Things Don’t Always Go According to Plan. Here’s What to Do When They Don’t.
When a minor incident becomes a full-blown crisis, professionals in multiple industries call John Leon. A respected attorney known for his expertise in healthcare and corporate crisis management, John answered our crisis-related questions, including how startups with limited budgets should proceed.
Connecticut Innovations: Thanks for talking to us, John. Should the CEO always be the one to respond in a crisis?
John Leon: Ideally, yes. Strong leadership starts from the top, and everyone will be looking to the CEO for clarification and guidance. A company’s investors and employees will need assurance that everything is being effectively managed. A company’s customers will need to see and hear that the business can weather the situation.
CI: At what point does the company need to consult with an attorney or public relations firm?
JL: It’s important for corporations to have a corporate lawyer who can help establish protocols that can identify potential issues before they arise. If the company is a startup, it’s really up to a competent manager or leader to recognize whether an employee, a situation, an incident or something in the operation has the potential to escalate. The ability to anticipate worst-case scenarios is vital. If a situation does progress, it might be necessary to consult legal counsel and a communications expert who know how to deal with a crisis. Big or small, many companies are not trained in how to manage a crisis, so it’s in their best interest to seek help at the earliest possible time. I get called in at the very early stages before things escalate. Part of what I do is see if all parties can reach an agreement without taking things too far.
CI: How can startups with limited budgets get the appropriate media training/legal representation?
JL: The wisest course of action is always prevention. Companies need to stay on top of their responsibilities to their employees and customers, and in how they operate. Those are the areas where most crises begin. Investing in training to prevent crises from starting is the best course of action. But when a crisis arises, unfortunately, as with all company expenditures, it may have to come down to costs in the long run: what the company can or cannot afford to spend or lose if the issue reaches the litigation stage.
CI: Are there steps you should follow when a crisis hits?
JL: Gathering information is the first step. Make sure you have all the facts and that you can see how all the components connect; also that you understand the sequence of events and the timeline of how you got to this point. That’s the best way to make an assessment of where you are and where you might be headed. The next step is to project all the scenarios from best case to worst. And then you need to make a strategic crisis management plan.
CI: Should you respond to social media comments about the crisis? Talk to every reporter?
JL: I firmly advise against immediate reactions and statements without first going through the steps I just listed, especially on social media. Early on, emotions may run high, and there is a risk that your stance will come off as defensive, deflective or even disingenuous. Wait until you’re sure of your official statement per your crisis management plan before responding.
CI: What is the biggest mistake you see startups making when it comes to crisis management?
JL: There are many ways you can make a mistake that just escalates the situation. All of them usually arise from heated reactions. It’s natural for someone to react defensively when attacked or provoked. But that’s exactly what you don’t want to do. You want to maintain a cool head so you can proceed sensibly and not resort to diminishing the event, being argumentative, deflecting blame or looking like you’re covering up.
CI: Thanks, John.
JL: My pleasure.