How to handle yourself while handling a crisis

"Whatever the situation, how you conduct yourself during the crisis will be just as important as how you handle it overall," say political strategists Adrienne Elrod and Susan Del Percio.
From left to right: Political strategist Adrienne Elrod, Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, political strategist Susan Del Percio
From left to right: Adrienne Elrod, Mika Brzezinski, Susan Del PercioTravis W Keyes

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By Susan Del Percio and Adrienne Elrod

Bam! There it is, out of nowhere you are faced with what you know is a more than an average problem. There is pit in your stomach. You know immediate action is required, but there is no clear-cut answer. Simply put, you are facing a crisis.

Dealing with a crisis on a professional or personal level is a challenge like no other. We know. For years people have hired us to handle their political or corporate crisis communications. And, like millions of people, we have had our fair share of personal issues as well. Whatever the situation, how you conduct yourself during the crisis will be just as important as how you handle it overall.

First, take a breath and process the situation. This could mean taking a five-minute walk outside, listening to music or playing a computer game. Whatever you choose, it’s critical to break away from everyone else and take a few minutes to collect yourself. Beyond that, every crisis is unique with its own mixed bag of next steps. So how should you handle yourself?

Susan’s experience: On a campaign you are never alone. Once, I was working on a campaign when I received some troubling news. I had to step away – or risk saying some very inappropriate things. It was raining, so I ducked into a drug store. Wandering through the aisles at a loss, I ended up buying a couple bags of candy, returned to the office and started handing it out. Turns out, it’s very hard to hand out candy and be angry. It gave me the opportunity I needed to cool down, collect my thoughts and figure out next steps.

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The next step is to take decisive action. This does not mean act quickly and shoot from the hip. It means, collect all of the information you need in order to make a decision. Once you make your decision - stand by it. After all, if you don’t appear to be fully behind your position, no one else will be either.

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Adrienne’s experience: I worked for a member of Congress who had a significant amount of funds embezzled from her campaign account by her campaign treasurer. Upon learning this, we immediately developed a plan – both from a legal and communications standpoint – and stuck to it. There were times we became overly frustrated, and times we wanted to deviate from our strategy. But in the end, sticking to a concrete plan paid off.

How you move on from a crisis is often its own challenge. We reached out to Brynne Craig, campaign manager for Beyond Carbon and a senior aide on both Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, to reflect on one of her experiences.

Brynne’s experience: In 2008, we knew that GOTV (Getting Out the Vote) was critical. After a couple of dry runs the campaign recognized the lack of volunteer strength in one particular area of Cleveland, and just like that, we had a crisis. But, I didn’t approach it as such. I saw it as a problem that needed to be solved. I’ve dealt with many problems in my career, some solvable and some not, but it’s important to establish at the beginning what is the ideal resolution.

And so, within the week we had shifted partners into the weak areas and the problem was solved. A crisis is fundamentally a time-urgent problem – the energy so many people waste fretting over a crisis is energy better spent solving the problem.

For me, holding on to a crisis doesn’t register. I think we get through it – and move on to the next thing.

Take a beat, be decisive, make a plan and then move on. This is the formula for handling yourself during a crisis. One other item we all agree on: never, ever lie. In our business there is a saying, if more than one person knows, 10 people will soon find out. The last thing you want to do is hurt your own credibility by trying to cover something up, because credibility is something you rarely get back.

In the end, how you handle a crisis is often seen as a reflection of who you are. Whether you’re at work or at home, your boss and your friends will respect you, as long as you handle the situation in a thoughtful and honorable manner.

Susan Del Percio is a New York-based Republican strategist and Adrienne Elrod is a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist. Their column, "Politicking for Success," appears bi-weekly on NBC News' Know Your Value.