- Melissa Agnes has been in crisis and risk management for 12 years.
- Her role involves getting action plans in place for leaders and dealing with strong personalities.
- This is what her job is like, as told to writer Elle Hardy.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Melissa Agnes, a mid-30s crisis-management strategist and founder of The Crisis Ready Community in New York City, about what her job entails. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
A crisis is something that risks material impact on one to all of the following five things: people, the environment, operations, reputation, and bottom line.
A crisis stops business as usual. It requires escalation straight to the top of leadership — whether they’re in a meeting, in bed, on vacation, getting pulled out of that meeting, getting woken up, or getting called back from vacation.
The framework I use in my business contrasts a crisis with an issue, which is the unpleasant part of your job description. If an issue strikes, it doesn’t stop business as usual — it’s just an annoyance or nuisance. Now, that doesn’t mean that if you don’t respond to it effectively that it may not escalate to a crisis later, but in the moment you’re dealing with an issue.
By understanding the material impact involved with the situation, you can better equip yourself to respond effectively. Once you establish it’s a crisis, you might go full throttle against it and do everything to protect the reputation of the brand.
One morning, I received an early call from the VP of a real-estate investment trust
Their president was in the car with a big-time prospective investor, and the radio was reporting that one of their buildings was about to explode due to a massive gas leak. They were evacuating the whole block and the news was already going crazy on Twitter.
Investors were calling the phone off the hook wanting to know information and threatening to pull money out, and they thought they were about to lose this massive new investor as well.
After speaking to stakeholders, I figured out that it was just a rumor started by college students on Twitter — but it was one that was activating the media and law enforcement to evacuate the streets. We contacted law enforcement to talk them through the facts and make sure that the right people were there to prove that everything was OK. At the same time, we contacted major media outlets to issue corrections with the right information.
Finally, we put a livestream of the building on Twitter and our website so that investors and media could see that there was no problem. We had a team calling investors one by one to inform them of the hoax and let them hear from us exactly what had happened to stop misinformation.
In the end, the trust’s unit price actually went up one cent that day. Giving people the whole picture in a crisis is really important, even if it’s not easy.
I have a number of high-risk organizations on retainer, and I never know when I’m going to need to jump on a call with them to walk through some kind of incident
I charge anywhere from low to mid-six figures as a consultant to develop a crisis-ready program for the first year, which involves six months of training with three coaching calls per month. After that, a client might be on a retainer, which costs less depending on their industry and needs. Crises depends on the industry, but common ones we deal with are active shooters and other kinds of high-risk, sudden emergencies.
The majority of what I do is helping organizations not have crises and have the skills and aptitude to manage something if it were to arise so that it doesn’t escalate to crisis level.
We integrate games and simulations so that teams are learning and developing a skill set and mindset at the same time. We have an hour-long game of Jeopardy where all the questions are about crisis management, such as a cell-phone video showing an employee abusing a customer has been uploaded to a social-media site. Who owns it? What’s your message? What play do you choose? That helps to create an open discussion among team members.
We also throw the entire team into a crisis, such as an explosion or natural disaster, with simulated social-media characters and role players that are calling in as the organization manages the situation in real time.
The actions and communications associated with a crisis response really depend on what you’re dealing with. But fundamentally, it becomes easier if you understand a few things as part of your crisis-ready plan, like: What are the actions we have to take? Who are our stakeholders? How are we going to communicate with them? How do they expect those communications to be delivered to them?
When a crisis hits an organization, the first step is to stop the bleeding
Leadership is accountable for the organization and its crisis management.
For example, in a cybersecurity incident, the immediate focus would be on isolating and eradicating the threat to systems and the network as well as performing a root-cause analysis. Strategic business decisions would also need to be made by leadership and a business continuity plan would also come into effect. It needs to be done simultaneously.
Questions might look like: What are the actions we need to take in the event of a
cybersecurity incident? Do we have an expert on call that’s going to guide us through the processes in order to gain access again to our networks that are being held hostage? Are we going to pay the ransomware or are we not going to pay the ransomware?
Having the right temperament for working in crisis management is more important than your background
Crisis doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If a crisis strikes an organization, every single department is going to be activated. There’s a role for anyone with subject-matter expertise, no matter what your background is. It’s all in the mindset.
A strong sense of self and self-awareness is really, really important, as well as being calm under pressure. You need to be able to see the bigger picture — you need to be somebody who, when you’re presented with a problem, likes to see all of the dots and put them together.
High emotional intelligence and really strong leadership skills are an absolute must. You have to have really thick skin. You’re dealing with people who are highly emotional and in the thick of it who oftentimes have very big egos and are very successful — and aren’t used to being told no or what to do.
In those times, it’s important to remember that they hired you to do that, and you need to be able to execute.
What I’ve learned is that no matter your background — maybe you’re a law graduate or former EMT officer — you need to have the mindset of understanding the risk, being fascinated by the risk, and knowing it can be transformed into an opportunity.