Collectively, we’ve spent nearly more than thirty years in the public relations industry, where dealing with crises is par for the course. In fact, in a recent study, PR executive was ranked the 5th most stressful career behind commercial airline pilot, firefighter, military general and enlisted military personnel. Hard to believe that we’d rank amongst jobs that literally have the lives of others in their hands but, as we say in our profession, we’re “paid to be paranoid.” In our book, , Be Your Own Best Publicist: How to Use PR Techniques to Get Noticed, Hired and Rewarded at Work,we dedicate an entire chapter to crisis management.
The truth is, we all face difficult situations at work but not everyone knows how to handle them. Often people let mistakes and crises cripple — even paralyze — them, but bouncing back from roadblocks in your career is not as daunting as you might think. We really believe that every crisis is an opportunity. Most errors are reversible, and it’s important to remember that how you respond in tough times shows who you are as a person as much, if not more, than how you are in good times.
Need some guidelines? Here are a few tips for how to handle your next crisis:
#1: Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst.
- Go with your gut. When you see a red flag, pay attention. How many times in life have you kicked yourself for not listening to that little voice in your head that says, “Something is wrong here”?
- Have a plan and a back-up plan. In PR, we try to lay out a strategy and do our best to identify potential pitfalls and problems on the horizon. While we may not always be able to predict what’s coming our way, by doing the exercise and putting a solid plan on paper, you’ll be prepared to deal with it if the issue ever sees the light of the day.
#2: Be a Problem Solver.
- Stay calm. In a crisis, people tend to get anxious. Maintaining a sense of Zen will not only allow you to think more clearly but will also set the tone for those around you.
- Get focused. You want to quickly assess the damage and determine how to move forward.
- Find a solution. Next, you need to figure out how to address and remedy the situation. Start by considering your end game — what’s the ultimate outcome you’d like to see? — and work backwards from there.
#3: Own up.
- Take responsibility. If you screwed up, don’t make excuses — just apologize for any misstep, miscommunication or oversight on your part.
- Be authentic. People can tell whether you mean what you say. For instance, when Netflix changed its business model in 2011 and consumers and shareholders balked, CEO Reed Hastings made an awkward video where he basically apologized for not explaining the company’s change well enough to customers, not actually for the bad judgment in doing it in the first place. His misdirected apology backfired and he lost credibility and respect as a result. On the other hand, when JetBlue cancelled 1,000 flights in 2007 when an ice storm crippled its operations. Instead of blaming the weather, then CEO David Neeleman made a public apology detailing what they would do to make it right with their customers.
#4: Control the Damage, Clean Up the Mess.
- Act quickly. Don’t let a small mistake linger and turn into a bigger one. That’s not to say you should simply be reactive, but i f you know you did something wrong, deal with it right away. Say, for example, you stuck your foot in your mouth during an important business meeting and inadvertently offended your boss or a client. Acknowledge the gaffe, apologize and try to move on without beating yourself up. Remember what Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
#5: Keep Things in Perspective.
- Learn and let it go. Often when we mess up, we tend to be hard on ourselves or overanalyze an error, reliving the mistake over and over. But rarely will the crises we deal with be life or death so it’s important to be able to step back and take a 10,000 foot view of the situation and its long-term effects.
- Everybody loves a comeback. In most cases, if you fix a problem quickly and show that you can move past it, others will be able to as well. Our society likes nothing more than a survivor story (see Martha Stewart, Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey, Jr., etc.), so respond smartly and swiftly so you can recover.
#6: Turn Trouble into Triumph.
- Make that lemonade: When you’re going through (or almost on the other side of) a crisis, look for the silver lining. Get into an argument with someone? Perhaps it opened up a new dialogue that wasn’t previously possible. Did you stumble and fall (either literally or figuratively)? Learn to laugh at yourself, find the humor or lesson in whatever the situation.
#7: Fail Forward.
- Find the lesson. Our favorite interview question is “Tell me about a time when you failed, how you dealt with it and what you learned.” The answer will broadcast how someone handles a crisis and whether the experience made him or her more effective at work or in life.
- Join the club. Nearly every successful person – from Steve Jobs to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Oprah Winfrey – has been fired from a job. Nearly every inventor has failed at something before they made it big. For example, a scientist at 3M was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive but instead created a weak glue that didn’t leave residue. Because his experiment failed, his error led to one of the most successful inventions ever (who doesn’t love a Post-it?).
- Lead by example. What you learn from failure helps you identify new ways of doing things and allows you to grow and become a better manager and leader.
So, next time there’s that misstep, mistake or misunderstanding, remember to take a deep breath and be your own best publicist by remaining calm, seeking the solution and seeing the challenge as an opportunity to lead and learn.