Mike Walker and Amanda Eyolfson had experienced a remarkably busy 12 months guiding their boutique video production company, Roll.Focus. Productions through its best year yet. As we waited for another friend to join us, our conversation fell into predictable chit-chat — parking woes, the weather, the holidays. Then Mike said, “I’d like to get this meeting started,” which was a little odd since this was supposed to be a social visit.
“I know you do crisis communications and that’s what we want to talk to you about. We have a crisis at Roll.Focus.” Crisis? What kind of crisis could a small company like Roll.Focus. have, with just Mike, Amanda and one full-time employee?
Mike then dropped a bombshell. “I have brain cancer.” Can there be four words more powerful, more scary, than these? But his ever-present megawatt smile belied the monster growing in his head, which could be any one of four types of cancer.
“One of those is glioblastoma, the same kind that took Gord Downie’s life,” he said of the recently-deceased Tragically Hip frontman. “I hope it’s not that.” His voice trailed off.
News of the devastating diagnosis was startling, especially for a man who hadn’t yet reached his 30th birthday. How could someone so young, so vibrant, so healthy, be dealing with something like this? He and Amanda, newly married, had just started their lives together. The mind boggled.
As the news sank in, the last of our group arrived, communications veteran Bill Eisenhauer, head of engagement for the City of Victoria. As Bill received the same shocking news, we were similarly struck with a flood of emotions — concern, compassion, fear. But for Mike and Amanda this wasn’t a conversation about emotion. Over the course of the previous week, they had shed their tears, confronted their fears and braced their families for the difficult times ahead.
“Telling our families and friends was hard. We knew it would be hard,” said Amanda. It was news that couldn’t be sugar-coated: No time for a biopsy. Straight to surgery. Radiation. Chemotherapy. A year-long battle to endure. But for our coffee shop meeting, just a week after diagnosis, they had checked their emotion at the door. This was business.
“We need to figure out how to tell the business community,” said Mike. “In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be bald with a big scar across the side of my head. People are going to start asking questions. It could kill the business.”
“Either people aren’t going to come to us because they think Mike isn’t here anymore or they won’t want to bother us while he undergoes treatment,” said Amanda. “We need to keep the business going now more than ever.”
What about rumours, innuendo or losing an edge in an increasingly competitive industry? They feared the fast-growing tumour in Mike’s head had also become the biggest single threat to their livelihood.
Roll.Focus. was incubated while Mike and Amanda were in broadcast journalism school, but Mike had always been the face of the company. Although he has left his job as sports reporter and anchor at CHEK News in 2015, his name-brand notoriety and cheery personality had continued to help Roll.Focus. attract clients.
In the spring of 2016, Mike and Amanda graced the cover of this magazine as winners of the 10 To Watch awards and were dubbed one of Victoria’s gutsy new companies that “push past the comfort zone and come out on top.” Mike’s diagnosis would surely put those words to the test.
Since its inception, their small firm had had a big impact, providing video services to the University of Victoria, Harbour Air, Rugby Canada, Destination Greater Victoria, the Royal BC Museum, and even broadcasting the Victoria Day parade. Yes, their clients were loyal, but would they understand the sudden, prolonged absence of their main contact?
There was little doubt Mike’s health scenario now posed a potential crisis for the company. Ask many business leaders to define a crisis and they will most likely think of product recalls, data breaches or employee misconduct. But a crisis can be anything that risks damaging the reputation of a company. The sudden resignation of a CEO, a social media blunder, an operational breakdown or a serious health issue can, if not handled properly, become a crisis of confidence in your business. News travels fast, especially if it’s bad news. Your response can either boost your image or damage your brand.
As full-time communicators regularly challenged by crises, Bill Eisenhauer and I asked all the relevant questions and weighed all of the options. Do nothing and rumours might make the story even worse. Issuing a public statement might be overkill, identifying the health scare for those who don’t need to know.
Our advice: Communicate honestly, but with confidence, to your most loyal customers. Value your trusted business relationships by ensuring they hear the news from you directly. Communicate when you need to, first to current clients then, if necessary, to others. And most of all, ensure everyone knows “it’s business as usual at Roll.Focus.”
“It was good advice,” says Amanda, looking back. “You can only live in a state of fear for so long before you need to make a game plan and keep moving. We had no choice except to take action.”
Jill Smillie, director of marketing for the Victoria Symphony, was among the first clients to be told about Mike’s diagnosis. “I was just shocked … I got all teary eyed, but they were absolutely professional about it,” she says. “By addressing it up front, I felt like they cared about us. Had I heard about it third- or fourth-hand I would be a little more concerned. Are you hiding something? What’s up? But the fact they were so open and honest about it made me want to continue with them even more.”
The conversation with Smillie was just one of several with trusted clients in the weeks before surgery. Every customer had the same reaction: shock, fear and compassion followed by unbending loyalty.
On January 16, less than a month after our pre-Christmas conversation, Mike had brain surgery to remove a large, growing tumour over his right ear. The diagnosis? A form of cancer called astrocytoma, a slower-growing, less-aggressive variety than the cancer which killed Gord Downie.
“That was certainly a bit of good news,” says Mike, who now sported a large, serpentine scar. Fortunately, the surgery was a success and doctors believe they had removed more than 90 per cent of the tumour. To treat the rest, radiation would follow, bringing with it hair loss, then several months of chemotherapy.
For Roll.Focus., the communications strategy also worked. Rumours weren’t allowed to sprout, clients appreciated the trusted approach and business relationships, even with competitive firms, became stronger.
“We actually saw an influx of business,” says Mike. “I think because people were in our corner and wanted to see Roll.Focus. do well despite the health challenges I was up against.”
Facing such extraordinary challenges and uncertainty, they hoped 2018 would be a break-even year. But that influx of business sparked expanded services, national travel, enhanced broadcasting tools and more contract employees, resulting in a 30-per-cent revenue jump.
“Our growth has been great, but it isn’t due to pity,” says Amanda. “People looked past our struggles, trusting that they wouldn’t affect our work flow or our final product.”
Keeping it Real
A year later, Mike is confident about his long-range prognosis and says Roll.Focus. is stronger than ever. He credits a crisis strategy, effective communication and a robust business plan, which included enhanced responsibilities for Amanda and other employees.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy, but no matter what the crisi is, I think communicating it effectively is essential,” he says. “Determining what you’re going to say and then saying it in an authentic way. Being communicative is only going to build trust between you and your clients.”
And there was one other reason for their success: “The Victoria business community had our back. And that’s an incredible feeling.”
This article is from the December/January 2019 issue of Douglas.