You don’t need a pandemic or natural disaster to face a crisis as an organization. Unexpected events happen, and sometimes you need a rapid response.
In fact, the skills needed for rapid response translate well to a lot of projects. Even in “normal” times, every industry is bombarded by rapid environmental, competitive, and technological change. If you aren’t moving quickly, you are falling behind.
Some of the best-trained crisis management experts come from the media and communications industry. News spreads instantaneously, especially bad news. Whether it’s a product recall, a malicious media attack by a competitor, or foreign interest — information warfare can result in very real crisis situations.
Jason Levin is a Vice President of Crisis and Risk Management at Edelman, the world’s largest public relations and marketing consultancy firm. To manage crises, Levin’s job involves rapidly standing up teams, often and especially lately composed of people who don’t work together regularly, getting everyone aligned, and having the company respond within hours or minutes to the crisis. It’s no easy task, so I sat down with Jason to hear more about how the team does it.
In this article, you'll walk away with practical advice on:
Edelman is a global communications firm employing 6,000 people in more than 60 offices worldwide. Because they work with hundreds of clients, every campaign and culture is different — which means that the Crisis and Risk Management leans heavily on its ability to learn quickly and work with a wide variety of personalities to get their job done.
As a Vice President for Crisis and Risk Management, Jason Levin handles regional, national, and global situations where immediate response is essential. During a week with fewer crises than usual, Jason sat down with me to talk about the best tactics to create cohesion rapidly as teams form.
The tactics he gave us weren’t just useful for a media crisis, but are directly relevant to the kinds of decisions that face organizations during any major market or environmental shift where a team needs to rapidly coalesce around a new trajectory for the project or company.
Jason emphasized that having the proper foundations and structure was key to success in handling any project.
We begin with discovery, which means learning about the client and the situation, and then we have a kickoff with the client and dive-in to work out the messages and strategy. Ultimately, it’s about identifying resources and teams that can pitch in – pulling in the right people, activating them, and making sure they have the time and resources they need to carry out the job.
He mentions that having the right project management tools in place is important for tracking. “That’s where a lot of teams fall down,” says Jason. “The tools that bring people together around common goals and objectives are really important.”
The kickoff meeting sets up everyone's goals and roles — as well as the common knowledge management and project management tools. Everyone knows their role, the other people’s roles, and how to communicate progress.
By having clarity and good systems around internal communication, the team can move quickly and get an up-to-date picture on the progress of their colleagues.
Having everyone in the organization familiar with project management tools and practices is one of the elements that keeps running smoothly. While every project does have a designated project manager, when all of the participants understand the importance of using the tools, everything goes smoothly.
Much of our work is through Microsoft Teams, and we’ll often work with Slack, G-Suite or other remote collaboration tools and platforms based on client preference. These are critical not only for driving deliverables and work product, but also for developing relationships and trust outside of the videoconference meetings. You see people having quick chats for all the kind of critical interaction that normally might happen by the coffee maker or by passing by someone's office or desk. That’s important information and keeps up rapport when you aren’t — or can’t be — in the same office.
During our interview, Jason mentioned tools and culture. In fact, he said that success in rapid response is primarily down to two factors: goals and culture.
We discussed the fact that many companies have found themselves needing to make major pivots in strategy or product due to the COVID crisis. He also noted that the launch of a new company or product line can use many of these same principles.
Culture and toolsets aren’t built overnight, and in a moment of crisis, you don’t want to implement a whole new project management suite. Start now in working on the company culture and establishing an effective toolset.
If you’re already in a crisis, don’t neglect the tools and culture just because they aren’t well-established in your organization. Make sure that all of the people in the crisis-management team are aligned on the tools and frequency of communication, and that everyone has visibility into the progress of the project.
In our domain, there are all sorts of diverse stakeholders who need to weigh in on communications to internal and external audiences. Part of the reason we focus on advanced planning work is to generate buy-in before it's needed. A lot of enterprises don’t have established processes built around these kinds of complex approvals, but it is an area where you can see a process-based approach driving value for teams.
A basic toolset for your team should include:
Make sure there is absolute clarity about the toolset. Often companies have multiple tools for the same functionality, and different departments are using different tools. Any inconsistencies will get in the way of rapid coordination across the organization.
Similar to other cross-functional teams, Jason emphasized the importance of shared goals, clear objectives, sound strategy, and strong messaging. Not every project is marketing-oriented, but shared goals plus shared guidelines are the perfect combinations.
The kickoff meeting should present the best information possible about the crisis that the team is facing, and the desired outcomes for a positive resolution of the problem. As with anything Jason emphasized an unflinching commitment to flexibility as strategies may require adjustment based on changing fact patterns.
Setting clear guidelines of what is and isn’t acceptable in solving the problem are key elements of this initial kickoff. It might be messaging of what you can and can’t say publicly budgetary requirements or the types of resources that are acceptable in the solutions set.
It starts with setting the goal and the culture around the goal. Everything else flows from there: strategy, roles, responsibilities. The way people think about achieving what needs to be done comes from a common understanding of those two things.
Having everyone in every role take responsibility for the outcome makes a difference. It’s not uncommon for crisis teams to reflect a relatively flat structure with senior leaders jumping in on the first draft of a FAQ or junior staff providing key client counsel.
Everyone needs to know what is happening on a day-by-day basis and make sure that they and their colleagues are doing their part.
Typically on the crisis side, our account teams are small, nimble teams and our project timeframes are often shorter in length. Oftentimes in organizations, project management tools and tactics can be the purview of quote unquote “project managers,” but in the crisis world we all have to have a little bit of a project management tool set.
One final note is that Jason mentioned it’s actually become easier to work with remote teams because of the lockdown in many areas. Rather than using the phone, now everyone is using video conferencing.
“Video calls lead to enhanced trust-building between clients and account teams early on and engagements because we're looking at each other in ways we weren't previously,” he said. You are now in each other's homes for every meeting, and all geographical constraints are out the window.
By leveraging the remote working situation and using it to your advantage, you might actually realize after all this is done, that your team is closer than ever.