The Beat

Crisis Leadership is Different than Crisis Management

Baker Public Relations recently attended a workshop on crisis leadership, sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America – Capital Region Chapter. A main takeaway from the presenters is that crisis leadership is difficult, and it differs from crisis management in its focus. Management is guided by protocols and standardized methods. Leaders are guided by principles and values. In short, managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.

For a leader to effectively handle a crisis, there are six tasks they need to complete. The first is Sense Making. Leaders are expected to provide an authoritative account of what is going on and what needs to be done. They must get others to accept their definition of the situation. The next is Deciding. Leaders need to make critical calls and develop a coherent plan to implement those decisions. Whereas managers might see a crisis as a threat to be mitigated, leaders often see a crisis as an opportunity. They may ask themselves, “How can we use the attention we are getting in a positive way?”

The third task for a leader in a crisis situation is Meaning Making. Leaders need to articulate what is at stake in the crisis. They must give meaning to the crisis in a way that enhances and justifies their response efforts. Next comes the Ending. Crises fall into two categories: Fast-Burning and Long-Shadow. In a fast-burning crisis, it’s easier to define how to wrap up the crisis response and resume normalcy. This can be much more delicate in a long-shadow crisis. Timing is everything and an effective leader will know when to cease strategic and operational crisis responses.

Following a crisis, it is vital that Leaning & Accounting take place. Leaders must review the decision-making process with their team, and describe when and why key decisions were made. Reviewing the process to find what went right and wrong will inform the next step, which is Preparing. Use the lessons gleamed from the crisis response to update the standardized crisis plan.

Every company will face a crisis at some point, big or small, fast-burning or long-shadow. In many cases, the crisis response is remembered just as well as the crisis itself. Just as valuable as being prepared for a crisis is having a leader that can make the right decisions, and empower their staff to take on leadership qualities when a crisis occurs. In order to get credit for doing the right thing, you must do the right thing, no matter how difficult that may be.


Recommended reading:

The Politics of Crisis Leadership: Public Leadership Under Pressure
Arjen Boin, Paul’t Hart, Eric Stern, Bengt Sundelius