Communicating in a Crisis: How to Share Information

One of the first decisions you must make in a crisis is with whom to share the information.  Do you start with the CEO or business lead, the General Counsel, outside counsel, the Board?  When you receive a hot whistle-blower complaint or evidence of wrongdoing by someone very senior, managing the information correctly may be as important as managing the potential negative outcomes. 
 
Who Do You Tell?
 
When deciding who to tell about a crisis, consider the following questions:

  • Who is my direct boss? 
  • Who do I report to, both directly and in dotted line?
  • Who needs to react to this immediately?
  • Who needs to make a plan to respond?  This may include:
  • The business or client lead
  • The communications or public relations people
  • The Legal Department or General Counsel, who may need to hire outside counsel
  • The Information Technology or Information Security folks if it involves data
  • Who will be mad at me if I don’t tell them first, and does that matter?
  • Am I more likely to get into trouble if I tell the person, or fail to tell the person, about the issue?

When you’re facing a crisis, you must be strategic about who you tell, and in what order you tell them.  As a general guideline, if you’re not the global head of the compliance program (or if you report to the General Counsel and not the CEO or Board), you are usually best off telling the head of compliance or the General Counsel about the crisis first.  If you are the head of compliance (and you don’t report to the General Counsel), you should usually tell the CEO about the crisis first. 
 
How to Deliver Bad News
 
In addition to planning who you will tell about the crisis, you should also think about how you will tell them.  When you have to deliver bad news, always follow it up with a plan for how the company can begin to fix the problem. When people hear bad news, it is easy to want to shoot the messenger.  By arriving with a solution (or a plan for investigation), you become an ally who is resolving the issue alongside the business. 
 
It is easy to be tempted to share salacious stories or bad news with colleagues, especially if your colleagues are your friends.  Try to resist the temptation.  Although compliance officers are only human, we are held to a greater standard and required to maintain confidentiality. 
 
Lastly, look for people who are on your side or who have your back in a crisis.  You may need emotional support, and if you can rely on someone who you need to tell, you’ll be in a good situation going forward. Handling a crisis is never easy, but planning who you will tell, how you will tell them, and your plan for going forward should alleviate much of the stress around those difficult conversations.

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Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart is the founder and CEO of Spark Compliance.
She's a renowned expert at transforming compliance departments into in-demand business assets.

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