24 May 2013

Yes, she really had to die.

An artist's interpretation of a crisis.  Sorry, Betty.
This week I led a mini-crisis simulation at the Alltech 29th Annual International Symposium panel on crisis management.  On the panel were three people who had outstanding reputations in this area - Gavin Megaw, Liz Kynoch, and Pat Wall.

If you're not familiar with a crisis simulation, it's typically when you get a bunch of people who are responsible for leading an organization and you walk them through a fictional catastrophe to see how they'd react and hopefully discover weaknesses in your organization that you can shore up.  Most companies basically think of a crisis that involves a plant fire or something - typically they set up a phone tree, call 911, and let the authorities take over.

That's a terrible situation, but in my mind that's not a crisis.  I crisis is really a loss of control. Terrible things happen.  Sometimes people die.

So I wanted to think of something horrific at the introduction of the scenario - something that would get the audience's attention, and something that would have an instant and enormous impact online.

So I killed Betty White.  A few people actually chuckled, but if you know the Internet you know what this would do to Twitter.

Then I killed 32 people who were residents of a US-based nursing home chain.

Then another 45 in Brazil.

Then dozens more in the UK.

Of course, just before the slaughter of innocent grandparents, I got a volunteer to serve as the CEO of "Big Mama Foods," the company who made the food that killed them all.  Immediately after selecting the CEO, the audience went out for a coffee break - and the CEO was ambushed by a camera crew.  When the audience returned, they were treated to a video of a "breaking news" story - that dozens of people had been killed by food linked to Big Mama - and there was the CEO, who just moments ago was chatting and joking with everyone there, up on the screen trying to explain why Betty White and hundreds more just died.

The whole thing went from Betty to Television in about 7 minutes.

From there it got worse - recalls, lawsuits, boycotts, global trade embargoes.  Even Nancy Grace announced tonight's top story on Twitter - "Who Killed Betty White?"

By then, no one was laughing.  And I kept reminding people that something like this can really happen - because each segment of my scenario was based on something similar that actually did.

The good news is our CEO had a great board of advisors in Gavin, Liz and Pat - explaining what is happening at every stage of a very real and very public crisis. They talked about their roles as communicators, operations leaders, regulators, and scientists. They talked about all the people you have to keep informed - key customers, shareholders, regulators, the media, employees, and so on.

Gavin provided people with a great checklist, and the people at Alltech provided their own crisis management plans for everyone to look at.  Liz and Pat provided their leadership perspectives and advice.  I just really wanted to convey one thing - in the digital age, a crisis moves at breakneck speed.

The next day, I spoke with Trent Loos at Rural Route Radio about it in great detail. A crisis is a lot of things.  But to me, more than anything else a crisis is a chance to show the world your mettle. If you're prepared, the world will know.  If you're not, the world will know that too.

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