May 19, 2020
Photo credit: Dan McGarvey/CBC
Crisis management: Leading amidst uncertainty
As the former national media relations manager for McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, I’ve had an insider’s view at how big corporations both prepare and respond in real time to issues and crises, both globally and locally.

CEOs have a crucial role to play in crisis readiness, response and recovery
 
In my current role counselling clients on contingency plans they hope won’t ever be activated, one thing often overlooked when assessing organizational “blind spots” is that the greatest exposure or vulnerability may come from third-party partners in the supply chain, where we have little control or visibility into their processes and protocols.
 
I was reminded of this when I saw a CBC News report about the COVID-19 outbreak at Cargill – a long-time supplier of beef patties for McDonald’s – in High River, AB. The numbers are staggering. As of last week, 1,545 cases have been linked to the Alberta plant, where nearly half of its 2,000 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
 
Cargill’s President John Keating, who is based in Kansas, was quoted in the CBC story saying: “If we need to feel the need to apologize, absolutely, we will apologize. We’re a very humble organization. We feel bad about what happened but at the same time we’re very confident in how we run our businesses, how we run our processes.”
 
If the most you can muster is saying you “feel bad” when two of your employees died, what does it say about your corporate culture? And how do you rebuild trust with a public already concerned about food safety?
 
At Argyle, when we train organizations in crisis communications, we stress the critical importance of the 3Rs: Regret, Reason and Remedy.
 
Not only is sincerity vital, saying how sorry you are (Regret) must be the first thing you do. Otherwise, everything you say sounds hollow and heartless.
 
Here are five steps to keep in mind when dealing with a crisis.
 
#1 Invest in relationships – before you need them
The best way to prevent a crisis is to build strong relationships and have that reputational capital “in the bank” to be able to recover from an incident or crisis.
 
If you are starting that relationship at the time of the crisis, it is too late.
 
For example, in an organization such as a processing plant, think of your relationships with journalists. Bringing reporters in for 101-briefing sessions and creating a baseline of understanding and access to technical experts helps support accurate reporting.
 
#2 Share a fact-based narrative…but understand you don’t control it
Storytelling is important in any communication, but in a crisis, it is crucial to get a clear, consistent articulation of what happened (Reason), who and what is affected and what you are doing (Remedy) to address the situation.
 
The tricky thing about narrative is the pressure put on communicators to ‘control the narrative’, something that is not always possible. Getting out first, with a clear, fact-based narrative, is certainly important. And if you have done the work to build reputation and relationships, that narrative is more likely to be perceived as credible.
 
But the fact is that communicators need to adapt to a developing narrative, correct inaccuracies and evolve the messaging to respond to new information as it arises.
 
#3 Respect the speed of social
There is a debate about whether social media has ‘revolutionized’ crisis communications or simply sped it up.
 
For example, Twitter isn’t just a ‘news source’ during a crisis. It has become how people prepare themselves to respond. It’s also become breeding ground for rumours and fake news, making it difficult for crisis communicators to cut through the noise and emotion.
 
Nevertheless, there are opportunities here as well. Even on Twitter, users tend to focus on legitimate news sites and sources – bolstering the need to have good relationships with media and reach out to them early to share information.
 
Social media strategies, prepared responses, understanding who will be the voice of the organization and making sure you use each social media platform appropriately (since each has a different dynamic and structure) will help manage the distortion on social media during the actual crisis.
 
Social is the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ You can use it to assess whether your messages are resonating, track emerging issues related to the crisis and leverage ongoing conversations with stakeholders.
 
#4 Apology is still KING
It’s not surprising that in Canada there is legislation that allows an organization to apologize without it being admissible in court as evidence.
 
Apology indicates that the organization accepts responsibility, which is crucial to audiences. Both you and they need that apology to move on. Apologies should be straightforward and simple. And they must be sincere. Without one, even if compensation and amends are offered, there can still be a loss of trust and reputation.
 
As Theodore Roosevelt famously declared: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Words to live by.
 
#5 Leadership Matters
Today, society expects more of its leaders, regardless of whether they come from business, not-for-profit, government or regulators. More often than not, the CEO is the face of the crisis, and people turn to those leaders to do just that: LEAD.
 
Today, we expect CEOs to take stands on issues of moral and ethical significance, and they are expected to show empathy and leadership in a crisis. As we detailed last month in the most recent Argyle Public Relationships Index, this significantly improves people’s relationships with organizations, brands and government.
 
A crisis is a time of uncertainty. Leadership can reduce that unpredictability, clarify meaning and provide information, comfort and reassurance. This starts with strong values, but also requires training and preparation to build capabilities, hone instincts and provide social and emotional context. Ultimately, CEOs need to understand that the public recognizes the inherent challenges of running complex organizations – particularly during a crisis.
 
People understand that the CEO’s job is hard. They appreciate that it is multifaceted. And they know you will not be perfect all the time. They would much rather you acknowledge the issue than hear: “We feel badly, but we’re very confident in how we run our business.”
 
 
About the author:
Louis Payette is a Director in Argyle’s corporate communications practice and a seasoned spokesperson and crisis communications trainer.

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