The GC as 'Chief Crisis Manager' in the Wake of Tragic Events
It is a topic few CEOs or general counsel want to think about, never mind discuss out loud. Indeed, in the immediate wake of the senseless tragedy at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, it is difficult to even write about.
But discuss it we must, because it is a reality facing every business: someday your product, your facility, or your workplace could become the site or target of a random (or not so random) act of violence. And how your company responds to such a crisis will say much about your organization, its culture, and its values.
Over the past decade or so, many GCs have become the Chief Crisis Manager for their companies, working with CEOs and other senior corporate leaders, as well as with internal and external legal and public affairs resources, to plan for corporate crises of all sorts. This makes sense, since the modern corporate crisis agenda is often dominated by longer-term legal and regulatory actions that fall directly within an in-house lawyers purview: lawsuits, governmental investigations, protests and boycotts, labor issues, and shareholder activism. In-house lawyers directing the legal response to such matters quite naturally assume a lead role in planning the public response when these sorts of crisis events occur.
But for explosive crises, including those related to violent acts, natural disasters, and workplace incidents such as accidents or fires, a different set of crisis tools, skills, and resources are needed. General counsel who are quite adept at leading a team through a U.S. Department of Justice investigation may be less equipped for the type of instantaneous crisis response required when an incident like the shooting at the Aurora movie theater impacts your organization, its reputation, and its future.
And instantaneous is the key word here. The news of the fatal shootings at the Century 16 Multiplex was broadcast to the world by eyewitnesses on Twitter within minutes of the actual event (a positively stunning collection of Tweets from the immediate aftermath of the attack can be found here). Major media outlets then incorporated those on-the-spot tweets into their breaking-news coverage. In this respect, the tragedy reminds us again just how pervasive communication technology has become to public discourse. Social media is now an elemental component of newsgathering and dissemination, and Twitter itself appears to have become the teletype machine of the Internet age.
In any kind of explosive, instantaneous crisis, rapid response is key. It is no longer acceptableif, indeed, it ever wasfor a company to hunker down, gather all the necessary data points and reports from the field, properly assess the depth and breadth of the crisis at hand, and coordinate a response among various departments, each with their own responsibilities, authority, and stakeholders. A companys security department needs to work with the legal department, which needs to work with HR, which needs to work with public affairs officers. All of which must happen as quickly as possible. There will be little time for long meetings or the careful exchange of strategies or ideas. It is time for action.
So what, as a practical matter, does this mean? Well, first, your crisis communications plan had better be current, at the ready andmost importantlyusable in the heat of a modern, instantaneous crisis event. Too many crisis communications plans put together by corporations over the past two decades consist primarily of large binders of procedures, templates, and contact lists gathering dust behind senior executives desks. Sometimes, these crisis plans are coupled with a software or Intranet-based solution that was cutting edge and relevant . . . in 2003 (which was probably the last time anyone was trained on it, anyway).
Such tools just arent suited to crisis management in the modern age and should be updated to incorporate the latest communication technologies. Moreover, crisis response tools should reflect the way human being actually work when under pressure. For example, in the crisis planning work my firm has undertaken over the past several years, we have advocated the use of a pro-sports organizational model and what we call a Crisis Flash Sheet, which is patterned after the laminated game outlines used by NFL coaches. By combining a simple tool such as this with user-friendly, cloud-based virtual war room technology, a company can effectively call the right playsand help ensure a crisis response that will reassure the public that your company is ready and able to meet the challenges at hand.
With this crisis playbook in hand, your company needs a designated quarterback, a captain of the crisis team who will be calling the shots and ensuring a response that is coherent and cohesive. In most instances, this probably should not be the CEO, whose larger responsibilities as communicator and leader are primary. Simply put, it is inadvisable to try to direct traffic and helm the flight deck at the same time. More often, therefore, the QB responsibility will fall to the GC, working closely with the companys public affairs professionals, both internal and external. No matter who is designated, he or she must be appointed and prepared before the crisis occurs, with full authority and buy-in from all corporate departments that will contribute to the crisis response effort.
And finally, the whole team must be ready. To continue the football analogy, the New York Giants didnt start coming up with plays after they took to the field for the Super Bowl. Calling an audible might occasionally be warranted, but thorough scenario planning by the crisis response team before the crisis hits is key.
Lets leave sports aside and get back to a potential real-world crisis. In the immediate wake of a violent act, accident, or natural disaster, there will be medical, police, and other emergency response; stabilization and control over the crisis scene; and the beginning of the forensic investigation and collection of evidence by both law enforcement and corporate security personnel. There will also be media arriving with cameras and satellite uplink, Twitter feeds live from the scene, and a wave of hits flooding your website and other social media platforms. Most or all of these media outlets may include your organization in their coverage, and its likely that youll be getting calls and e-mails requesting immediate comment or information.
If your planning has been solid and your team is prepared, all of these factors should have been considered and everyone should be ready to act. Now. In this instantaneous age, youre not going to get a second chance to reactand whatever you do or say can end up running in a constant loop on 24-hour news channels. So every communication needs to be presented calmly, professionally, intelligently, and empathetically.
As the Aurora shooting tragically exemplifies, we live in an era that is awash in both the tools to commit heinous acts of violence and media that assures such acts are broadcast to the world. Law enforcement and emergency personnel, often understaffed and outgunned, rely on planning, training, and coordination to respond effectively and heroically, even when the odds are against them and the situation appears beyond control. In the end, their example provides the most valuable lesson for all who are asked to stand up during a crisis and assume the responsibility of Chief Crisis Manager for their organization.
James F. Haggerty, an attorney and communications consultant, is CEO of PRCG/Strategic Communications and the author of In The Court of Public Opinion: Winning Strategies For Litigation Communications (American Bar Association Publishing, 2009). He also hosts a weekly In The Court Of Public Opinion radio show on the VoiceAmerica Business Network.