Amme: You can be a survivor

Facing an organizational crisis head-on is the best way to survive and thrive

When your organization is in deep trouble, you feel like you can’t breathe. You wonder whether you’ll survive. Yet sometimes you can triumph and even regain glory. A case in point is the following story, in which the client’s identity is protected.

My pager went off one Saturday morning. The chief executive of an organization called me because his institution was in big trouble. Suspected negligence by an employee had accidentally resulted in the death of a child. News media from three states had been hammering the story for three weeks. When a child dies on your watch, reporters should be aggressive. But as reporters kept asking questions, the organization’s basic response was, “No comment.” The public assumed the institution was guilty.

After briefing me on the facts, the board chairman took me to lunch and noticed the faraway look in my eyes. I was nervous. Company mistakes, product recalls, management shuffles, layoffs, fires and the like are one thing. But when a child is dead and your client is involved, the situation is more serious.

Resolving the crisis was not easy, but here is how that institution slowly restored its reputation.

It invited respected third parties from other states to investigate operations and retrain staff. Third-party oversight is important. The public is not inclined to trust you to investigate or improve yourself after an awful mistake. Respected third parties bring objectivity, expertise and credibility. Their good reputation is a surrogate while you painstakingly re-establish your own.

The client invited news media representatives to listen when he unveiled his plans for investigation and repair. Because a couple of reporters were especially aggressive, the client later chose to avoid news conferences. We knew the hostile journalists would drive the rest of the reporters in an unhelpful way. So the chief executive officer spent hours meeting with all media representatives individually.

This resulted in stories that followed a bell curve. A few were nasty. A few were as glowing as if we had written them ourselves. Most fell somewhere in the middle and were fair. The news heat subsided as headlines appeared announcing operational improvements.

By working with regulators, the institution gradually won the necessary approvals to reopen. The former employee implicated in the child’s death was found not guilty in court. Bit by bit, the organization returned to its previous footing.

How are things today? The institution is no longer publicly linked to the name of a dead child. This year, almost a decade later, leaders and staff members at the organization have won honors: a gold seal of approval for quality and safety and an award for excellence in performance management.

Yes, sometimes you can survive a dreadful event if you persist in doing what is right. And you can breathe again.

Amme is president of Amme and Associates, a media and crisis management company in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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