a problem, and why it was only surfacing now.  We also provided some context for the issue.  We did this purposefully so that we could answer objections preemptively and sustain as much of a positive tone as possible.

5.  Promise Continued Communication -- Then Deliver

Once you tell people about a problem, you MUST keep telling them progress reports until you can report a resolution.

We promised more info when we could be sure of it.  We have since sent out two messages to our antsy team captains, letting them know the status of negotiations with the certification authority, and an approximate timeline for resolution.

We are still in the middle of this crisis, so I can't tell you the end of the story -- but it looks like we've minimized the damage because of prompt messaging.

When you have a crisis on your hands, all your prior relationship-building efforts with your team really pay off -- assuming you have done any.  That's when your troops will repay you by going the extra mile.  Healthy teams react to bad news with with loyalty, disciplined actions and positive intentions.  Are you going to wait for a crisis to start inspiring confidence and good will in those who report to you?  Or are you going to begin now to forge a work relationship that goes beyond mere appeasement and earns your employees' trust?

Will they follow you into the fray?  Or will they just fray your nerves in a crisis?  You pretty much get to choose their response now, by sowing respect and integrity into your everyday workforce interactions. 

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