Let’s assume, for a moment, that dealing with a crisis is like hitting a tennis ball. When it comes to your court, you strike it away, working to ensure it lands well on the other side. And when—not if—it comes back, you work to ensure you can do so again. Tennis balls are inherent to the game, just as crises are inherent to doing business.
But as any experienced tennis player knows, the game is about much more than each moment of contact with the ball.
In this sport, the concept of the “full swing” is commonplace. Aim, stance, grip, weight distribution and follow through are all critical components of ensuring not only that you hit, but that the ball goes to the spot you are aiming for—and that, once you have hit the ball, you’re in a good position to hit it again, if need be.
Crises are similar. When a company treats it as a single moment, it doesn’t put thought and effort into the backswing or follow through, missing an opportunity to yield better results from their efforts, or possibly even circumvent a crisis before it begins.
What, then, is the anatomy of a full swing in crisis management?
Watch the ball: situational awareness
While not a part of the swing itself, “watching the ball” is crucial to ensuring you swing intelligently. It means being aware of the situation on the court so you can best predict your opponent’s next action. This is exactly what all companies should be doing constantly, as it’s much easier to hit a ball you see coming. Crises can—and in today’s world, must—be anticipated.
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In business, watching the ball means committing to issue mitigation rather than just managing crises as they appear. This means carrying out issue mappings, planning for likely scenarios and using predictive analytics to track the flow of relevant conversations. With today’s technology, it’s possible to determine the sociopolitical landscape in a market or region, allowing ample time to decide which activities to take and come to a consensus on how to handle current or future reputational issues.
Without this awareness, you’re just hitting at balls blindly.
The backswing: leading up to a crisis
Here, the backswing refers to all the setup that goes into preparing a company and its executives to handle a crisis gracefully. For example, have your executives and personnel been trained in how to handle crisis situations? Is there a crisis manual in place? Do you regularly revisit your plans to ensure they’re adapted to the current reality? If not, your backswing may need work.
This issue is compounded by the changing expectations society has of companies and leaders. Today’s companies are vulnerable, as they’re under constant citizen scrutiny. Furthermore, their CEOs are expected to do much more than lead a business; now, they’re expected to be fully transparent, stand for a cause and genuinely work toward public good.
These new vulnerabilities and demands make careful communications even more important, as they require intelligent positioning and reputation management. However, these efforts also create a crucial reputational “shield”—or, to extend our metaphor, provide a very high-end racket—to use in the event of any crisis. In short, they allow the company to use its CEOs and its own reputation as an asset.
Even so, crisis management remains key. Even a top-of-the-line racket is not very helpful for stopping a ball if it’s not swung well. We all must be ready to swing.
The forward swing: moment of impact
Once a crisis is identified, it’s time to swiftly gather information and make quick decisions. Evaluate its potential impact and examine what it would take to resolve it now, before it grows. Also implement immediate Active Listening efforts to better track its evolution and the public’s response to ensure you have all the information you need to hit the ball cleanly.
During this time, transparency, consistency and speed are essential. Society no longer tolerates any amount of ambiguity, and a single bad incident has the potential to turn into a global reputational crisis in a matter of hours. You must be ready to share a clear, honest message that serves to deescalate the situation as quickly as possible. Just consider what happened with United’s Flight 3411 incident; if nothing else, it serves as a good example of what not to do in a crisis.
You should already have a basic action plan in place, courtesy of your crisis manual. It will provide the framework for your response, but it shouldn’t stop you from deeply considering the specifics of each current crisis. A crisis manual provides valuable preparation and guidelines, but careful thought is still a must in ensuring a good response.
The follow through: setting up for continued success
In tennis, a swing doesn’t end upon contact with the ball—the follow through is every bit as important to ensuring it’s a good hit, that the ball lands as expected and that the player is ready to hit again.
In the world of crisis management, this includes elements such as post-mortem discussions on the crisis response, tracking best practices and identifying ways to improve for the future. What did the crisis teach you? What new processes or tools can you bring in? And how could you do it better in the future?
Then, share this information with the relevant actors in the company, whether through a reeducation program, an update to the crisis manual or a simple meeting to discuss these lessons with those who might have a different perspective.
This is a critical part of the crisis management process, as it’s what allows for continued improvement. The crisis may be over, but the game continues. When the next ball comes your way, you want to be ready to send it flying.
Emigdio Rojas is Chief Executive Director in LLYC’s Miami office.