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Executing Crisis: A C-Suite Crisis Leadership Survival Guide

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Business leaders would be better served by understanding key crisis concepts and applying them to their own situation rather than relying on crisis advisors to swoop in to take care of a problem once it has become a crisis.


Loaded with Case Studies!

How leaders deal with crisis can clarify character and strengthen reputation. On the other hand, the wrong words and actions from the C-Suite can worsen the crisis spiral. Crisis management does not begin on the day the fire erupts, the hurricane barrels through, or the accident happens. Dr. Jo Robertson, a leading expert in heading off and containing crisis, lays out the key concepts that business leaders need to apply to their own organizations so they don’t have to rely on outside crisis advisors to swoop in and save the day.

2019, 200 pages.

ePub ISBN 978-1-944480-63-9

PDF eBook ISBN 978-1-944480-74-6


Dr. Jo Robertson has a doctoral degree in crisis management and more than 20 years of experience keeping companies out of crisis.

As Global Director of Emergency Preparedness for Capital One, she was responsible for orchestrating the creation of a coordinated universal emergency preparedness program with a strong and consistent process as well as the leadership of 2500 life safety team members.

As Director of Crisis Preparedness for Arkema, she rebuilt and re-energized US crisis preparedness initiatives for France’s leading chemicals producer. She was responsible for creating an effective corporate crisis management team process and strategy, media training and community relations assistance for the plants as well as acting as a trusted advisor to C-Suite executives.

At Deloitte Services, Dr. Robertson led the national crisis management program for 100+ offices of 45,000+ professionals. She developed Deloitte’s enterprise crisis management and crisis communications plans as well as hundreds of local office business continuity plans.

As Vice President for Marsh Crisis Consulting (formerly the Corporate Response Group) she designed, developed and delivered a wide array of services for senior corporate and C-Suite clients, including crisis communications planning, media training, real-time support for clients currently in crisis, and complex crisis management exercises for global and domestic pharmaceutical, petroleum, chemical, energy, banking, hotel, distribution, manufacturing, consumer goods, food service, and government sector clients.

Dr. Robertson spent the first half of her career as a television journalist. She is experienced in all aspects of television news, including producing, writing, and editing. She covered the White House, Pentagon, State Department and Capitol Hill and was responsible for news stories which initiated change at the highest levels of government, including a reversal of policy at the Pentagon.

Dr. Robertson has a doctoral degree in Crisis Management (George Washington University), an M.A. in Journalism (American University), and a B.A. in Communications (Pennsylvania State University).

After years of working with companies in a wide variety of industries to help them manage crises, I have realized that many otherwise thoroughly savvy executives don’t take the potential for crisis as seriously as they should. They may have great disaster recovery plans, or they might be following so-called best practices in crisis management, but they are still woefully underprepared.

There are a lot of good reasons for this. A lot of the time, folks at the top of companies have gotten there because their business instincts are really good, and when it comes to crises, a whole lot of people, especially entrepreneurs, have dealt with short-term emergencies and critical incidents throughout their careers. Seat-of-the-pants reactions to tough situations have gotten them through difficulties before and they assume that will continue to be the case.

But white-knuckling through a lean period when you’re not sure that you can make payroll is a whole different situation than an emergency that the company may have had a hand in creating.

In the more than two decades that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve met plenty of C-suite consultants who have virtually no crisis training. Business leaders would be better served by understanding key crisis concepts and applying them to their own situation rather than relying on crisis advisors to swoop in to take care of a problem once it has become a crisis.

That is what this book sets out to do. It is intended as a manual to assist you – the savvy leader – to make your organization more resilient to crisis.

An organization, large or small, may face many different risks that could disrupt its operations or ability to do business, including natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, emergency events like fire, terrorism, facility accidents, civil unrest, pandemics, disruptions to the supply chain… management malfeasance… the list goes on.It is not necessary in most cases to ensure a definitive list has been analyzed in order to prepare for the potentialities. Ongoing business continuity planning for getting back in operation following a disruption is an essential element of risk management, as is being prepared to respond to an emergency situation that can affect life, health, or safety at one of your organization’s facilities. But whether the crisis management program includes one interwoven plan with tactical and strategic components throughout the lifecycle of the event or multiple plans synched to work in harmony, is immaterial.

What’s the difference between risk management and crisis management? What’s the difference between crisis management and business continuity? How do you ensure you’ve got the important strategic elements covered?

Sometimes the whole caboodle is called business continuity management. The term has become very popular and has been driven by the business continuity and disaster recovery industry, which came of age in the 1990s. Another term is resilience. Unfortunately, (as of this writing) that term tends to refer primarily to business resumption—or the process of planning for how the organization will get back to normal operations as quickly as possible following a disruption. It seems to be less about making the organization resilient against crises to begin with.

I prefer the umbrella term crisis management. Whatever you call it – emergency response, business continuity, disaster recovery – crisis communication, and crisis management plans, elements, tactics and strategies all need to work together seamlessly for an organization to truly be resilient.

This book is meant to be simple and easy to grasp immediately. The concepts are relevant for most organizations. Still, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to crisis plans, strategy, or response. There are numerous good crisis manuals available and I don’t seek to repeat the material you will find elsewhere. Instead, I will supplement with new twists on “best practice” – to update the common understanding of what elevates good crisis management beyond wordsmithing.

Instead of lists of the items that are “necessary” for a solid crisis plan or well-stocked war room, you’ll find key things to consider as you tailor strategies for your own organization. In fact, I’m going to shoot down best practices that are outdated yet continue to be repeated because someone somewhere decided they were best practices. Who gets to determine what is best practice in the first place? It’s time for a little fresh thinking and common sense. It’s really critical to do the right thing up front, which, in a lot of cases can prevent crises. Instead, a lot of people continue to conflate crisis communication with obfuscation and pretty words intended to make a very bad situation seem less bad without actually doing anything to make it better. That’s public relations. It is not good crisis communication. And crisis communication is not crisis management. Certainly, communication is a strong component, and having people who have been media-trained and can represent a company well in a crisis is important. But there’s so much more to managing a crisis well. No successful crisis response begins when the crisis begins.

And finally, a thought on best practices: they are most effective for things that people do all the time. Posting a hand-sanitizer dispenser on the wall near the door of a patient’s hospital room that people can use when they come and go is a great practice. And it’s one that you can amend as you go because people do it all the time. But crisis management is something you don’t do many times a day.

Best practices for activities that we do all day, every day, can naturally evolve more easily because of the frequency with which people do them. It’s the very infrequency (let’s hope) of crises that makes them harder to establish and maintain best practices for. A crisis management best practice from three years ago may not be the right choice for managing a crisis today, and it might not be the right solution for your situation. It is time to challenge best practices.

To give a personal example, many years ago my father had to have surgery. Like all fairly serious medical situations, it had the possibility of turning out really badly. So that he didn’t worry his adult children, siblings, or mother, my dad decided he would keep us in the dark until the day of the surgery. Even though we were all well-educated, competent professional adults, my parents’ generation’s “best practice” was to keep people in the dark until after it was over to save them from unnecessary worry.

Fortunately, it all went well. However, it got me to thinking about how awful it was to be kept in the dark. Family is hugely important to me and I remember dropping everything and driving 4+ hours to be there at the hospital so that, yes, I could just stand around and worry. I was glad to have been able to make the decision myself to be present in the waiting room during the surgery – it was a choice my grandmother did not get to make. My parents, however well-meaning, took that possibility away from her.

But they were going by the book. So, in a sense, I am writing this book to let you know that sometimes it’s just the wrong thing to do to go by the book.

I started out not to write a manual for crisis management, but to challenge what dabblers believed were best practices, to update and create better guidance for executives, and to provide plenty of common-sense examples of better practice in play. By doing so, I hope I have provided you with the guidance and tools you’ll need to weather any crisis!

Dr. Jo Robertson

September, 2019


1.1 Everyday Communication vs. Communicating During Crisis 13
1.2 Communicating in Crisis 15
1.4 Case Studies on Communicating Quickly 17
1.4.1 DuPont La Porte (November 15, 2014) 17
1.4.2 Exxon Torrance Explosion and Fire (February 15, 2015) 18
1.5 Reframing the Issue 20


2.1 Working With the Media 23
2.1.124 Television 24
2.1.224 Radio 24
2.1.325 Daily newspapers 25
2.1.425 Weekly magazines 25
2.1.525 Internet 25
2.2 Social Media Dynamics 25
2.2.1 Socialnomics 26
2.2.2 Traditional Media Embrace 26
2.2.3. Analyzing Which Platforms to Use 28
2.2.4 Don’t Delegate Social Media to Junior Staff 29
2.3 What Makes Communication with the Media Effective? 31
2.3.1 Case Study: Freedom Industries’ Elk River Chemical Spill (January 9, 2014) 31
2.3.2 Emerging Issues Crises 32
2.3.3 “Trust Us” Only Works Once: Taco Bell’s Emerging Issues Case Study (December 12, 2006) 33
2.4 Additional Elements That Make Communication with the Media Effective 36
2.4.1 Official Spokespersons Aren’t Always the Most Credible 36
2.4.2 Case Study – Ford River Rouge (1999) 36
2.5 Tactics When You May Be to Blame 37
2.5.1 Case Study in Commitment Backfiring – Chipotle (2015) 38
2.5.2 Contrition 38
2.5.3 Consultation 39
2.5.4 Restitution Case Study – Tote Spill (June 2014) 39


3.1 Arkema’s Crisis at Crosby TX (2017) 42
3.2 The Tier II Report 43
3.3 Initial Community Response Steps 43
3.4 Spokesperson performance 44
3.4.1 ARKEMA Chemical Plant; Evacuation; Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Aired on CNN 10-10:30a ET 44
3.4.2 Armchair Quarterbacking Rich Rennard’s Press Conference 46
3.4.3 Two Questions Continue to Surface 47
3.5 Community Relations Through Online and Social Media 51
3.5.1 First, Make Good News Easy to Find 52
3.5.2 Gearing Social Media to Focus on Community Ties 54
3.5.3 The Community Reaction 59
3.6 Darksite Strategy 61
3.7 Who Trusts a Chemical Company? – What Arkema Did Right 64
3.7.1 Breaking the Story First 65
3.7.2 Cover-Ups Can Lead to Ugly Unveilings 66
3.7.3 Being a Good Neighbor 68
3.7.4 Developing Unofficial Spokespersons Who Have Good Things to Say 69


4.1 Building a Team and Concept of Operations 73
4.1.1 Tailor a Solution That Works for Your Unique Circumstances 74
4.1.2 Do You Really Need a Crisis War Room? 75
4.1.3 Alternates Can’t Be a Lesser Caste 77
4.1.4 Practice What You Preach 77
4.1.5 Don’t Let the Train Derail Because the Track Doesn’t Fit 79
4.2 Approvals 80
4.3 Strategic Drilling (With a Mirror) Can Avoid Lawsuits 81
4.3.1 Case Study – Rick Rescorla’s Drills Saved Lives 81
4.3.2 Drilling to Let the Team Discover Solutions 82
4.4 Do the Right Thing 83
4.4.1 Case Studies – Fans Expected More from Apple and Facebook (2018) 84
4.4.2 Case Study – University of Maryland Medical Center Patient Dumping (2018) 84
4.4.3 Case Study – Amtrak Derailments Disappoint (2017 and 2015) 85


5.1 Rule 1: Put Your Disaster Recovery Facility in Another Area of the Country? 87
5.2 Rule 2: Use a Template? 88
5.3 Rule 3: Business Continuity Plans Should Be Written by a Professional? 88
5.4 Rule 4: Contract a Hotsite? 89
5.5 Rule 5: Build Around a Risk Analysis? 90
5.5.1 Case Study – Sprint Loses 911 Functionality (2016) 91
5.6 Rule 6: Set Aside a Crisis War Room? 92
5.7 Rule 7: Nurture Media Contacts? 92


6.1 Hiring a Firm to Respond Reactively 95
6.2 Who Do We Activate and When Do We Activate? 95


7.1 Picking Up On Signals 99
7.1.1. Coca Cola—Creeping Crisis Case Study (1999) 100
7.2 Creating the Right Environment 101


8.1 What is an Appropriate Apology? 105
8.1.1 Case Study – United Passenger Dragged Off Plane (2017) 105
8.2 Do You Mean It? 106
8.2.1 Case Study on the Unconvincing Apology – Lululemon (2013) 108
8.3 Legal Liability 108
8.4 Paying Costs 109
8.5 Early Apology 110
8.5.1 Case Study – Not Early or Quick – Equifax (2017) 111
8.6 Japanese Apology 111
8.7 The Role of Media Coverage 112
8.8 Apology as a Business Strategy 113
8.9 EXERCISE: Brown’s Independent Bar 114


9.1 Pitfalls for Spokespersons 116
9.1.1. Jargon 116
9.1.3 Do Not Guess if it is Outside Your Area of Expertise 119
9.1.4 Keep answers short 119
9.1.5 Never Speak Badly of the Other Side 120
9.1.6 Don’t Assume the Reporter Has it Right 120
9.1.7 Don’t Accept Hypothetical Questions 121
9.1.8 Break Down Multiple Part Questions 121
9.1.9 Don’t Say “No Comment” 122
9.1.10 Remember Who You are Speaking To When You are Speaking Through the Media (to keep from showing anger or impatience at media questions) 122
9.1.11 EXERCISE: University Accused of Lying to Hide Killing 122
9.1.12 EXERCISE: Wyeth Accused of Secret Recall 125
9.1.13 Case Studies – Pizza Hut/Marriott and Hurricane Irma (2017) 127
9.1.14 – Case Study Sago Mine (2010) 127
9.2 Dos and Don’ts: 127
9.2.1 The Mic Is Always On 128
9.2.2 Radio (or Phone) Interview Tips 129
9.2.3 TV Interview Tips 130
9.2.4 QUIZ 132
9.3 What Not to Wear on TV 133


10.1 Actionable Information 141
10.2 Logistics for Smaller Organizations with Limited Communications Staff 143
10.3 The Crisis Wingman 149
10.4 Winning the Game 152
10.5 Messaging 155
10.6 Bridging 156
10.7 Communications Strategy with Victims 157
10.8 Employees as Spokespersons 158
10.9 Begin Immediately to Shape the Narrative 159
10.10 Holding Statements 162
10.11 Don’t Panic 165
10.12.1 Ghoul or Effigy? – A Case Study in Nudging Ambivalence 167
10.12.2 Florida Strawberry Fumigation – Another Case Study in Nudging Ambivalence 168
10.12.3 EXERCISE: Tulsa Solkatronic 170
10.13 Emergency Notification 171




I spend my professional life building resilience by working with otherwise extremely savvy executives who know how to run a business profitably and efficiently but who often plan to either run a crisis by the seat of their pants or to delegate both crisis communication and crisis management to public relations consultants.

The best outcome – bar none – instead occurs when executives take the time to delve into preparing for the likelihood that someday their organization will face a potential crisis that could derail everything they’ve built if not managed as carefully as they’ve planned out every other strategy in their enterprise.

Good crisis management doesn’t occur by chance and it doesn’t happen on the day of the crisis. It is built on a strong foundation, with a mission focused on doing the right thing without obfuscation. A team is carefully selected (in advance). Stakeholders who matter are identified and positioned to be kept in the know. Statements are wordsmithed not to sound good, but with information that answers their questions and focus on what the organization is doing to right the situation for the impacted parties and ensure the problem never happens again.

EXECUTING CRISIS, provides the strategies necessary for your organization’s leaders to take crisis management from a theoretical exercise mired in “best practices” that are outdated and unrealistic for today’s environment, and makes them tangible and useable.

These are the new rules for crisis leadership:

  • Communicate at the speed of sound.
  • Craft your hip-pocket statements now. Today. Really. Don’t wait until you are in a crisis to figure out what you are going to say. Doing it right now is the only way you’ll be able to begin communicating at the speed of sound.
  • Traditional media have embraced and embedded social media in their communication about crisis. So should you. Social media can spread misinformation and rumors globally within minutes. You will never catch up or set the record straight if you don’t acknowledge social media’s power and plan to harness it.
  • Choose your spokespersons carefully and make sure they are well prepped.
  • “Trust us” only works once. When you say it, mean it.
  • Official spokespersons are not always the most reliable. Build alliances with unofficial spokespersons who can speak credibly on your behalf.
  • Take one step beyond what stakeholders really expect. It will lessen the sting of the impact you have caused.
  • Break your own story. Shape your own narrative. Get out ahead of the speculation.
  • Make good news easy to find.
  • Be a good neighbor.
  • No successful crisis begins on the day of the crisis. Build your plan, team and strategies in advance. Tailor a solution that works for your unique circumstances.
  • Streamline your approval process.
  • Armchair quarterback (in advance) where the train could jump the tracks.
  • Challenge experts’ “cardinal rules.” Ensure “best practice” is best for your
  • Adjust your corporate culture to report problems rather than wait and hope they don’t come to light.
  • Identify the signal detectors that can warn you in advance that a crisis is brewing and create a process to channel the input to a volume that can be heard by the right receptors.
  • An apology – done well – can go a long way towards healing a rift and mitigating the possibility of a lawsuit, whereas an apology done badly can pour gas on a flame.
  • Answer reporter questions in 20 seconds or three sentences.
  • Determine what information your key stakeholders need and how to get it into their hands quickly.
  • Spend time with your trusted advisors anticipating questions and developing answers before a press conference or interview. Identify a crisis wingman who will have your back.
  • Winning the game may require reframing the issue. Bridge to the answers you need to impart even if the right questions don’t get asked. Don’t keep volleying once you have won the game.
  • Identify affected parties and assist them in bringing closure to the incident.

Today’s executive needs to be prepared to take quick action to annihilate potential crises before they happen. EXECUTING CRISIS provides the guidance needed for executing on that need.


Messages, simply put, are your organization’s side of the story, framed positively in terms of the actions you are taking to make the situation right, whether you are at fault or not. That is not the same as creating positive spin, especially if that spin is artificial wordsmithing bent on making a situation seem less bad than it really is. Messages go beyond objective truth about the facts to position your organization’s truth and counter the negative positioning that may be cast on you by rumors, outrage from perceived injustice, or even the fact that your organization has some right-making to do as a result of what just happened.

When beginning an interview or press conference, introduce yourself unless this has already been done. Simplify your title. Your exact title isn’t necessary, instead, the reporter needs to know the context of why you are speaking on behalf of the organization. Your title can be as simple as “[Organization] Spokesperson,” unless you are giving a particular point of view (“CEO, [Organization]” or “Engineering Manager, [Organization].” Expect to start with a situation status update briefly explaining the what, where, when, or what is latest. If victims are involved, offer regret, apology, humanization.

  • In advance, think through the two or three main points you want to make.
  • Start the interview by identifying yourself and the latest information on the incident.
  • Begin bridging to your key messages.

By this point your messages should be in full swing. Put the situation in context. Explain what you are doing to make the situation right. Focus on what is important. Get across your messages to those you are trying to reach on the other side of the media. Then, and only then, ask what questions the media has.

If the media jump the gun and barrage you with questions from the start, calmly hold up your hand and explain you’d like to start with some information and then you’ll be happy to take their questions. You may be able to head off many of their questions by starting this way. Once the questioning begins, always try to find a way to bridge back to your key messages.

If you are noticing that you have circled back to each of your message points twice, you have won your game. Stop playing! You have nothing left to gain from continuing to field questions. Of course the media will continue to try to engage you because they have not won by backing you into a corner where they flummox you and wheedle an off-script answer, so they will continue to try to ask questions. But if you stop after you have delivered your messages (in 20 second or less soundbites), they will have to choose the soundbite that summarizes your organization’s point of view from amongst the answers you have given – your messages – or the points you intended to make all along.