Leading Through Crisis

Posted in: PSA Partnership


Rob Weinhold, founder and CEO of the Fallston Group, an executive advisory firm focused on reputation management, led one of our recent PSA Partnership events.

During his presentation, Weinhold asserted that how you and your company react to a public crisis can determine whether you save or lose time, money, customers, and even your career. Controlling those outcomes comes down to how well you and your team have trained to respond to crises. Successful businesses, Weinhold said, know they have to build “organizational muscle memory” so that, when a crisis hits, the reaction is automatically a smart, well-thought-out one.

Weinhold’s lively and entertaining talk centered around the notion of how businesses and individuals respond to public crises. “Life doesn’t always go as planned — is that a secret to anybody?” Weinhold asked. “That’s our theme today: when it doesn’t, what do we do?”

From experience, wisdom

Weinhold began his career as a police officer in Baltimore City. When his partner was shot in the line of duty, Weinhold said, the entire emergency response system — the police officer nearby, the paramedics, the doctors and nurses at Shock Trauma — responded quickly and efficiently to save his partner’s life.

“Everybody had to work together,” Weinhold said. That lesson served Weinhold well in his subsequent roles as police spokesman, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; Director of Public Affairs, Policy and Research for the [Maryland] Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention; and Vice President of Amateur Baseball for Ripken Baseball.

The power of negative PR

During his presentation at PSA, Weinhold demonstrated the powerful effects of negative PR by mentioning brands with recent struggles including Volkswagen, BP, the NFL, FIFA, Livestrong, and the City of Baltimore. In every case, the organization’s leadership made a crisis worse by making initial missteps in providing information to the public.

Indeed, business news headlines from any given year offer a daunting list of potential public crises, including natural disasters, cyber attacks, protests, rogue employees, false allegations, workplace violence, and other organizational misdeeds.

“If you haven’t had it,” Weinhold said, “you will have it.”

According to the Institute for Crisis Management, public crises are “sudden” 25 percent of the time — executives at the affected company were not aware of the issue at hand before it became public. For the other 75 percent of the time, issues were “smoldering” — executives did know about them beforehand.

Tell your story

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” Weinhold explained further. “And when someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told.” In order to get that story told, executives and other leaders should consider going through training for how to handle each of the following (in ascending level of difficulty):

  • Written interview
  • Broadcast interview
  • Broadcast live interview
  • Broadcast live interview discussing bad news

A general paradigm in public relations is that, at any given moment, 15 percent of people love you, 15 percent can’t be pleased, and the other 70 percent are up for grabs, said Weinhold. When a company faces a moment of crisis, you have an opportunity to win over those 70 percent. An important set of PR rules centers on being ready and able to answer the following questions as clearly and quickly as possible:

  • What happened?
  • What caused it?
  • What are the effects?
  • What’s being done about it?
  • What needs to be done in the future?

“Open, honest communications will save you a lot of problems,” Weinhold emphasized.

All seminar attendees were provided with an uninflated balloon, which at the close of his talk, Weinhold had everyone blow up and keep bouncing in the air for about a minute. Meanwhile, additional balloons were unexpectedly thrown at the audience. When the excitement was over, the crowd had let a large number of balloons hit the floor.

“Metaphorically speaking, and in an organizational and practical sense, you need to create muscle memory,” Weinhold explained the purpose of the balloon exercise. In other words, in order to handle unexpected crisis in addition to managing your daily issues, being prepared by working together to have a crisis management plan helps improve outcomes in difficult public relations situations.

Register for our June Partnership event, Total Leadership, which will feature Wharton School professor, best-selling author and SiriusXM radio host Stew Friedman. Learn more.

Since 2009, Fallston Group has provided clients with training and support for strategic communications and media, crisis and issue management, and safety and security. Rob Weinhold’s book, The Art of Crisis Leadership with Kevin Cowherd, arrives in bookstores in May.


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