3 Steps To Prevent ‘Drowning’ During A Crisis

It’s awkward to catch yourself staring at the wreckage of a media relations crisis.

All you have to do is look at a television newscast, read a newspaper or browse a social media channel to see someone who’s being criticized, chastised or lambasted for an opinion, action or belief. It’s similar to slowly driving by an accident while in the comfort and safety of your own vehicle.

Flickr Photograph By www.audio-luci-store.it

Flickr Photograph By http://www.audio-luci-store.it

Scenarios and actions are similar:

  • Leaders weren’t prepared or equipped to handle the situation.
  • They’re unable to properly act, answer questions and communicate.
  • There’s a lack of trust in the leadership, the team, advisers and, possibly, the crisis media relations experts they’ve assembled.

It’s heartbreaking because those of us experienced in crisis media relations can immediately identify ways to help them.

There’s an amazing parallel between helping an organization in a media relations crisis and a safety drill that’s required to complete SCUBA diving certification. In fact, the drill was one of my most lasting SCUBA diving memories.

When someone faces the possibility of death by drowning while SCUBA diving, the greatest act of self-giving you can provide is your air source.

When you’re 40-feet below the ocean’s surface and the person you’re paired with gives you a signal that they don’t have air, you immediately take a breath of the compressed air from your tank and give your buddy YOUR air source. Then, you calmly reach behind your tank, grasp your alternate air source, and begin breathing.

Divers practice rescue breathing. Photograph By TauchSport_Steininger

Divers practice rescue breathing.
Photograph By TauchSport_Steininger

There’s no time for judgment, problem solving or finger pointing. Your buddy needs air to live. You have the resource your buddy needs and you provide it as quickly and calmly as possible. Then, you slowly return to the surface. A rapid return to the surface can result in decompression sickness.

When first learning this emergency procedure, one can panic if the back-up air source can’t be located when reaching for it. You can’t ask for your buddy to return your primary air source. It’s not productive for both of you to fight over the air source because no one’s going to win that battle. You need to be patient and confident as you provide air and restore a sense of control and calm.

Parallels of Drowning, Facing A Crisis

When considering the 24-hour news cycle and the exponential spread and growth of bad news through social media, a crisis for your organization can be similar to drowning while diving–you find yourself 100 feet below the surface, unable to communicate, and on the verge of panic. However, SCUBA divers train and prepare for a number of situations they might confront while under water and not able to rapidly return to the surface.

Flickr Photograph By Jose Kevo

Flickr Photograph By Jose Kevo

Preparation: Just as divers must prepare for problems before jumping in the water, leaders must make crisis management an integral part of their communications strategy and toolkit.

Leaders must frequently communicate with all stakeholders and remind them of the importance of two-way communication, organizational integrity, and the all of the elements that contribute to trust in the organization and its people. When facing a crisis, all team members must know their roles and responsibilities. Here are some starter questions:

  • Who is in charge?
  • Who is handling media inquiries?
  • What’s the approval process for statements to the media, talking points, social media posts or other communication tactics?
  • What’s the expectation for responding to media inquiries with regard to timeliness and prioritization?
  • Who is the spokesperson?
Flickr Photograph By Charles Atkeison

Flickr Photograph By Charles Atkeison

Practice: Divers must demonstrate their ability to perform various rescue techniques to become certified. By demonstrating their ability to execute a crisis plan, leaders show their commitment to the overall concept, along with specific processes and procedures. Leaders can model confidence and competence so others throughout the organization will understand and accept the importance of the drill. This can be accomplished during an annual planning conference, a staff meeting or a similarly appropriate time where key leaders and stakeholders can learn or review fundamental concepts.

Perform: When your organization faces a crisis—and it’s inevitable that some human being connected with your organization is going to make a mistake, an error in judgment or an intentional and inappropriate action—your leaders must be ready to quickly and effectively respond. Leaders can’t troubleshoot all scenarios. But developing and adopting a crisis plan will provide your organization with some ability to manage many situations.

Your Next Step

Jonathan Mueller, one of my SCUBA buddies in 2009. Photograph by Joe Mueller

Jonathan Mueller, one of my SCUBA buddies, in 2009.
Photograph by Joe Mueller

Would you want to shop for help during a crisis? Or, would you rather have a relationship with someone you know and trust beforehand?

Most organizations don’t think twice about regularly allocating and spending resources for legal, engineering, accounting or management expertise. Why would they be reluctant to make a commitment or invest in public relations or communications counsel when a crisis could cause serious or irreparable harm?

Leaders must be good stewards of their organization’s resources. Leaders must constantly survey the landscape, provide for their employees and stakeholders, and protect them from harm.

It’s my sincere hope for all organizations that if they suddenly find themselves–figuratively–struggling to breathe, in deep water and without a trusted source for air, they will know how to survive.


2 responses

  1. Thank you for the informative article, Joe! I’m taking public relations classes in graduate school and often we talk about how to handle crisis. However, it can be often hard to visualize what a crisis would actually look like without simulating or actually being in one. The SCUBA analogy that you gave really helped me understand what needs to be done in anticipation of and during a crisis. Thanks again for a great read!

    1. Thanks, Sabrina! Best of luck with all of your graduate work. Please feel free to contact me if I can ever be of any assistance.

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