A Crisis Checklist: 10 Key Actions

Blaine Bull   , Mike Shannon    Checklist Thumb

Trauma surgeons are in a high-stakes line of work. Their patients arrive in crisis, often times facing death. The operating room can be chaotic, and the symptoms fast changing. Time is in short supply.

In the midst of this pressure, surgeons must make decisions and take actions that have long-lasting consequences – for both their patients and their own reputations.  First steps are critical.  Basic protocols must be followed.  Improvisations made.  Surgeons draw from their impressive experience, training, intellect and leadership skills as they operate.

A few years ago, a physician named Atul Gawande popularized the idea that surgeons needed to draw from something else – a simple checklist. 

In his 2009 book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Done Right, Gawande shows that during moments of extreme duress and intensity, surgeons who work from memory often miss basic and necessary steps such as washing their hands and wearing a sterile mask and gloves, thus harming the patient.  He documents that hospitals that have instituted simple checklists in the operating room have improved care, reduced costs and saved lives.

We think it’s time to popularize the checklist concept for corporate crisis management.
Companies often face trauma – and sometimes death – in the form of a public or legal crisis.  The C-suite becomes chaotic and the issues are fast-changing.  CEOs, like surgeons, are expected to save the day.  And as in emergency care, the first moments of a corporate crisis are often most critical – they can help avert an oncoming disaster or they can fuel it.

During the intensity and disorientation of a crisis, CEOs and their teams usually rely on their managerial acumen and leadership skills and all too often miss basic and necessary steps, thus harming their “patient.”  It is only later, in a post-mortem or a case study, that it becomes clear that they were making obvious mistakes.

Based on our team’s experience in managing a multitude of crises, we have developed a checklist for executive teams facing a high-stakes public problem.  It is almost offensively simple, and the instinct may be to shrug it off, as many surgeons did in the early days of instituting checklists.  However, we are convinced that it can help prevent mistakes, improve your communications and response, and ultimately may save the life of your brand.

  1. Speak quickly (but don’t speculate).  A common crisis trap is to delay communications until you have more information.  In today’s media environment, waiting is not an option.  Provide basic information as soon as you can, and define your own narrative before someone else does.  But be careful not to speculate, as this can create additional mistrust if conjecture is later proven wrong.
  2. Speak to the concerns and needs of victims.  In a crisis, an organization’s instinct is to worry about itself.  Instead, you need to focus on the concerns and needs of others, especially anyone who has been hurt or affected.  Develop a key stakeholder map that identifies key groups, what they are likely feeling, what questions they probably have, and what related messages and actions should be.
  3. Speak with one voice.   Develop your story, message, and fact sheets for your designated messengers so that they speak with one clear voice and prevent confusion with conflicting statements.
  4. Carefully select your messengers.   Identify which team members will be your messengers and who will serve as the primary public faces.  Messengers may include the company’s regular media liaison, senior executives, and company topic experts.  Carefully weigh whether your CEO can and should be a primary public face.  Is he or she a strong communicator?  Does the severity of the crisis merit your CEO taking the lead?  Will your CEO generate more or less public trust?
  5. Talk to your own family.  In the midst of a crisis, executives are often slow to communicate with their most important asset – their own employees, alumni and donors.  Regular “family” communications and updates can prevent confusion, dissatisfaction and off-the-reservation comments.
  6. Take out the garbage.   In most situations, it is best to get all the bad news out as quickly as possible.  Nothing is worse than the drip, drip, drip of a crisis, with little bits and pieces continuously seeping out.  This will keep the story alive for much longer than desired or necessary and cause mistrust.  Obviously, there are legal considerations – but undiscovered information is usually discovered by someone, somehow.
  7. Match communication with action.  Talking cannot fix a crisis.  Messages must be matched with tangible actions that address the root of the problem.  When things are going bad, it is easy to blame the communications – avoid this instinct.
  8. Remember that email is forever.  When you write an email, use the “front-page” test, i.e. would you be comfortable with this showing up on the front page of the New York Times?  Because it well might.  Think about both word choice and tone.
  9. Remember Sorry is a Good Word.  Everyone makes mistakes.  In our society, people usually respond positively when leaders apologize, take responsibility, and present plans for doing better and moving forward.
  10. Quantify both legal and reputational liability.   Legal liability in a crisis is very real and can be very scary.  So the counsel of lawyers is of course critical. However, reputational liability can sometimes exceed legal liability.  Do your best to put numbers on both categories, make sure smart attorneys and communications advisors have an equal seat at the table, and develop a comprehensive approach.

A final note – this checklist does not substitute for crisis planning and simulations but rather complements those activities.  We find that responding to a crisis and effectively implementing a plan in the right sequence can prove to be difficult, especially in a highly intense and polarized environment.  Having a checklist helps an organization ensure it is getting the big, basic things right. 

As always, we welcome your viewpoint on our Viewpoint.