There’s more than one ‘I’ in crisis

August 12, 2016 • 3 minute read

Every day the news brings stories of people banding together to deal with a calamity, overcome a common obstacle or fight for social change. Total strangers, with disparate backgrounds working together as one.

Organizations, too, are regularly presented with opportunities to accomplish things as a team that, if attempted alone, would not be possible. How difficult though, does this sort of collaboration become when facing an intensely stressful and unforeseen crisis? The need to move forward as a unit and respond to a crisis is made more challenging when those whose support and collaboration is required all respond differently, and (too often) poorly under pressure.

Responding to a crisis requires the ability to make decisions under duress. But those decisions can’t be made in a vacuum and balancing the needs of stakeholders while also responding to a news story unfurling in real time is stressful. An organization’s crisis response plan should anticipate how competing demands will be addressed, while leaving some wiggle room to pivot when the story and facts change.

Ultimately, a balance must be struck between an immediate but often incomplete response, and a delayed but detailed one. This can be achieved by considering the team’s psychological response to stress and accommodating for those known variables when preparing an Incident Response Plan (IRP) before a crisis hits.

Tinder vs. Target

Tinder’s irrational response to a recent and unflattering Vanity Fair article fully demonstrates the importance of a level head and the need for a well-prepared (and well-executed) IRP when confronted with a public incident or unflattering media coverage.

Rather than working the backchannels with Vanity Fair and asking editors there to include Tinder’s comments for balance, the employee in charge of Tinder’s verified Twitter account launched a 30-tweet tirade against the article and its author. This made what was already bad coverage for Tinder even worse because the tweets looked bizarre (even satirical) coming from the company’s verified account and that knee-jerk response fanned the media flames and drew the attention of thousands of readers who otherwise would likely have missed the piece altogether.

No matter what Tinder claimed about its ludicrous response being rooted in its enthusiasm for the app in the company’s follow-up statement, the fact remains that it let emotion trump thoughtfulness. Not only did the company draw more readers to the piece, it also also came off looking juvenile, irrational and petty.

Conversely, Target’s response to their 2013 data breach demonstrates the complete opposite response to stress – so-called analysis paralysis. Having been made aware of a massive data breach on December 15, Target dragged its heels, waited four days to make a public statement, and then only did so after an independent blog broke news of the investigation.

Target’s crisis team likely wanted to hold off on going public until it had all the information about the seriousness of the breach, a decision which on its face is logical, were it not for the fact that investigations into breaches can last several months. (In Target’s case, it took nearly two months to learn the full extent of the damage.) In the face of intense stress, the leadership team at Target suffered analysis paralysis when they needed to be their most responsive.

A good IRP would have allowed the folks at Target to act, knowing that they were working with limited information but understanding that their duty to the customers came first and that duty included being transparent about what they did and did not know.

In both of these examples, the psychological response to stress on the communications and management teams likely affected their crisis response, and ultimately damaged the brands. In the case of Target, it fared far worse compared to other organizations that have suffered wide scale data breaches, because its response under pressure was sloppy, disjointed and opaque.

Commit to the Plan and Follow Through

No crisis is ever easy, but a well-conceived and thoroughly tested IRP is a critical step in aligning leadership with an organization’s stakeholders and mitigating some of the personality differences that can derail a thoughtful response to a crisis – regardless of when it hits. Understanding how a leadership team will react under pressure and committing to following the agreed upon plan can turn a potentially nasty crisis into an opportunity to show customers and stakeholders how important their business and loyalty is to the company.