East Coast Quakes, Tweeting Disasters and “Thinking Like a Sociopath”: Crisis Guru Jordan-Meier Shares Timely Tips

Jane Jordan-Meier

Spotlight: Jane Jordan-Meier, Author, “The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management

Crisis preparedness requires strong scenario planning, believes crisis expert and author Jane Jordan-Meier, who is also a sought after public speaker and crisis consultant. In fact, she thinks Ian Mitroff, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, had it right when he coined the phrase, “Think like a sociopath, act like a saint.”

To be fully prepared, she explains in a recent blog post, organizations need to adopt the thinking of sociopaths—thinking like paranoids in order to come up with “unpalatable and unthinkable scenarios.” The more bizarre, the better, she says. She elaborates here—and shares her crisis expertise on everything from this week’s East Coast earthquake, to Tweeting during natural disasters and more:

How was this week’s East Coast earthquake a crisis-planning wake up call?

The reaction to this week’s earthquake on the East Coast is a timely reminder of how people react in a crisis in the absence of hard-core facts. In Stage One, people will take action based on what they know or perceive to be the true. For many, the shaking brought back memories of 9/11 as they thought that a bomb had exploded or there had been another terrorist attack.

What is the lesson behind that?

The big lesson is that perception = reality. People will make decisions based on their internalized reality, which may be very different to what has actually happened.

How did Twitter and social media play a role in the response to yesterday’s quake?

Yet again, Twitter showed its power as a real-time reporting tool with the earthquake triggering an outpouring of updates. With some cell phone services down, many people turned to Twitter and social media to check on friends and get updates about the quake. “Magnitude 5.8” and “#earthquake” were quickly trending on Twitter. A sample:

  • The Onion: Sources refuse to rule out #500footbinladen as cause of recent tremors. Story developing. #earthquake
  • DianeSawyer: Wow. Who felt that? #earthquake
  • Bethenny Frankel: I just felt the earth shake at lunch!
  • Kathy Griffin: Me on ph in my NYC hotel room “uh, I think we’re having an earthquake right now” My Mom “You’re nuts, it’s just windy” TIP IT!
  • Adam Levine: Happy to have been here for the most freakish earthquake Washington DC has ever seen….Ok. Even GOD is pissed off at Washington now….There’s something very “Roland Emericky” about all of this.

What crisis lesson comes out of that Twitter outpouring?

The lesson is that Twitter is the powerhouse in a crisis—and any organization without Twitter in its crisis plan is living in the dark ages. Be ready to react quickly, as that is where your stakeholders, clients and employees will be, not to mention the mainstream media crowdsourcing and taking real-time Tweets as fact.

Twitter is like the new police scanner. Ignore social media at your peril, because it has changed crisis communications forever. It’s faster and anything you do is global at a moment’s notice. You still must act and assume accountability, but now you just have to do it faster. Also, monitoring social media is incredibly important—even if you’re starting with simple tools like setting up Google Alerts for your brand or company. When crisis actually strikes, social media monitoring will also help you adjust your crisis response on the fly based on what you’re seeing via social channels. At minimum, a social media monitoring person needs to be in the situation room with you during a crisis, giving you live and breaking updates. Monitoring can range from more expensive social tools to doing things like following the right hashtags on Twitter when bad news breaks.

The market has been volatile  since the recent debt-crisis and S&P downgrade. What’s your take on that from a crisis standpoint?

The market drop that Thursday was systematic of the panic going on around the world. The White House underestimated the level of uncertainty and panic out there. Everybody is afraid that America is losing its grip and that the U.S. economy is threatened—so what happened triggered a meltdown. In large part, what we saw was political brinksmanship and that certainly drew a negative reaction from the public and markets. It represented everything that’s wrong with America. Nobody won. It was a lose-lose for America because there was no substantive tackling of the root causes of the problems the country is facing.

So how does that tie to crisis communications?

First, we heard negative, threatening, toxic language in the debt-crisis debate. If we get rid of negative language—and replaced it with positive language—the results will generally improve by fifty percent. That didn’t happen in this case.

So let’s start speaking in positive, active terms. Take out the toxic language, and remove spokespeople from the discussion who have problems with excessive testosterone, like John Boehner. People default to type in crises and the majority of people in Washington are guilty of toxic language.

In terms of where we are with regard to the debt-crisis fallout, I would say that we’re not out of the woods yet. The resolution stage of this larger crisis will be the election.

A recent Pillsbury-Winthrop-Shaw-Pittman LLP and Levick Strategic Communications crisis study found that though 60% of respondents said their companies have a crisis plan in place, just 29% felt very confident their organization would respond effectively if a crisis occurred. Does that worry you?

It is a problem. So is the fact that one thing that keeps CEOs awake at night is that they will likely face a digital crisis on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or elsewhere online. They are terrified about that—but the vast majority have no plan. I still see that worldwide. All I can say is that for every dollar you spend on crisis preparation now, you save $9 in response. That’s training, drilling, validating your crisis skills and testing that you can withstand a big hit. You do all that and you will save in the long run. If you don’t prepare, on the other hand, you have to throw money at the costs associated with loss of trust, loss of corporate stock value, loss of employees, and increased costs in recruiting because you now have a bad reputation.

So what do you do about it—how can we start to be more prepared?

There are some basic steps to take, including:

  1. First, realize that you are vulnerable. Realize that bad things happen to good people. There was a major bomb hoax in Sidney a few weeks back. The company involved likely never believed something like that would happen to them. They do real time monitoring—and were still unprepared for something of that nature. That is the sort of risk we face these days. And there are copycats everywhere. 
  2. Make scenario-planning part of your annual review—just like you do with fire or network drills. Use whatever already exists in your culture, like network or systems drills and attach crisis management planning to that. Do a regular evaluation of  your crisis plans—and add a list of possible scenarios and responses to it.
  3. Equip and empower the front line. Your security people, the receptionist, the boat captains—whoever it is, give them a media awareness training class. This way, they can all give a firsthand account of what happens when a crisis breaks out. I think the U.S. Coast Guard does a great job of this. We saw it when they dealt with the oil spill.  We need to see more of that in Corporate America.
  4. Know the end-game of any crisis—and base it on your values. For example, what is J&J’s mission and core values? Let’s assume it comes back to providing family friendly products. Well, they put those values on display when they withdrew Tylenol during the well-known poisoning case. They withdrew them all because they were not willing to put families at risk. Their end-game, then, was “when families are safe” and the only way to achieve that end-game was to pull all the product. So, think of what the end-game looks like in each possible crisis scenario—and make sure it is informed by, and supports, your  values.
  5. Have a plan in place—and start with assigning responsibility for this. Would you believe so few organizations have a workable “grab and go” plan? They may have a three-inch think “auditable” plan that gathers dust. Well, fix that now—and start by assigning some accountability around crisis plans at your organization. At its most basic, a plan needs to include all updated contacts and address the “5w’s and how” of any possible crisis situation. By that, I mean you should actually use the “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How” journalistic approach to mapping out your response and even messaging. For example:
  • What happened? In other words: What do we know, what are the facts—what triggered the crisis?
  • How did it happen? How did you go from good company to bad company? What caused the crisis to unfold? This is very much a second-stage question. The media, your employees, and the community will want to know this after the “What happened” questions is answered. You can craft this into your message. 
  • Where did this happen? Again, this involves facts around the unfolding crisis story, like the actual location of the incident, where it might move next, and so on. If it’s an online crisis, you’ll want to map out whether it broke out on Twitter first, and so on.
  • When did it happen? This involves breaking everything down in a specific timeline—the media, legal counsel and others will require this at some stage.
  • Who will be impacted? For example, who are the top five media that must be contacted? Who are the top ten organizations—civic, police enforcement and so on—that need to be called? Give someone primary for creating this list and updating it for each possible scenario.
  • Why did it happen? This is an important element of avoiding the blame game, which we’ve seen happen with the Murdoch scandal, the BP oil spill, the debt crisis and beyond—basically, everybody pointing their fingers and airing their dirty linen in public. Avoid that and take accountability. This can be a long investigative process, but you can avoid those questions if you can get out there and talk specifics about how you’re going to resolve this crisis situation with concrete actions.

What is your final crisis-planning tip?

This is a big one: Recognize that crises unfold in four stages—so you know where you are in the process at any given moment.

OK, what are those stages, which are covered in your book in greater detail?

It’s best to think about them through the metaphor of a “spotlight.” As a crisis unfolds, each stage is represented by where the spotlight—or attention around the crisis—is moving to next. So, that said, here are the stages:

  1. The Unfolding Drama Stage: In this stage, the spotlight beam is on the response itself.
  2. The Focus on Victims Stage: In this stage, the spotlight shifts to how quickly the company responded, etc. It focuses on your procedures, actions and the victims. This is where more drama comes out, experts start opining, and so on.
  3. The Blame Game Stage: This is where the spotlight becomes a glaring floodlight. Everybody has an opinion. Comedians are on TV making fun of the company. There is a lot of finger pointing and legal ramifications start piling up.
  4. The Resolution and Fallout Stage: This is where the product goes back on the shelf, the victim is rescued, or there is a funeral or parliamentary process in place. As soon as Weiner resigned, for example, it went away in this stage. With the News Corp. scandal, this will be when one of the Murdochs is arrested or resigns or there is a changing of the guard.  Then it will be resolved from the public’s POV. This is also the stage where you outline what you’re doing to resolve the issue.

In all of these stages, think about this: Someone on the crisis team will need to play devil’s advocate and be able to “pick the panic,” as I term it. This means you must pick out where the panic will come from at any given stage. Circling back to the “5W’s and H,” you’ll need to ask: “Where will the panic come from? Who will panic? Why will they panic? What will they panic about, etc.” If you can use that as a tool to plan your communications and messaging, you’ll have a leg up on the 40% of companies who don’t have a crisis plan in place.


~ Brian Pittman



1 Comment

  1. […] I guess you could say I am finding some vindication after reading a post and related Q&A with Jane Jordan-Meier, author of “The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis […]