Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Business

Five Questions with Thomas A. Cole and Paul Verbinnen, authors of “Collaborative Crisis Management: Prepare, Execute, Recover, Repeat”

All organizations face crises from time to time, and at a time when news, information (or misinformation), and rumors can spread quickly, a timely and thoughtful response to a crisis, is critical. In Collaborative Crisis Management, two industry insiders offer a  primer on how organizational leadership should prepare for and handle crises. We spoke with them recently about the steps, plans, and cautions they offer about how organizations can deal openly and honestly with challenges while continuing to survive and prosper.

You are both extremely experienced crisis advisors, but from different angles—Tom from Law and Paul from communications. How does this come together in the book and how do you think it differentiates it from other crisis guides one might find?

We both recognized early in our careers that collaboration across relevant disciplines and reconciling different perspectives was key to achieving the best outcome in any crisis. Much has been written about handling crises, but most of the work centers around “war stories.” We have tried to present a practical hands-on guide to organizing and preparing to be effective when a crisis happens and to answer the kinds of questions we often get from clients in a crisis.

One thing many folks may first notice is the word “collaborative” in the book’s title. Why did you choose to emphasize this, and do you think it’s an idea that many organizations fail to truly implement in their approach?

Most organizations are siloed and, while most recognize that collaboration is key to success, they can be slow out of the gate in responding if they haven’t exercised that muscle. Silos can also be competitive and territorial.  Better to make sure that’s resolved in advance. Collaboration should be across disciplines, between internal and external teams, and between a board and the C-suite. Effective collaboration requires a strong leader of the crisis management effort who can mediate between and among different points of view, strictly on the merits—in most instances the CEO. The most successful outcomes happen when an organization has created a team that has thought through how they will operate in a crisis and regularly stress test plans and assumptions on a regular basis.

What would you say is the biggest or most common mistake that many organizations make in response to crisis?

Failing to prepare and failing to make revisiting those plans part of their regular routine. The most effective plans are simple, regularly updated, and well understood by a core team of people who work well together under pressure.   

When a crisis does happen, what are the first things the team should do?

Assess the category and nature of the crisis. gather as much real-time information as possible, identify the stakeholders most impacted and what questions they will have. Determine the appropriate next steps to resolve the problem. In some cases, this all happens quickly. If the crisis is unfolding on television, be ready to communicate something, even if just a holding statement. And remember, preserving credibility is paramount.

Your book has a chapter on the response to the COVID-19 epidemic, but of course, this public health crisis has continued to evolve and outlast what many predicted. Are there new pieces of advice that you’d offer organizations about how to respond or are there good models of response that you would point to?

The response to the pandemic will no doubt be the topic of many books in the future.  One can only hope that—over time—a true, thoughtful consensus around what worked and what didn’t—based on science and without the politics—will emerge and guide future responses to future threats. For all types of organizations—even countries—doing a thorough postmortem in the cold light of day is critical to learning and being better.    

Thomas A. Cole is chair emeritus of the executive committee of Sidley Austin LLP, a global law firm. He is the author of CEO Leadership: Navigating the New Era in Corporate Governance, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Paul Verbinnen is co-chair, North America of FGS Global, a preeminent strategic communications firm. He is actively involved with many of the firm’s clients, including public corporations, high-profile executives, and educational institutions.

Collaborative Crisis Management is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.