Leadership and Crisis

In light of the horror of what happened at Virginia Tech last week, I thought it was an appropriate time to talk about how leaders handle crisis. It is one of the most important skills that can make or break leaders.


In light of the horror of what happened at Virginia Tech last week, I thought it was an appropriate time to talk about how leaders handle crisis. It is one of the most important skills that can make or break leaders.


Take Rudi Giuliani. The fact that he is even in the presidential race is all about how he handled the aftermath of 9/11. His presence, fast action, compassion and the appropriateness of his messaging drew people to him for information, support and understanding. Powerful leadership qualities, don’t you agree? Conversely, the way Bill Clinton handled the Lewinski affair almost tanked his otherwise fabulous eight-year run as president.

As I write this article, there’s a lot of speculation about how Virginia Tech handled the initial communication after the first shooting of the two people in the dormitory. Some say they did not follow their own crisis management plan. The University President supports the actions of his University’s police force. I imagine that with a catastrophe of this magnitude, it will take time to determine what went wrong. Ultimately, time will tell how the leadership fared in its aftermath. In the meantime, parents, students and people around the country are confused and sad. Some are angry, and some are bewildered. What we do know is that it is not just about having a crisis plan. It goes way beyond that. It’s about you, as leaders, being prepared for crises – big and small.

Let’s get down to basics.

What is a Crisis Management Plan?

A crisis management plan outlines the communications and operations procedures that need to be implemented in case an emergency occurs. The plan contains a series of action steps designed to create an organized, informed and confident management team, that keeps the public, media, staff and all your constituents knowledgeable about the situation on a timely basis. This confidence and control of the situation will be interpreted by the company’s various audiences in a way that shapes a positive public opinion about how the company has handled the crisis.


Communications procedures are implemented in conjunction with whatever operational procedures are determined necessary by the company, depending on the nature of the emergency/crisis.

Who should be involved in writing it?

A core group of key employees called the Emergency Management Team, who will be responsible for leading the organization through crisis, should be responsible for writing the plan.

This group will be the only contacts for all responses to the press, employees, guests and the general public.

This group will meet throughout the crisis and will be available at any time necessary to maintain control of the situation.

Membership includes:

  • President
  • Assistant VP (at least one)
  • Director of Security
  • Director of Human Resources
  • Director of Marketing
  • Director of Operations
  • Director of Public Relations

What do I do I when a crisis occurs? (Generally these steps are followed in order.)

1. Contact the Emergency Management Team and organize a meeting as soon as possible. If not all members can attend, determine the next best scenario – perhaps some can attend via conference call with the other members of the team.

2. Collect all the facts, i.e. who, what, when, where, why. Determine action steps already taken, and immediate plans to alleviate the crisis. Know what still needs to be determined – in other words, know what you don’t know, so that you are prepared to defer questions on the unknowns until later.

3. Complete a Crisis Evaluation Form.

4. Set up hotline and/or emergency communications systems as well as a Crisis Center.


5. Brief front-line employees verbally on the situation and what information can be communicated at that time.

6. Draft a Crisis Card, to distribute to the employees.

7. Draft a statement for all your constituents, informing them of the situation.

8. Gather all background materials on your organization, for possible distribution to the press.

9. Draft a statement for the press with all known information to date. Only the information contained in this statement is to be shared with the press.

10. Brief all remaining employees.


11. Distribute information to your constituents.

12. Set up mock interviews with your organization’s top two spokespeople to determine and practice appropriate responses to questions from the press.

13. Contact the press (arrange press conference and/or individual visits, set up phone interviews, fax information to key contacts, etc.).

14. Contact any appropriate public officials and agencies.

15. Keep an accurate log of all contacts made (calls, interviews, and meetings) during the crisis.

16. Keep copies of all statements made and releases distributed, noting exact date and time of release and distribution.


17. Gather the Emergency Management Team to meet and analyze results so far and determine next steps.

18. Monitor coverage of the story. Collect both print and broadcast coverage, so that you can correct any errors and can use the material to analyze public opinion and determine next steps.

19. Conduct periodic briefings with employees, constituents and press, as appropriate.

20. Crisis follow-up: recognition of key people, thank you notes, continued analysis of press coverage, gathering of feedback from key audiences employees, press, community), determination of next steps with regard to community image, guest and employee relations, etc.

Try This:

On a regular basis (at least once a year), conduct crisis training, to reinforce your crisis procedures. Include media training with role-plays of potential crisis scenarios that might occur, so they have a chance to figure out what they would do if these disasters would occur. Think of and prepare for the unthinkable.


One Last Thought:

Communication is the key – when, where, what, and who are all-important but the most critical, in my opinion, is the how. It is in the how that brought Mr. Giuliani to the presidential race and the how that made Mr. Clinton look foolish.

Grace Andrews • Executive Coach/Corporate Healer • President, Training By Design • Boston, MA • •