The Brief

Having worked over the last few months with some of the larger organisations in the world, both in the UK and internationally, it has been fascinating to reflect on the unique challenges presented to a “super-corporate” in delivering crisis management and crisis leadership at the top.

Naturally, one of the greatest challenges is in the management and transfer of information about the crisis. Quite rightly, it is filtered as it percolates up to senior leadership levels but any CEO worth his salt wants to get a feel for the reality “on the ground” and a true sense of what is happening. This is difficult to achieve from a report which has gone through several levels of review, filter and reduction and which may be given by another executive who is also not on the ground.

So a challenge is presented, not least because any CEO appearing in front of the world’s media is going to want – and need – to be armed not only with his facts and key messages but also to be able to demonstrate he genuinely knows and feels what it is like for those right at the heart of the crisis. Empathy is a difficult thing to achieve when you have only been presented with the “strategic issues” in a rather colourless fashion. Yet in crisis communications, it is something the media and public are looking for and can be so judgmental about.

For those at the lower levels of the organisation too, it is often a mystery just why, after putting together such a detailed brief or Situation Report (SITREP) and sending it up the chain, the boss then seems to want know more about what is really happening. The truth is that your great and concise briefing has probably been reduced to a few short sentences among a plethora of other strategic issues.

At the same time, the pendulum cannot swing the other way and CEO’s should not be flooded with information. Often I have to lift the executives’ eyes from the fires at their feet – but that desire for a real understanding of “ground truth” is a pervasive (and good) one.

So what does the CEO need? That is the essence of the problem. As part of crisis planning, the information requirements of the CMT need to be clearly understood – and their changing requirements over the course of an incident.

Here are a few key tips to try and ensure that enough of relevance reaches the top without releasing a tidal wave of information:

  1. Set out any update as just that; the key facts and highlighted changes to old news or data
  2. Create a meaningful and relevant “picture” of what is happening on the ground to allow quick understanding of the “story”
  3. Understand what are the facts that your higher management levels really need
  4. Allow your more junior staff or operational teams to sit in on senior team crisis training exercises to build up their understanding of what it is like “in the room” with the CEO. It is amazing how much you learn by simply hearing the boss speaking about what he needs
  5. Challenge yourself as to whether you could give a press conference using the material you are making available. If the answer is no, then look at what you would want to feel comfortable
  6. Understand what it is that the public and media like to hear as well – it will allow you to identify what matters and include it as part of the brief.

There is much more to be discussed on the topic of briefing the top team and managing the information flow upwards in a crisis – and we have not even started on the downwards flow – so watch this space in 2014 as I develop the theme!