1983 was a year I will never forget. I was a Navy lieutenant running a military radio/TV station in Beirut, Lebanon when the unthinkable happened – a suicide bomber crashed his vehicle, loaded with explosives, into a building at the Beirut airport housing Marines that were part of a multinational peacekeeping force, killing 241 people and wounding 128 others. I was just 100 yards from the demolished barracks, and nothing in my training prepared me for the horrific scene I saw when I walked outside. Looking back, I realized the crisis management lessons I learned in the aftermath of the attack, is the same protocol I advise my clients to follow when faced with a crisis in their business:
Lesson 1: Acknowledge you’re a target and create a crisis plan If a “peacekeeping” force is a target, so is your organization. Business is war, and your competitors are looking for any opportunity to take advantage of your weaknesses and vulnerability. Great companies display strong and decisive leadership in crisis situations – reducing stress internally and in the marketplace. Companies that plan for a crisis also have a better chance of preserving employee morale, increasing the speed of resolution, and generating positive customer feedback. On the other hand, a company without a crisis plan will take longer to react, achieve inconstant results, while losing employees and customers in the process.
Lesson 2: Work through your Emotions When the bomb exploded in Beirut that day, I struggled with powerful emotions that included fear, pain, and anger – but I didn’t let those emotions stop me from developing a crisis mindset. A crisis mindset enabled me to think quickly on my feet, recognize immediate threats, and implement numerous solutions simultaneously. Remember the worst part of any crisis occurs is in the beginning when you wonder, “Is this it? Are there more attacks coming?” As I learned in Beirut, we’re more resilient than we realize. Not only did my physical strength skyrocket when my adrenalin kicked in, I also found I had extraordinary resources of emotional strength that helped me utilize my crisis mindset.
Lesson 3: Get Moving The same day that the attack occurred, I managed to get our radio and TV station up and running again. Communicating a consistent message to our troops not only helped get teams assembled to aid the injured – but it also created a shining beacon that let everyone know that we would rise above what became the single deadliest day for the Marines since the invasion of Iwo Jima during World War II. When a crisis occurs – get the facts – FAST! Designate a spokesman, then define the crisis in your own terms and on your own turf. Keep the media fed, and provide regular updates – but don’t be afraid of challenging them when they get the facts wrong or are unfair. Your customers and employees will want to know that you are taking action to make things right, and they expect you to act quickly.
Lesson 4: Assemble your Crisis Team Sometimes members of your crisis team aren’t only employees or directors in your organization, but rather someone else with the equipment and skills necessary to get the job done. In Beirut, it was the Lebanese Government that, after years of unrest, had practical experience digging people out of demolished buildings – at your company it may be a PR/communication consultant that has experience managing a crisis and working with the media. Your crisis team should be responsible to do anything necessary to control the situation and minimize loss. Their duties include investigating the crisis, notifying all the necessary individuals and agencies involved, creating a response to resolve the situation, while fielding all inquiries from customers and the news media.
Lesson 5: Reflect before Moving On When the short-term crisis has passed, resist the tendency to move on quickly, leaving the calamity behind. When you move on too quickly, you miss the opportunity to learn from your experience. The time invested in examining what happened – and making adjustments to plans and practices, can pay off when the next crisis occurs – or even help you avert the next crisis altogether. Oddly enough, the Beirut attack solidified my resolve to support our country’s mission in Lebanon. I was more driven than ever to defend my fellow Marines and sailors, and I was proud of how we pulled together and rose above the devastation from the attack. Your company’s crisis can turn into a branding opportunity. If you’ve worked hard to make things right – or even better than they were before, people will understand and stay loyal to your brand. We all make mistakes, it’s how you live up to and manage those mistakes that has the biggest potential of creating a positive impact with your customers.