Once upon a time, preparing for a crisis meant training a spokesperson about how to talk about a building on fire. At the same time, an explosion at a plant was the first example given when asked about a crisis handled relatively well. We were called into duty because of something so obviously wrong as an airplane skidding off the runway.
Today, crisis lurks around every corner and more often, it can involve issues in relatively small organizations that explode into public view. It can be a workplace where whispers of bad behavior turn into sirens. With social media, every business, every nonprofit organization, every educational institution, pretty much everywhere has to be equipped to deal with conflict or controversy that can affect livelihoods, even lives.
That’s among the takeaways of a book out this year from disaster management expert Juliette Kayyem called “The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning To Live In An Age of Disasters.” Her premise is that crises are more common and we should act as if they are here to stay. The question isn’t if you’ll be affected, but when, by as something as large scale as the next pandemic, the next power grid failure or as relatively contained as the next time your workplace gets unwelcome attention.
In the book, she writes “…we must all consider ourselves disaster managers: the CEO and government leader, the teacher and student, the small business owner and the middle manager, the mom and dad… We must accept this fact, the stars are misaligned, and position ourselves with the tools and skills to be better prepared to the events as they come.”
Kayyem’s experiences in disaster management often mirror ours in crisis communications counsel. One phenomenon that we have both experienced is leadership that is unwilling or unable to admit a crisis is underway. She writes “‘Get your head around it’ is my simple five-word refrain to wake the hell up. In a real-world scenario, nobody is going to have much patience for your explaining that what is happening couldn’t possibly be happening. It is happening. Get your head around it.”
Since March of 2020, we have dealt with scenarios that would have previously seemed unimaginable. Adhering to the fundamentals, via the prism of the new situation, allowed us to help clients navigate successfully. Kayyem argues that your level of experience takes you most of the way, but only takes you so far. She writes “In changing times…we can never be too confident. Confidence may be a good attribute for a leader, but not for a crisis manager. It leads to laziness, a sense that ‘we’ve got this.’ We can learn from history but be prepared for a different dance next time.”
Right now, the devil is awake and could be eyeing where you work. You can’t say you didn’t have warning.