When No Response is the Best Response: Discipline in Crisis Management

By Melinda Travis @melinda_travis

CEO, PRO Sports Communications


A virtue that is continually challenged in a crisis for all involved, is discipline. In a crisis, discipline often means suppressing the burning urge to respond to every new development, especially when there is immense pressure from the client and/or key stakeholders to "do something."

True, in many instances, managing a crisis does require a swift hard-hitting response or a bold proactive move to get ahead of and mitigate the impact of bad news; but, too often, organizations or individuals act without understanding the chain of damaging events a misguided response can trigger. 

Usually driven by emotion and the natural human instinct to defend and fight back, these lapses in strategy happen when the fundamental questions are not carefully considered: 

What will happen next?

How will ‘what happens next’ impact the overall strategic objectives?

In high profile situations the media are following closely, any new bit of information will usually ignite another news cycle.  And while news cycles today might be shorter, the volume of stories they generate is exponentially higher.  In a 24-hour period, it can mean hundreds of new stories surfacing and thousands of conversations spreading across social media. In other words, it results in the story becoming front and center again.

Any number of things can happen next.

One, many more people will become aware of the story, including people who may not have been previously aware.  In that scenario, you’ve just helped spread your own bad news to more people.

Two, it may anger key stakeholders whose support is critical. In the case of athletes, it’s team management, sponsors, and coaches; at the organizational level, it’s donors, advisory boards, attorneys and shareholders, none of whom appreciate the action of willfully putting the story back in the news.

Three, it may embolden the other side to take another step: make a comment, leak information, or go on the attack -- moves that could escalate the crisis and immediately make things exponentially worse.

In most situations, all of these outcomes can be highly damaging to the overall strategy. In a legal crisis, a lapse in discipline can mean exposing the client to greater legal risk or giving away defense strategy. In other situations, it can irreversibly impact reputation, career and legacy.

In the interest of achieving the best possible overall outcome then, sometimes the best response is none. “None” doesn’t mean ignoring reporters, issuing an empty no comment, or pretending there isn’t an issue.  It means being patient, properly assessing the risk at hand and resisting outside pressure to react when the cost could drastically outweigh any potential benefits.

As a longtime mentor once told me early on, sometimes you just have to “let the fire burn” and wait for it to die out even if it causes some structural damage. In other words, sometimes you have to take a short term hit to preserve the long-term goal.