No one can prepare for a crisis in an organisation or in a country. But when a crisis does occur, how a leader shows up – or fails to do so – during the first hour can shape public opinion forever. Take a look at these real examples:

When mainstream media report about train disruptions and delays occurring consistently for days, the transport minister disparages the media for turning tabloid, saying, “If it was so simple, they don’t need us. We can ask the reporters to run the train system.” (see link)

When correspondents are told to turn off their cameras during a press briefing, the press secretary castigates the media, saying “There’s a lot of them that want to become YouTube stars and ask some snarky question that’s been asked eight times.” (see link)

When a passenger was dragged out of an overbooked flight, the CEO blames him for being “disruptive and belligerent” (see link)

No leader could have anticipated a crisis.

But no leader should come unprepared when facing the media or the public.

Worse still, instead of feeling the sentiment of irate commuters and frustrated correspondents for their need of transparency and accountability, these leaders shirk off their own responsibility and brushed aside what could have been a PR opportunity to ‘save the day’.

Theatre improvisation is incredibly useful in corporate settings in the world of  “strategic storytelling”.

Strategic storytelling is the ability to adapt your story in an agile manner, responding to each new offer as it comes along. Everyone from the C-suite to stakeholders, from customer service officers to support staff, as well as customers, are collectively co-creating a corporate narrative. Your story is no longer just a marketing slogan, but it is a ‘living document’ on the ‘life’ of your company as breathed and lived by all who have an emotional stake in it.

That means when a customer complains about your service or product on social media, it is an opportunity to re-strategise and include that feedback as a new element in your corporate narrative. If a janitor complains about unfair treatment at work, it is an opportunity to re-think ways to include her involvement. Rather than simply firing her and leaving her sentiments embroiled in office politics, which can then spillover to uncontrollable gossip, hence tarnishing your company’s reputation, you can involve her in making sense of a new story, so that the next chapter of your corporate narrative can end better for her and for your organisation.

It takes a lot of effort and energy to do so, but failing to do so will have more severe repercussions. But how can you do it? Learn to improvise.

In theatre improvisation, anything new is called an offer.

  • A complaint is an offer.
  • A compliment is an offer.
  • A freak accident is an offer.
  • A terrorist attack is a offer.

What do you mentally say when given the offer?

In theatre improvisation, the response to an offer is to say “yes, and”.

Offer 1: “The train is delayed for another hour.”

Response 1: “Yes, and its delay will cause a lot of commuters to be greatly inconvenienced.”

Offer 2: “The bridge has collapsed.”

Response 2: “Yes, and the collapse is very tragic. It’s totally unexpected.”

Offer 3: “Your employees dragged a paying passenger out of the plane.”

Response 3: “Yes, and the passenger was visibly distraught and was bleeding.”

The above is an improvisational model – “yes, and…” – but you do not necessarily say it in that way. If not, it will look insincere and inauthentic, as if your responses are canned. In my training workshops, I get my participants to practise these, so that it becomes a new way of looking at the situation.

In any case, the theatre improvisation requires you to take the offer, accept it, and go with the flow without making your co-actor look bad. If you do need to change the offer, you accept it before adapting it or changing it.

In other words, accept it, then adapt it. Because if you do not accept it and change it, it becomes the normal rhetoric “yes, but” – which is a dismissal of an offer, and a refusal to acknowledge people’s sentiments and ideas.

Here are a few specific strategies to accept new offers and adapt accordingly:

1.   Repeat a word or idea from the offer (improv model: “yes, and”).

From the previous examples, the repeated word is “delayed – delay”, “collapsed – collapse”, “passenger – passenger”.

2.   Match or mirror the ‘emotional volume’ or intensity in the offer (improv model: accept).

If the person giving the offer is very angry and is throwing things about, you do not need to do the same thing by throwing things about. Rather, accept the emotional high by quickening your tempo, raising your pitch a little, walking faster, or show a little more force in your gestures.

Accepting the offer would also mean accepting responsibility for something your staff had done. It is going to be humiliating as a leader to take the blame of someone’s mistake. It may destroy everything you have set out to do – but, ironically, a level of honesty (of not knowing) and vulnerability can help you build credibility instead.

You see, the public wants accountability. They just want someone to be in control of an uncontrollable sitation. They are not necessarily blaming you, but they want someone to take charge and be the leader. It is necessary to show compassion, understanding, and empathy.

3.   If you need to take control of the situation and change the offer, accept it before you adapt it (improv model: adapt)

In the example above with an angry person throwing things about, follow step 2 first. Then reverse the emotion to calm the situation down, as a way for you to take control of a chaotic situation. You can breathe slower or deeper, have a more measured tone of voice, taking longer pauses between words, while showing certainty in both word and action.

Values shown here could be a sense of concern and reassurance for public safety, or praise for ground personnel making sacrifices to solve the issue.

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Here is a slightly elaborated example:

Offer: “Your employees dragged a paying passenger out of the plane!”

Response: “We saw the video, and it was obvious that the passenger was visibly distraught and was bleeding [improv model: yes, andaccept].

On behalf of United, I apologise [improv model: adapt]for causing distress and physical harm to Mr David Dao and to the other passengers for witnessing this horrible, horrible scene [value: compassion].

[slow down and breathe] This should not have happened [improv model: adapt]. [slow down and breathe] I will look into this matter urgently and if you are willing to come forward as a witness to what has happened [value: cooperation], it will definitely help us find a form of compensation to Mr Dao.

My main concern right now is to also look into the system [value: promise/integrity], to see what are the faults causing overbooking and to look into the safety of all our passengers [value: reassurance].”

Today’s leaders cannot afford not to go through improvisational training for corporate crisis communication. You can’t predict a crisis, the nature of it, or the extent of it – but your lack of mental preparation and your emotional failure to respond to a new offer can be detrimental to you or your company’s brand, identity, and reputation.

Don’t risk it.

Learn to say yes, and deal with it.

© 2010 | EDMUND CHOW

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