Thursday, May 3, 2012

We have a situation: 5 tips for surviving the war room

A war room at my firm's London office.
Note the wine bottle.
I recently spent a week onsite with a client to announce an acquisition. We had, as is often the case with these engagements, set up a special room for the communications staff to huddle in and make super important decisions, such as “should this font be blue or orange?” Sarcasm aside, the idea behind such a “situation room” or “war room” is to physically centralize all communications during a major announcement or crisis. And it’s a place where anything that can happen, will.

The room itself is usually a normal conference room. You’ve got your typical LCD projector, multiple speaker phones and flip charts. If you’re lucky, there are windows. There may be a flatscreen TV for the news. Maybe some timelines taped to the wall. These are all standard conference room artifacts. In fact, there’s really only one way to tell a situation room from a normal one: Look to the side of the door. You’ll find a table piled high with food, coffee and cold drinks, indicating that the people in this room are going to be there for awhile.

I could spend an hour telling you what makes a war room run successfully. You know, things like physically assembling the decision makers (the CEO, the CFO, etc.) to sign off on messaging. Adhering to strict document protocols for version control. Process discipline and so forth. But that’s all been written about before by people far smarter and more experienced than me. So instead, I thought I'd share some practical advice should you ever find yourself staffing a situation room, either in an in-house role or from an agency. It can be an intense yet ultimately rewarding experience…but you’ve gotta bring your A game. Here are five tips to do just that:
  1. Keep calm and carry on. A colleague once told me, “the hotter they get, the cooler you gotta stay.” War rooms are testy places. Tempers flare. Small objects go airborne without warning.  And there are almost always tears. But none of that can come from you. Be the calm in the eye of the storm. The rock upon which others lean. Or the cliché of your choice that means you suck it up and take it with a smile.
  2. Be helpful in any way you can. In a war room, the boundaries between roles blur. I’m the employee communications person, but that doesn’t mean I won’t help edit the press release. The client sees the agency as one cohesive team, so pitch in. When you do have a free moment, let the client know and see what else you can be doing. Sometimes they’ll ask you to do things that are clearly outside your job description: I’ve gone on office supply runs, carted around computer equipment and taken excruciatingly specific coffee orders, one of which involved a quarter packet of sugar added before the foam. One time I ended up crawling around under a table looking for an extension cord. None of these are in my job description. Or my description of personal dignity. But when the client is paying you to be there and help, you help. They’ll thank you for it later.
  3. Relinquish any sense of ownership. You know that feeling when you’ve crafted the first draft of a masterful press release or employee memo? Where the prose crackles with electricity? And you’re thinking, “damn, I’m good” as you send it to the client? Forget that feeling entirely. Every draft of every deliverable is going to change countless times. That glorious piece of literature you want to laminate and send home to your mom? It will be diluted, genericized and edited beyond recognition as various stakeholders weigh in. That’s all a normal part of the process, so don’t get too attached to anything you write. In the end, arriving at a final communication that works for everyone will be victory enough. If you want to publish pieces that are yours and only yours, start a blog.
  4. Be patient with many small changes. As a situation room staffer, you have a ringside seat to a never-ending parade of details. Word choices – “do we call them employees or colleagues?”  – will shift seemingly with the wind. The facts will change without warning. I’ve seen messaging go from “we’re not laying anyone off” to “we’re closing at least three sites” to “it’s too soon to say” in the span of the hour. Sometimes you’ll change your messaging so many times that you eventually end up right back where you started, the original language staring you in the face, mocking you. (When this happened recently, my client sat back and announced that we’d “looped ourselves on the space-time continuum.”) Things will shift simply because not all the facts are known or decisions made. Be flexible and adapt. You can have a stiff drink once it’s all over.
  5. Finally, whenever food is set in front of you, eat it. Even if you aren’t hungry. Much like sleep, you never know when you’ll see it again.


  1. Not only are these great tips for surviving the war room, but for getting by in life. Tip 5 is one I live and die by, war room or not.

  2. Awesome; so true. So glad to see you blogging! Will be reading.

    Alyson Moses