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Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

Crisis Management Advice for Big Shots

The bombshell hits without warning. And your world becomes a blur as you're pulled here and there in the chaos. Soon enough, your survival instinct kicks in; you stagger back to your senses as events slow. Only then does the extent of the damage become clear.

The press has already dubbed you Public Enemy No. 1. Politicians have named a legislative bill after you. Activists invoke your company in their fund-raisers. And every self-styled expert (or actor) is chiming in with a solution. Now your shareholders are watching their nest eggs dissolve while your employees remain under siege. Wherever you turn, everyone is asking you the same questions: What do you know, when did you know it, and what are you going to do about it?

I'm probably the last person you want to hear from now. I'm what you call a customer. Chances are, you don't know me. You're fast asleep when you fly over me on red-eyes. You profess undying love for me in company lore—and ignore me in practice. You've built a Byzantine infrastructure to insulate yourself from me. And now you want my understanding and forgiveness.

So let me spare you an eye-popping billable from some media guru. Fact is, you'll never appease those talking heads on cable. To save your brand, you'll need to reconnect with people like me. And you'll accomplish this only by looking at the world through our eyes. Here's how you can start:

Produce an Action Plan: In a crisis, one phrase terrifies everyone: I don't know. That's because we, your customers, crave certainty. And your brand (like most others) is built around summer afternoons and endless possibilities. When you betray our trust, that illusion is shattered. We feel small and impotent, reminded of how quickly life can change and how little we actually control.

So don't expect us to give you the benefit of the doubt. We've heard it all before. No, you'll need to burrow in and get dirty. That means you give the situation your full attention and put your best person in charge. Produce a plan, with processes seamlessly orchestrated and variables carefully measured. In short, reduce the uncertainties. Engage in overkill if need be. We can never be wondering if you're flying blind, taking shortcuts, or planning to abandon us once the media races off to the next crisis.

Project the Right Image. I'm imagining who you are before you even speak. Chances are, you're no different from the big shots around town: aloof and full of yourself, concerned only about the almighty dollar. Behind the facade, you're probably the friend who spurned me, the crush who overlooked me, and the boss who cheated me—all rolled into one.

Don't kid yourself, there's probably a disconnect between you and the rest of us. So don't exacerbate it by playing into our antipathy. Be aware of what your worst critics think of your organization (or you personally). Acknowledge the skepticism. Surprise us by humanizing yourself. Share your emotions—sans the self-pity—and how the event has touched those around you. Have an independent party critique you before you go public, to ensure you strike the right tone and come across as humble, thoughtful, and likable.

If you're not that person, find someone who is. Your organization has enough headaches; it doesn't need any more gaffes. In medical school, the first precept students learn is "Do no harm." The same applies to representing your company. Swallow your pride and don't allow "you" to become another issue.

Get Everything Out Early: You're closing ranks, lawyering up, and trying to distance yourself. Your advisers are warning you to stay quiet and cautious, knowing the media (and future plaintiffs) will use whatever you say and do against you. You're no longer worried about keeping what you have; you're focused on not losing everything.

You're facing the proverbial Catch-22: Do you expose yourself by insisting on transparency or weather the storm and hope nothing more leaks out? In our private lives, many of us would be tempted to walk away or hide out. But we expect you to act in a more courageous manner than we would.

In reality, reputations are cemented or broken in adversity. So take an inventory of what you know and don't; tell the full story to the best of your ability. Deliver that same message consistently across all channels. Take responsibility for your actions. Keep us up to date on your progress and never downplay the impact of your mistake. Your customers are more tolerant of errors than of sandbagging, foot-dragging, and cover-ups. Don't allow the moment to bring out the worst in you.

Accept Reality: Deep inside, you know the awful truth lies beyond the lives you've damaged and trust you've lost. In the future, nothing will ever be the same for you and your company. Even when you eventually correct the situation, your name will be forever associated with this mishap. Fair or not, you'll be trotted back into the limelight with every new crisis.

Fact is, what's done is done. We don't want to hear you justifying, finger-pointing, evading, spinning, or lashing out. Sure, you can splash glossy ads, hefty donations, and public genuflections everywhere we turn. In reality, the best strategy is something that doesn't come naturally: holding your tongue.

You see, we want you to stand there and take it, to know how angry and afraid we feel. Even more, we want a win, to believe this event had a larger meaning. And that goes beyond giving us a sacrificial lamb and declaring a fresh start. To satisfy this innate desire, you'll need to make concessions to your critics, lead larger initiatives, and invest more in your communities (as if you weren't doing that already).

As in our personal lives, it often takes a crisis before we step back and reevaluate. Most likely, that area your organization once disregarded—design, quality control, security, compliance—will define your path for years to come. It will be a long and uncomfortable process to pick up the pieces internally. And it will be no different with your public rehabilitation from corporate pariah to reformed sinner. That's what you'll be facing: winning back your reputation one customer and employee at a time.

Take Advantage of the Spotlight: Chances are that I, like the rest of the public, know precious little about you. Along with sharing the facts, don't be afraid to outline your industry's unique challenges and benefits. Shed light on all your good works that get buried in your press releases and annual reports.

As children, our mothers taught us: You break it, you buy it. The same holds true now. You've had a serious lapse, so take ownership of it. Use this moment to take the lead, inspire, and set the example.

Don't Make Another Mistake: You're providing great source material for late-night comics and YouTube (GOOG) parodies. Your competitors, who'd normally gloat, worry your stench will rub off on them. The cynics will claim you skirted the rules or turned a blind eye to your company's practices. But I think it boils down to something else: a failure of imagination.

While you need to understand what happened, the greater threat is often what you cannot yet envision. So step out of your comfortable confines and war-game. Deconstruct your operation, evaluate potential risks, and get your plans, structures, and budgets up-to-date and in alignment so you don't perpetrate another blunder. Remember, the best publicity is often no publicity.

Consider yourself fortunate if you survive the blowback. In our lives, we all seek a second chance. Stay humble and capitalize on it, because you'll never get a third.

Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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