Learning How to Handle a Crisis

Thu Mar 2021

Learning How to Handle a Crisis

Any organization that remains in business for a while will likely face a crisis of some sort. These can be difficult to train for, as crises often emerge quickly, with little or no warning.


But crises are not necessarily unpredictable. Davia Temin, founder and CEO of consultancy Temin & Co., defines a crisis as any set of circumstances that throws a company into disarray, whether it's predictable or not. "If you sit down and do a crisis preparedness plan, you can come up with a whole list of predictable crises," Temin said. She cited market crashes, product contamination, criminal behavior and natural disasters as examples of predictable crises.


"Then there's the black swan, out-of-the-blue stuff," she said. "[These are] harder for people to predict [and] harder for corporate people to predict, by the way, because they're generally thinking a little bit more linearly."


To assist people and companies in preparing for such circumstances, Temin has created the "Crisis Game" case methodology. Crisis Games are hosted as events in locations ranging from auditoriums to board rooms to television studios. They generally run for 90 minutes and may be attended by a few dozen or as many as 250 people. Attendees are generally executives, though Temin has presented a Crisis Game to a group of journalists. She's done roughly 35 of these events to date.


Prior to any Crisis Game, Temin meets with previously selected participants who will act out the fictional crisis they're presented with. They're given envelopes assigning them specific job roles - not necessarily their own.


"I meet with them a little bit before [the event] and hand them their envelope," she said. "Of course they always want to know long before, 'Well, what am I going to do and what's the situation? I want to prepare.' And I won't let them."


Temin also fleshes out personalities for the participants. "I give them a lot of color, like real people," she said. "And so then they respond both from their role and the personality I have suggested."


As the actual Crisis Game starts, the participants are seated in front of the audience and Temin describes the case. She was reluctant to say what these cases are exactly, as that ruins the element of surprise that is a key element. But she cited as potential examples situations such as a pharmaceutical company facing a drug recall; a company facing a hostile takeover; a company being investigated for money laundering; or a company experiencing a sudden, serious supply chain disruption.


"Then I set it up a little bit more and turn to one person and say 'OK what would you do in this particular case? Well, what do you think about that?'" she said. "I start them talking with one another and what happens is they warm to their roles. They get very involved [and] engaged."


This engagement is central to the effectiveness of the games. Often, executives don't know how they'll react to a crisis until they're faced with one. "People don't know how to do it because most of this stuff, unless you've been there you can't figure it out, and you know what? By the time all that hits it's too late," Temin said. "Your intuition that you have learned throughout your career, that has been non-crisis related, is not always correct within a crisis, so you have to develop a different muscle." The hands-on nature of the game facilitates this development.


David Haynes, CEO and chairman of Opinionology, a market research and surveying firm, attended a Crisis Game in November. He said his core take-away from the event is that crisis management requires fast and clear judgment. In particular, he learned some important points about dealing with the media during a crisis.


"Ignoring the press does not work," Haynes said. Instead, companies in crisis need to "communicate early and often; designate a single point of contact for media communication; keep public messages anchored in supportable facts; [and] retain a capable media consultant before a crisis strikes. Don't expect the press or government officials to always be fair or seek justice." Haynes also learned the inherent dangers in panicking in response to a crisis. "Strong emotions diminish intellectual capacity," he said. "Stay balanced."


One of the most important things to learn about crisis management is how to recognize a crisis, something the gradually unfolding nature of Temin's Crisis Games helps participants and attendees develop.


"The trick is of course to determine when it's a crisis and when it's just a little blip that's going to be self-correcting," she said. "The hardest thing that I find in working with clients is when they cut and say this is a crisis, because otherwise it's business as usual and they don't start to put in solutions. It's human nature, but it is especially corporate nature to go into denial mode. In these Crisis Game, one of the very important points is to say 'OK, is this a crisis yet? Are you worried now? Are you not worried? Is this just business as usual?'"


Haynes said companies should realize that the missteps that lead to a crisis are often just a natural part of doing business. "Every company makes errors," he said. "Errors become mistakes when they are not corrected. Admit real problems, implement an authentic solution and communicate the action taken."


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