Crisis Management: How to Handle A Crisis Like A Pro – Part 1: Pre-Crisis
By Michael Kunert,
In every campaign, a “crisis” is going to occur. How do I know? Because life happens. The difference is how one sees the “crisis” and responds because not all “crises” are the same. Those in political consulting firms who properly plan for such “crises” manage them like professionals.
For this series of articles on crisis management, for ease, I’m going to define the types of crises into three categories:
Categories of Crisis
- Situation: low-level annoyance. An example might be the candidate doesn’t feel well today, or someone forgot to charge the backup battery packs. Usually requires minor adjustments or tweaks;
- Incident: Moderate-level crisis that may disrupt the campaign. An example might be your candidate was involved in a car accident en route to a speaking engagement that will cause a significant delay in their arrival;
- Unplanned Event: High level, may be direct or indirect to the campaign. An example might be a fire at the venue where your candidate was to speak, or an indirect unplanned event might be a tragic event that occurred elsewhere to which your candidate should respond.
Now bear in mind that the difference between a situation and an incident may be based on one’s perception, their level of training, or experience, or it could be based on timing. Losing power at a venue an hour before your candidate is to speak might be a situation, but losing power 10 minutes before your candidate is to speak before a packed house might be an incident.
But if you are prepared for such an incident, you may be able to make one phone call to the venue’s electrician who unplugged a piece of equipment, flipped a circuit breaker, and viola…power restored. While everyone else panicked, you remained calm.
Managing The Situation
When it comes to crisis management, three phases must be dealt with properly especially in a political consulting firm if your campaign is going to handle a crisis professionally. In this three-part series on crisis management, we will examine each phase.
- Phase 1 – Pre-crisis: Failing to prepare properly will induce fear and anxiety when an incident or event occurs. Chaos will reign down on your campaign.
- Phase 2 – Crisis Response: Fail here, and your campaign will appear to be erratic, uncaring, incompetent, and possibly untrustworthy
- Phase 3 – Post Crisis / After Action Debrief:
In this first part of three, we will address Phase 1 – Pre-crisis.
Phase 1 – Political Consulting Pre-Crisis: “Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail”
When it comes to crisis management, planning is crucial. As the adage goes, “fail to plan, plan to fail.” Properly political consulting with the campaign staff and workers (to some extent) can instill confidence and reduce fear and anxiety from your campaign staff when an anomaly occurs. The key is to think through the crisis management plan and rehearse it, if possible.
Two things to avoid during your pre-crisis planning or during the decision-making process:
There is a difference between overplanning and being prepared. Overplanning tends to lead to analysis paralysis. Most of what you think might occur won’t occur. Is it reasonable to think about those things? Sure. Is it worth the time and energy to plan for every detail? That depends. Just know this, you cannot plan for everything, and the only “perfect plan” is the one in the planning room. Once you step outside of the room, life happens.
This is a big one and often very difficult for some to control. When people inject emotions into the planning stage or the decision-making stage, judgment becomes clouded. People tend to react rather than respond. What is not that important in the global picture of the campaign has now become more of a problem than it should be because now, rather than responding to the problem, we now have to deal with people’s emotions, which becomes an energy suck.
A perfect example of when emotions are part of the equation occurred in 2010. Do you remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico? An estimated 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were never found after the explosion. And an estimated loss of $23 billion to the local economies along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Louisiana.
Now that’s quite a disaster and indeed quite an unplanned crisis. However, what compounded BP’s problem was when their CEO, reacting to criticisms from residents of the Gulf Coast about how the crisis had impacted their livelihood, said, “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for this massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” He was forced to apologize for his initial apology and was later removed from his position with the company.
Pre-Crisis Planning: “What if…?”
The best way to start your pre-crisis plan is to ask, “What if?” What if the power goes out? What if your dignitary guest wishes to stay and eat at your scheduled event? What if the car breaks down on the way to a speaking engagement? What if your opponent attacks your candidate in a direct mail piece? What if your opponent aired a “fake news” ad? What if? What if? What if?
During the COVID pandemic in 2019, even after political consulting, many campaigns got caught flat-footed. Now no one expected a pandemic to hit, but those campaigns who had some sort of plan quickly adapted and used more digital campaign tools available to them while others were slow to adjust.
In a speech given by former Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill, O’Neill talks about the bin Laden raid and points out that the team selected for the raid rehearsed “the perfect plan” for a week and a half, fourteen-hour days at a training site with real helicopters. After they trained all day, they would sit around a model of the target location and talk about the mission. One night as they were sitting around talking about the mission, the boss said, “Alright guys, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
According to O’Neill, the youngest guy in the room said, “a helicopter could crash in the front yard”, which is exactly what happened. And because of that “what if” moment, when the helicopter crashed, the pilot and those onboard knew exactly what to do and turned something that could have been catastrophic into something great because of their preparation.
Benefit of Pre-Planning
The point is, that everyone on the team should have input during the pre-planning phase. This gives people a sense of belonging and encourages innovation.
Secondly, because this young man spoke up, the team ran through the scenario of a helicopter crashing on site. This is allowed everyone to experience what would happen. And when it did happen, those onboard continued with their mission so smoothly that other team members arriving on site did not know that one of the helicopters had crashed.
Here’s a bit of psychology for you, your mind does not know what is real and what is not. What your mind sees as real are those thoughts you apply emotions to. Baseball legend Ted Williams once said when asked why he was such a good hitter, he swung a bat 3,000 times a day.
Now he didn’t physically swing a bat 3,000 times, but in his mind, he could visualize the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand, he could see its rotation, he could feel the wood of the bat against his hands, he could feel his muscles tensing and twisting, see the bat striking the ball, feel the power in his legs, and feel the ball leaving the bat as he completed his swing.
If you “what if” enough, your mind will have gone through nearly every incident or event that you can give it, and when it occurs, you won’t have to think, you will just do.
If This…Then That
This is the answer to “what if?” This is your contingency plan to mitigate any changes. What if the dignitary decides to stay at our scheduled event? If the dignitary decides to stay, then we will seat her at Table #4 where we will have two chairs available.
What if we lose power at the venue? If we lose power at the venue, then we will make an announcement to our seated guests to remain calm and stay seated for everyone’s safety while the problem is being fixed and Joan will phone Eddie the electrician and make him aware of the problem.
Know Your Weaknesses
As a political consulting firm, when you and the campaign team go through your “what if” scenarios, you need to be fully aware of any weakness the candidate might have or any weaknesses in the campaign because they are surely going to be exploited by your opponent(s).
Here it would be wise to list all potential weaknesses in one column. Beside each, in a second column, list possible contingencies or mitigation. And in a third column, list any immediate response, if needed.
Be brutally honest, because your opponent will be.
Everyone Knows Who the Communications Director/Spokesperson Is
Rounding out our discussion on pre-crisis planning, everyone on the political consulting team, everyone in the campaign needs to know who the Communications Director/Spokesperson is. And everyone needs to know that if there is an incident or an unplanned event, only one person is to handle the communications.
Now there will be or should be some discussion on whether or not the candidate should deliver the message, but in situations where the candidate is in dispose or should not deliver the message, all communication comes from the spokesperson. No one working with the campaign should speak to or release any statement, graphic, or image to the media, traditional or on social media, period.
It’s also a good idea in general, to have any campaign staffer who may want to post photos during the campaign on their social media accounts run everything through the campaign spokesperson so that the messaging is consistent and so everyone is aware of what is being posted.
In closing, panic is contagious, but so is being calm. And being calm is what you and your team should strive for when a crisis occurs. The best way to appear calm is to understand that “bad stuff” is going to happen, and when it does, there is no perfect plan.
But, if you and your team have taken the time to think through what could possibly go wrong at any given time during your campaign and have a set of well-thought-out contingencies and mitigation efforts on standby, you and your campaign will have greater success managing a crisis than those who fail to prepare.
One last thing on pre-crisis planning: too often, political consultants, campaign managers, and/or candidates believe that with all their years of experience and the number of campaigns or elections they’ve been involved with, they don’t need to plan. They believe that when something happens, their years of experience will kick in, and they’ll be able to manage it. But this is ill-advised.
Sure, based on experience, the intensity of the crisis may not be what it was when they first got into the business. But every campaign is different. Every election cycle is different. Campaign workers are different. Every campaign should be treated as though it were the first campaign so that everyone is on the same page throughout the campaign and that nothing is taken for granted.
Next up, how to manage a crisis when it happens. Read it here.