OK, so the you-know-what has hit the fan.

The CEO is agitated. The General Counsel has already called the outside law firm. C-suite leaders are whispering in the hallway.

You are in the first moments of a real crisis.

As a communications leader, what do you do?

I’ve worked for many years with leaders on challenging situations like lawsuits, regulatory actions, layoffs, acquisitions, divestitures, workplace violence and the 9/11 attack.

Every crisis is unique.

There is never a one-size-fits-all message or solution.

But there is always a one-size-fits-all risk: that you make the situation worse.

Don’t pour gasoline on the fire.

While sudden tragedies like workplace shootings are all too frequent, the vast majority of business crisis situations are smoldering issues that flare up like this:

1. Something wrong is happening
2. Someone knows about it and likely reports it
3. But no one takes action or stops the wrongdoing
4. The issue comes to light
5. A crisis bursts into flames

In those early hours of a crisis, such as an embarrassing lawsuit or regulatory action, leaders face extraordinary pressure to say or do something.

Colleagues want to hit back. Employees are stunned. Customers want answers. Social media posts get snarky. Reporters fire off urgent questions.

But unless you are spoiling for a fight and are prepared to deal with the reputational damage, it’s best to turn the temperature down during a dispute or crisis.

Shorten the lifecycle of the story.

Provide a statement that explains what happened, what it means to those involved, and what you are doing to resolve the issue.

Listen to your critics. Don’t be defensive. Look for ways to reconcile. Don’t start a fight and definitely don’t prolong one unnecessarily.

Above all, be truthful and be honest from the start. Telling the truth AFTER you’ve spent several days telling half-truths doesn’t earn you many fans.

One of my longtime mentors said it best. “Let’s just tell the truth. That way, we don’t have to remember what we told everybody.”

While truth-telling may not currently be fashionable, it is amazing how well it works.

It strengthens your credibility, maintains trust with employees, customers and the public, and likely allows you avoid prolonged litigation and regulatory scrutiny.

However, in the heat of the moment, the truth isn't always clear to those closest to the issue. That's where an outside communications advisor makes a difference. An outsider brings experience and should offer clear advice without emotional baggage. 

Telling the truth isn't always easy. But it’s a lot smarter than pouring gasoline on the fire.

See the previous blog post: Crisis and The First Law of Holes for how to prevent a crisis in the first place.