A Fortune book spoiler: 10 ways to survive a crisis

March 28, 2014, 7:58 PM UTC

By Anne VanderMey

Crisis is everywhere. There are the national public relations fiascos: General Motors, Chris Christie, the NSA. And then there are the countless human missteps that plague companies every day: The reply-all email gaffe, the product defect, the affair. Be your crises big or small, these authors think they can help. Christopher Lehane and Mark Fabiani were dubbed the “Masters of Disaster” in a 1996 Newsweek profile for their work with Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign (they also ran interference after his impeachment). In a new paperback, co-authored with director Bill Guttentag, the authors repurpose their lessons in political crisis management for the C-suite. “Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control,” distills their best advice into 10 rules. We’ve, in turn, distilled those commandments into a handful of words. You’re welcome.

#1: Full disclosure
Put the whole story out. All at once. Full stop. Otherwise, risk “getting completely run over by it,” say Lehane et al. This advice is as ubiquitous as it is accurate. The classic example is Tiger Woods, who let rumors of his affairs brew in the press for days until he came clean. Instead of the awkward nonresponse, a swift and complete confession would have limited the damage. Bonus tip: Respond immediately to that errant reply-all e-mail.

#2: Speak to your core audience
Everyone in crisis has a target audience — usually the people with firing power. For a school superintendent it’s parents, for a college coach it’s the board of trustees, and for a corporation it’s shareholders and analysts. For one public company, the authors took a 10-page press release and distilled it into a three-sentence missive for shareholders, saying, “The company is pleased to have put this matter behind it once and for all.” The stock price went up on the news.

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#3: Don’t feed the fire
See rule number one. The truth will out eventually, so disclose everything fully and quickly. The authors write, “The longer it takes you to get to the bottom line, the longer you will be in crisis.”

#4: Details matter
Move fast, but not too fast. Meg Whitman was caught off-guard for detailed questions about her voting record when she announced her bid for governor in 2009. “She was not ready for her close-up,” the authors say. The result was a gut punch to the campaign. Get the small facts worked out before the big reveal or disclosure.

#5: Hold your head high
The poster boy for this rule is Gavin Newsom who, facing reports of an affair, told the press, “everything you’ve read is true,” gave a dignified apology, and didn’t address it again. He revealed all, deflated speculation, and then “had the discipline to shut up.”

#6: Be straight about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are going to do to fix the problem
This one is mostly self-explanatory. Instead of pretending to know it all, defer to experts. So, if you’re a mining CEO and there’s been a collapse, bring out the geologists rather than speculating on the mechanics yourself.

#7: Respond with overwhelming force
A few tried-and-true strategies: announce the formation of a commission, launch an internal review, or appoint a respected expert to overhaul the offending department. It’s also important to have a company line and stick to it. Companies that are good at crisis management make sure every public-facing employee is relentlessly on-message.

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#8: First in, first out
Minimize your role in the drama as much as possible. So, if you’re a baseball player accused of steroid use, fess up, blame the sport’s “loose culture,” and make the story about something larger than yourself.

#9: Don’t get Swiftboated
In 2004, John Kerry fell prey to the obviously politically motivated Swiftboat Veterans for Truth by refusing to dignify the smears with a response — until the damage to his poll numbers was already done. It was a case study in the importance of refuting scurrilous accusations early and forcefully.

#10: They dissemble, you destroy
Seize on any errors or inconsistencies from the opposing side to undermine its credibility and change the narrative. For example, are your accusers politically motivated? Sounds like the whole thing might be a partisan plot.

This abridged advice is, of course, just a fraction of the wisdom offered in this smart, 257-page book. If you really want to learn from the “Masters,” you can find it here.