How to Handle a Crisis… and Come Out Smelling Like a Rose

Six minutes. That’s how long it took to realize that the flood of calls and emails meant that we were about to have dozens of angry constituents on our hands.

Now, a couple of weeks later, I’m thrilled that, rather than losing important relationships over the debacle, we’ve actually improved our reputation among most of the affected families. Here’s how we did it.


SPARC’s summer camps are wildly popular. Students from age four to 18 spend a significant part of their summer in our programs. Through the years, they have gotten so popular that people line-up (digitally, at their home computers) waiting for our online registration to open, and some programs fill up within a half hour.

So on registration day, registration opened precisely at Noon. We had prepped our great new website to make the links live at just the right moment. Cautiously optimistic, we thought this might be the smoothest launch we’ve ever had.

Noon came and went, and confirmation emails started pouring in. All of a sudden, we started noticing error messages in the confirmations, and the phones lit up like a Christmas tree. Callers started reporting that they noticed weird error messages on screen while registering — but submitted their credit card information anyway. Within seconds we realized that there was an extra space in the website code that was messing up the database and dumping the registrations into digital purgatory.

Yes, an extra space.

That’s it.

I know — in the grand scheme of life, registration for summer camps might not seem like a crisis. But in the course of our mission, and from the perspective of the families we serve, it certainly was.

We quickly formulated a plan. You can use these steps in any crisis situation, large or small:

1. Stop the bleeding.

The problem was getting worse by the minute, and quick action was needed. We took down the online registration for the programs in question and put up a message explaining that there was a technical difficulty.

2. Commit to the three Cs: calm, cool, and collected.

When things speed up, slow down. Rather than rushing through written and phone communications, we took our time with our work to ensure that we did it right. We didn’t hurry any of our phone calls, but talked for as long as the parent needed to have a good feeling about working with us. Equally important, we spoke with each other calmly and respectfully, which gave us each the support we needed to keep going.

3. Be transparent.

We didn’t pretend the issue was anything but what it was. We told people via our website and phone that we had a major database malfunction, and that we needed time to sort it out before reopening registration.

We were fully transparent, acknowledging that it was a human error, rather than trying to deflect blame to technology. We told people that we knew just how inconvenient and frustrating it was to them, and when appropriate, we acknowledged that it had been a really hard day on us, too. This vulnerability showed us to be human.

4. Tell people what to expect.

We initially thought it would take three hours to solve the problem, so that’s what we put on our website. When it turned out we needed a full day, we updated our statement. Was it frustrating to some families to come back only to find out that it was delayed longer than previous stated? Of course — ask anyone in an airport during a snowstorm. But people appreciated being kept up to speed.

5. Emphasize that your values match theirs.

We knew that our families wanted to know that they were being treated fairly, so we stated clearly that our efforts were focused on ensuring that people got their proper place in line. Having our messaging proactively match their greatest concern built trust in our intentions.

6. Invite direct communication and respond promptly.

We asked that, if people had questions or concerns, they contact us directly. This gave us an opportunity to speak one-on-one with the people who were the most upset, correct any misunderstanding, apologize for the inconvenience, and emphasize that we were ensuring fair treatment for all. The applicable staff members also cleared our calendars to ensure that we were available to make and receive phone calls until the crisis was resolved. No message went more than a couple of hours without a response.

We knew that among the friendship circles of our constituents, chatter was going on. So by handling each conversation with care, we built rapport and provided factual information into the feedback loop that helped diffuse the tension even among the families that weren’t calling us directly.

7. Enlist help.

In this isolated case, we actually needed the help of the people who had submitted erroneous registrations — we needed them to register again, and under the circumstances, we needed them to do so within 24 hours. Rather than stating this as a demand or a threat, we asked for help. We explained that there were lots of anxious kids and families waiting to sign up, and that we couldn’t let them until we had rebuilt the erroneous registrations. Guess what? All 62 of them did so within 24 hours, just like we asked.

In a weightier case, you might need the support of volunteers, Board, staff, constituents, a lawyer, or a media consultant. In any case, the foolish leader believes that he/she can do it all, and do it well, without any help. The smart leader surrounds themselves with the expertise and commitment to get just the right input at just the right time.


Once the crisis had passed and we had closed the loop with each family, we heard consistent praise from them for our handling of the issue. They appreciated the transparency, the vulnerability, and the efficiency of our communications. I truly believe that most families have a higher positive feeling about our organization than they did before this happened.

I’m honored to work with people who, in the heat of the moment, defaulted to these same principles. Next time you are in a crisis, try out these ideas and see if they help you come out of it for the better.

(Also, check out my post, “When You Make a Mistake….”)

Question: What has been the least successful strategy you’ve seen, or done yourself, in responding to a crisis? Why did it hurt the situation, rather than helping it? Please leave a comment on my site or on social media using any of the buttons. Thank you!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 thoughts on “How to Handle a Crisis… and Come Out Smelling Like a Rose

  1. Excellent post. By using your own organization’s vulnerability, your post had excellent credibility. Good people can exhibit the qualities you discussed when they have strong leadership setting the tone!