Leading effectively during a crisis is one of the toughest tests for a CEO and a communications leader. My friend and mentor Gary Sheffer, longtime Chief Communications Officer at GE, used to say that, “Crisis is when we communicators earn our keep.”

Gary is right. Communicators work extremely hard and get lots of attention during a crisis. Sometimes accolades follow.

But communicators really earn their keep (and fewer accolades) when they prevent crisis situations. That’s why I’m a big believer in The First Law of Holes.

So, you ask, what is The First Law of Holes? Simply put, when you are in a hole, stop digging.

I first started using this at home when our kids were teenagers. It usually started like this: one of them would start a doomed debate with Mom about the issue of the instant. Their voice would rise. I would chime in to ask, “Do you remember The First Law of Holes?”

They would scowl, and demand to know what I was talking about. Eventually, they caught on.

When you’re in an untenable position, stop.

It also applies to businesses. It’s important for business leaders and communicators to understand this harsh reality: most crisis situations are what the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM) calls “smoldering issues.” For years, their research shows that about 75% of crisis stories are about:

  • Discrimination
  • Mismanagement 
  • White collar crime
  • Consumerism
  • Defects
  • Recalls
  • Labor disputes
  • Executive dismissals
  • Class actions

In these smoldering situations, people—likely many of them—are aware of the problem. But no one takes action to fix it. Then a lawsuit, regulatory inquiry, news report or a whistleblower gives oxygen to the embers, and flames erupt. At that point, your business is in a full-blown crisis.

It isn’t a surprise. The business is in a hole it dug by failing to heed The First Law of Holes.

The communications leader often has to speak up about the holes that the company is digging. It’s tough duty because no one wants to be perceived as a nattering nabob of negativism who is always pointing out potential problems. Assuring the team that everything will be fine is an easier path to popularity with senior executives and peers, but it allows the holes to keep getting deeper.

Communications leaders must have the courage to address potential crisis situations with their business leaders. Stop delivering defective products. Deal with poorly performing or abusive executives. Treat customers and employees fairly.

The best way to avoid digging yourself into a crisis is to address issues before they drag your business down.

It all starts by remembering The First Law of Holes.