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Lessons from the Past: How Leading Businesses Manage Crisis Effectively

Nobody has ever weathered the storm quite like KHOU in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. Learn how they did it, and find out how you can apply what they learned to your business during the COVID-19 crisis.

Meredith Cunningham Published: March 23, 2020

Whether it’s a pandemic like COVID-19, extreme weather like hurricanes, or a financial “black swan,” crises have commonalities. They create uncertainty and intense feelings of helplessness. They force businesses to quickly adapt and respond. In a split second, with no road map, they create “new normals” for an entire city, nation, or in this case, the world.

Businesses that weather these storms have strong preparedness plans in place, act decisively and communicate often and with transparency.

One such business was KHOU in Houston, Texas. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the local CBS affiliate was forced to abandon their building during live news coverage. It was an unprecedented situation.  

The news team was forced to go off the air for a brief time when consumers needed them most. Their sales team was geographically dispersed for months and had to learn new ways of communicating with and serving their advertisers – clients who themselves were facing troubled times.  

KHOU director of sales, Miles Cathey, states, “I worked hard to be very transparent with my staff at all times. They needed and deserved to have constant updates. They were displaced from the flooding and had to change offices more than once. I used Skype and conference calls to update them on a regular basis, which made a tremendous difference.” 

For months, the entire KHOU team worked out of temporary facilities while a new home was located. The newsroom and the sales organization were in two different locations and station leadership split their time between both workspaces.  

“The entire situation required our leadership team to stay calm, be accessible to our staff and demonstrate 24/7 support to our clients. We provided business leadership to all our stakeholders and also served as a friend, providing compassionate shoulders for them to lean on. Simply providing a listening, reassuring ear meant more than you can imagine,” Cathey continued.  

Leading through crisis meant balancing the day to day with the long term. On a daily basis, the team was troubleshooting, actively communicating and staying positive for their front line staff. However, the long term also needed their attention.  

“One of the things I found very helpful during Harvey was relying on my strong sales management team and leveraging my external network of support,” shares Cathey. “Having a strong leadership team behind me helped me delegate much of the day to day so I could focus more on six months, 12 months and 18 months down the line.”  

Cathey said a strong network of fellow business leaders also came in handy. Being able to share best practices, hear from fellow leaders and draw inspiration from business owners and managers in similar situations proved valuable in bringing new strategies to KHOU. In addition, Cathey was able to leverage the station’s network of clients to help forge new and innovative win-win partnerships. 

One key element to their success in weathering Harvey was flexibility. When chaos hits, flexibility can put more wind in the sails. After all, what looks like a good plan today may be a terrible one tomorrow. So remaining flexible and open to change, especially as the variables around you change, will be an advantage. It’s easier said than done but staying nimble and patient pays off. The worst will pass. Recovery will come. And the future does arrive with better days. And when those days come, you will be even better prepared for future storms.  

Going through Harvey was difficult but necessary to help with future crises, says Cathey. “KHOU now has solid contingency plans and infrastructures in place. We practice preparedness once yearly, and our focus on preparedness – while focused on hurricanes and flooding – does translate to other types of crisis. We’re just as ready to handle another hurricane as we are to help our clients navigate COVID-19.” 

Ultimately, KHOU successfully weathered the storms of Hurricane Harvey and today is a leading media business in Houston. Their story of grit, resilience, flexibility and leadership is a lesson in crisis management for all of us.  

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