The importance of managing perception when dealing with a crisis

When a crisis happens, whether it be with your products, your operations or some sort of disaster, the perception of how you respond is in many cases more important than your actions. Managing perception is important for your company’s reputation in the marketplace and for your reputation as a (potential) leader. In times of crisis, strengths as well as weaknesses are amplified and placed under intense scrutiny by onlookers both within and outside your organization.

Here are 6 tips to manage perceptions in times of crisis:

1. Communicate status predictably: The key to crisis communications is not frequency, it is predictability. Set a communication schedule and stick to it. Let stakeholders know when they can expect an update from you and where they can go for information in the meantime.  Unpredictable communication (or being late) conveys that the situation is out of control and entices stakeholders to get involved directly.  Regular communications increase their confidence in you as a leader and your team to manage the situation.

2. Set realistic expectations: In times of crisis, everyone wants the situation to be resolved as quickly as possible, but they also understand the need for due-diligence and that a quality resolution can’t be rushed. Set realistic expectations both on when resolution can be expected as well as the pace of progress.  If you think it will take longer, set expectations accordingly – its better to come in ahead of schedule than overrun.

3. Project control through calmness: your tone and demeanor play an essential role in managing the perception of whether the situation is under control or not. By projecting calm confidence in your interaction both with the team working on the issue and with stakeholders, you will be able to instill confidence in others as well.

4. Know your facts; You don’t need to be the technical expert on the issue, but it is important that you understand the big picture surrounding the crisis. At a minimum, this includes enough of the technical details to speak credibly, the business impact of the situation and how the impact will change over time, and the activities taking place to troubleshoot and resolve the issue.  If you don’t know what you are talking about, your audience will sense it and develop back-channels around you – potentially distracting team members who need to be focused on solving the problem.

5. Express a sense of urgency: Projecting calmness (as described above) does not preclude expressing a sense of urgency and importance surrounding the issue. The key is to strike a balance between projecting a sufficient degree of urgency to motivate without causing undue alarm.  Each situation will be different and this is one of the most difficult tricks to master.

6. Ask for help when needed: This is the single most important tip. Nobody expects you to carry the weight of the situation on yourself or to know everything. Understand what you know and what you are comfortable doing and seek the advice and assistance of others if needed. Remember that help can come from within the team, from management and even from customers and external stakeholders – they all want you to be successful in resolving the crisis.

Management and customers will remember how they felt during a crisis long after they have forgotten the details of what happened. By managing their perception, you have the chance to turn this time of crisis into a time of opportunity to demonstrate what you and your team are capable of.

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