In a Crisis, Look Up, Not Down

A crisis can be all-consuming, but it pays to look up to see where you need to go instead of down where you are stuck in the mud. Your reputation will be glad you lifted your eyes.

A crisis can be all-consuming, but it pays to look up to see where you need to go instead of down where you are stuck in the mud. Your reputation will be glad you lifted your eyes.

On a crisp weekend night with a big, brilliant full moon, I told my dog to look up and quit sniffing the ground. As I thought about it, that would be good advice for organizations steeped in crisis.

A major event is by its nature disruptive. A crisis by its nature means you have little control over the disruption. But life goes on. And so do the everyday functions of organizations. So instead of being tangled in the weeds of a crisis, look up and see some sunlight.

This is not to say you can ignore a crisis. On the contrary, looking beyond the crisis can give you the perspective to see where you want to go, which can provide the motivation for doing what’s necessary to get there.

A crisis can become all-consuming. You can ignore daily operations, You can isolate yourself from employees and customers. You can lose track of your brand reputation.

The best crisis response is one that seeks to enhance a brand reputation, not jeopardize it by focusing on the burning tree instead of the lush forest. So here is some friendly advice if you are facing or may face a crisis:

  • Do your best to normalize the daily operations of your enterprise that are not directly involved in the crisis. Let your employees, customers and stakeholders know what you are doing to address the crisis, but encourage everyone to do their job as they normally would. Getting back to normal helps to ease anxiety of employees and customers – and your anxiety, too. You can stop worrying about the entire operation going down the drain while your attention is focused on coping with crisis.
  • Let your brand reputation, which should be the same as your brand promise, guide your crisis response. Act based on the values you embrace as an organization. This will simplify decision-making and lend credibility, externally and internally, to your actions. But beware, walking your talk has to be genuine. A halfhearted or fake value-driven response is easily sniffed out, and then you will face the crisis of a coverup or whitewash, which could do more repetitional damage than the crisis itself.
  • Keep your employees and key stakeholders apprised of what you plan to do. Don’t let them read about it in the newspaper or see it on TV. Your employees and key stakeholders must be treated as partners in quelling the crisis, which will build greater loyalty and trust. Employees often are the most trusted sources of information about the internal workings of an organization. If they say you did what you said you would do, that counts for a lot.
  • Direct your crisis response to the people, neighborhoods, communities or consumers most impacted by the crisis. If there is an explosion that sends a cloud of toxic gas over a neighborhood, focus first on communicating with that neighborhood, then make broader pronouncements. Avoid scapegoating. Own the crisis, even if you didn’t cause it. People will remember what you did and said longer than who or what caused the crisis.
  • As quickly as you can, look for a solution that prevents a recurrence of whatever caused the crisis. Don’t set your sights too low. Johnson & Johnson came up with tamper-proof bottles six weeks after cyanide-laced Tylenol killed six people in Chicago. In just six weeks, the pharmaceutical company came up with an idea that revolutionize over-the-counter drug sales and markedly improved public safety. Your idea may not be as big or revolutionary, but it still can be a game-changer and loyalty-builder.

Don’t be like my dog and only smell the bushes. Look up and see the sky. That will improve your odds of putting your crisis into perspective and seeing the way to deal with it effectively and enhanced your reputation in the process.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.