During the latter years of my corporate career, I sat squarely in the midst of some of the most significant crisis issues our company ever faced. These were complex, high-profile problems that left the Fortune 500 multinational heavily exposed to financial and reputational risk. The issues seemed impossible to contain – every day they appeared to grow bigger and affect more and more people and aspects of the company.
Today, we’re all crisis managers. We’re navigating the extraordinary and constantly changing circumstances of living with a pandemic, crashing financial markets, strained health systems, increasing job insecurity, and countless other issues. Life today can seem incredibly stressful, exhausting, and overwhelming.
Here are a few lessons I learned as a Corporate Crisis Communicator that might help.
1. It’s All About You. In order to hang in there through a crisis – any crisis – you have to take care of yourself. That’s why the airlines always remind us, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” For me, that meant daily meditation and journaling and yoga classes when I could. Even though my schedule was just insane, I always had time to do what every human can do: Breathe. The practice of breathing long and deep rewires the brain to move you from fight-or-flight mode into creative thinking. There is no crisis management without first calming your own nervous system. Deep breaths offer the quickest, easiest path to that state.
2. Know Your Facts. In order to be clear about what’s actually happening, it’s vital to hone your understanding of the difference between facts and opinions. Facts are grounded in data; they're provable. Opinions are judgments. Even if an opinion is stated forcefully, that will not make it a fact. It’s natural to feel fear in these uncertain times, but fear is also not a fact. (So, um, no, you probably don’t need all that toilet paper.)
3. Know That You Don’t Know – and That’s OK. There is so much information circulating right now, and this is a constantly developing situation. Stay curious, and stay humble. You don’t need to know everything. You only need to know what will allow you to make good decisions for you, your family, your team, your company. Trying to know everything will add to the overwhelm. Be disciplined and stay focused on what’s really important to you and the role you’re playing. As one of my colleagues used to say, Swim in your own lane. It will contribute to your peace of mind.
4. Go to the Source. Identify reliable sources for the information you need. Just as a reminder, reliable sources are not memes on social media. In a world of fake news and alternative facts, please do yourself the favor of getting your information from a source that you can name. If you receive unattributed information (i.e., there is no credible name attached to it), you would be wise to question its veracity. If you doubt whether the media or politicians will provide unvarnished facts, go to the original source. For example, if you want to know more about the pandemic, you can go to the World Health Organization. For more info on the vicissitudes of the stock market, you can call you broker. If you’re worried about food, you can write to your supermarket chain’s head office, or, as my Mom recently did, take a personal approach and ask to talk to the store manager.
5. Engage the Right Support. Have conversations about who can do what. In a crisis it can be very tempting to want to move quickly to action, which often means trying to do everything yourself. The action will be less stress-inducing and more effective if it accesses a broad talent base. That might mean getting a colleague to review your work-from-home plan, or it might mean asking your elder child to help the younger kid learn to wash her hands well. We’re all in this together, and making requests helps us stayed connected – which also builds resilience at a time when we need it most.
6. Don’t Lose Your Sense of Humor. I had wonderful corporate colleagues who, no matter what tempest was raging, managed to make me laugh. One of them had a Weimaraner, and he knew I loved those dogs. In the midst of a crisis, he would tell me a story about some crazy thing she had done or send me a picture of the dog, and it would leave me giggly and refreshed to get on with the gazillion tasks at hand. Laughter is remarkable medicine. Even in the midst of a crisis, there is always something to be grateful for and something to laugh at, and someone to laugh with.
Here’s a little joke to get you started: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Hatch. Hatch who? I sure hope you did that into your elbow!
7. Remember, It Won’t Always Be Like This. These wise words came to me from a dear friend when I was in the worst of the crisis mess. They calmed my heart and gave me space to recognize that I did have options – and that this, too, would pass.
Here you'll find some of my thoughts about communications, contemplation, yoga, life and various other topics. Thanks for giving them a read.