“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

That’s what former world champion boxer Mike Tyson said in response to a reporter who wanted to know if he was worried about opponent Evander Holyfield’s strategy.

“What’s do you think will happen?” he was asked.

“[My opponent’s]  going to move, he’s going to dance. He’s going to do this, do that.’ said Tyson. “I’ve got a plan. Everybody has a plan… until they get hit. Then… they stop in fear and freeze.”

Crises are administrative gut punches, no matter how big or small the inciting incident — whether on the global scale of COVID-19 or raw chicken in the cafeteria. Overnight, situations quickly turn into emergencies.

As chief spokesperson — and the senior-most person on whose desk the communications buck comes to a screeching halt — I expect the unexpected every day. It goes with the territory. I know that even when the trains are humming along, they could be derailed at any moment, regardless of how many months we have spent hashing out a fail-safe crisis plan, how many useless table-top exercises we’ve done, or how good the plan looks on paper.

Everyone has a plan until a crisis hits and then it goes out the window.

And right now, everything is in emergency mode.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, 5 Principles to Guide Adaptive Leadership, “… the Covid-19 pandemic is constantly evolving, with leaders facing unpredictability, imperfect information, multiple unknowns, and the need to identify responses quickly — all while recognizing the multi-dimensional (health-related, economic, social, political, cultural) nature of the crisis.”

There is no playbook for this or any other raging-out-of-control issue that suddenly envelops an institution; no cookie-cutter, off the shelf, one-size-fits-all solution, especially now. As one VP of Enrollment, a member of his university’s executive team, said to me recently, “we’re all just making this up as we go along.”

I (grudgingly) accept that I, as chief communicator, won’t get it completely right, because there is no right. But here are a few things I keep front and center when I find myself unexpectedly in the middle of the ring:

  1. To Thine Own Self Be True
    You know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Reckon with your blind spots and assess what you need to do accordingly.  
  2. Tap Into Your Inner Circle
    Build a small group of trusted advisers who fill in those blind spots — who’ll tell you what they think and on whose judgement you can invariably rely.
  3. It Really Does Take a Village
    No one can operate in a vacuum and, as a leader, you have to move quickly and decisively. Recognize that not everyone will see things the way you do, and will have their own strong opinions about what needs to be done. Understand that everyone handles information differently, and really useful feedback often comes from far-flung and unexpected places.
  4. Keep Your Ear to the Ground
    Listen and listen hard to your social media channels, to the intel and real time data that is there for the taking. You’ll know what messages are getting through, which are not, and where the pain points are.
  5. All of Us Fly by the Seat of Our Pants
    Our work in marketing, absent crises, would be very dull indeed. There’s something about jumping out of a plane without a safety net when the stakes are sky high that is both terrifying and exhilarating. It’s a moment when we’re forced to act — for better or worse — whether we want to or not. 

In the end, the adversity of crises does not define us, but how we deal with them does.