Davia Temin, Forbes, August 12, 2010

What happens after the crisis dies down?

What happens to crisis survivors like AIG , Goldman Sachs , Toyota , FEMA or Greece after they fall out of the headlines–or the next big crisis pushes them out? Is it just business as usual? Do their boards, the public, the press and the government just forget about it all?

Well, sort of yes, sort of no. Corporate crisis survivors do limp back into play, in the shadows of the limelight. Toyota is clearly still selling cars (on sale, by the way). AIG is still in business writing policies (after closing its Financial Products unit), Goldman Sachs is still advising corporate America and the world (though its stock price is down significantly). And, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that BP , now that the well is capped, will not only still be selling gas, but it will return to “beyond petroleum” as a tagline (although with a new CEO and possibly a restructured board.)

Yet the tarnish remains on their brands–doubts linger. Some people will still choose a Nissan over a Toyota for safety reasons, some municipalities will still choose JP Morgan over Goldman to issue their bonds due to ethics concerns. And, faced with a choice, many will still buy any brand of gas other than BP for a long time to come.

What can organizations do to accelerate the rehabilitation of their reputations? After 25 years in the business of crisis management and reputation rehab, I’m not sure there is a kind of crisis I have not dealt with. And always, always, the seeds of eventual rehab are sown in how well the organization handles the crisis in the first place.

Now I am not talking about crisis management 101–be totally transparent all the time, put your CEO out front and center, even when you don’t know the dimensions of the crisis, etc. That’s for baby crises, and we all know they do not work for the biggies. I’m talking about crisis management 1001–and those rules are different, more subtle, more powerful, more resonant.

People watch and remember how you handle yourself under stress, and long after the details fade, they remember the effect. Did you lie? Did you snicker? Did you show your human compassion for the victims? Did you act quickly and correctly? Did you keep putting in fixes long after you had to? Did you walk the talk? Did you follow through on your promises to “make it right?” Did you not do it again?

These answers determine your reputation going forward.

Most important of all–in any crisis–is to short-circuit denial! It’s a human trait when disaster strikes to go straight into “this can not possibly be happening to me.” Or “if it is happening, it can not be that bad.” Or, “even if it IS that bad, no one will ever notice…” The more quickly you move beyond this denial, the more quickly you can put in the right fixes … and that makes all the difference to how the crisis will unfold, and how you will be remembered.
So, here are, straight out of my client letter, and out of my well of 125 hard-learned lessons of crisis management and recovery, 13 of the most important ones.

1. Just because you may have gotten away with something before–or know of others who have–do not assume that you will do so now. Assume that–eventually–all will be known, and design your actions accordingly.

2. Control your emotions. Just when your emotions will be going wild, you must conquer them and think strategically and smartly.

3. Keep your eyes on the outside. You will be tempted to withdraw into your inner world, but keep focused on the exterior reaction. You’ll make better decisions and it could help privately as well.

4. Move quickly to assess the situation and damage, and to not only publically strike the right note, but to start doing the right things.

5. Figure out what the right note–message, tone, words, delivery mechanism–is.

6. Never make a public denial when it’s a lie–there is no better way to be hated.

7. Each crisis is different–the particulars matter. So never just copy the responses of others, though you can learn from those who have done it well.

8. Limit your liability–but not your humanity–in how you respond to a situation.

9. Use the opportunity to reset your moral compass (i.e., listen to your lawyers, but not to the exclusion of your conscience).

10. If you must, take your medicine–apologize, make reparations–and then put in lasting, game-changing solutions.

11. Become a visible and real part of the solution–no matter what it takes.

12. Begin to be identified with best cases, so that your own “worst case” is forgotten over time.

13. Never, ever, ever make the same mistake again.

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