Crisis is in vogue.
On TV, we have Olivia Pope and Ray Donovan in "Scandal." On the big screen, we are watching the Sandra Bullock movie, Our Brand Is Crisis, based on a real PR company founded by James Carville (see Bill and Hillary Clinton). The problem with all the fictional and non-fictional crises management specialists is that they can lead us astray when we actually have a crisis to manage. In reality, most CEOs call their chief counsel, who then calls their outside counsel. But is the legal community the right place to start?
Don’t Listen to Your Attorney
Actually, better said, don’t just listen to your attorney. You need to listen to your legal team but you also should be careful about how much of their advice you follow. Their primary objective will be to limit your damage by minimizing what risk you will be exposed to. They often believe that by not feeding ‘the fire’ it will run out of oxygen and soon be extinguished. This is a great approach until it doesn’t work. In the 24-hour non-stop news world, the press will create the ‘oxygen’ to keep the story going even if you don’t.
Take MSNBC and the Malaysia Airlines crash. So desperate to fill its hours with content and with the absence of any content coming out of Malaysia, the host Krystal Ball takes a phone call from an alleged “eyewitness” to the crash. Not until this witness confirmed the plane was blown down by a “blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass” did they spot they were being ‘punked.’ More oxygen to keep the story alive.
You can’t control this, however hard you try. The story will last as long as it does and runs out of steam. If you are lucky something else might come along that is worse and take the spotlight off you. The chances are that will not happen – it might, but hope is not a strategy.
While your legal team’s primary objective is short term, your primary objective should be surviving the crisis in the long run. Anything you don’t say now for legal reasons will appear to others as if you are trying to hide something. Worse, any mistakes you make in how and what you communicate will appear suspicious to the outside world.
There is an eponymous law, named after Robert J. Hanlon often known as Hanlon’s Razor. This law (or aphorism) suggests that one should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. In Britain we have a simpler way of saying it - “never confuse a cock-up with a conspiracy.” In terms of your crisis, what you don’t want is someone to confuse anything you say or do as part of a conspiracy or cover-up. As Martha Stewart and many others have found out, the cover-up is always worse than the crime.
Aside from your mistake, you must also be aware that in the world of 24-hour news and social media, many people are looking to promote themselves by denigrating others. Truth can be the first victim of the behavior. Your only weapons are honesty, integrity and transparency.
Be honest and say what you know when you know it. If you don’t know the answer, commit to getting the answer and ensure you do. It’s hard to remember a story that isn’t true in enough detail not to get caught out – it is always better to tell the truth.
Good from Bad
Done badly, crisis management will not only cause hardship and pain, but can cost people’s jobs and a huge amount of money. Take Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP at the time of the tragedy in the Gulf. With hindsight, it looks like he repeatedly did the right things and said the wrong ones. Think about his statement: "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." Easy to understand and sympathize with this point – unless you think about the 11 people that lost their lives. But good can come from bad.
Air France had a tragedy with a scheduled passenger flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France, which crashed on June 1, 2009. Many people look at how the Air France PR team managed this tragedy as a textbook approach. As one reviewer put it, “…in the face of this desperate news openness, honesty, accountability, swiftness of action were the cornerstones of Air France’s approach.”
Holding Yourself Accountable
Among the more frustrating habits of our political leaders, I find the subject of accountability the one that drives me to maximum annoyance. When something bad happens, at some point some politician is going to say “I hold myself accountable.” Great but now what? Who is being fired? What process or action is being changed or taken? Saying you are holding yourself accountable is not actually holding yourself accountable.
In the real world, you either hold yourself accountable or someone else will. This is of course what your legal advisors are most scared of – that you be found liable or negligent. If you are liable or negligent, then my advice is to assume it will be found out and start dealing with it, now. Hold yourself accountable – even if that means you have to resign or at least offer to. Take responsibility for what happened and fix it.
Some crises are self-made and some are tragedies. Whichever you find yourself in, you need to respond the same way. Act with transparency and accountability. Doing the right thing and then living with the consequences is always the best approach.
Nigel Dessau is the author of Become a 21st Century Executive: Breaking Away from the Pack (Infinity Publishing, June 2015). He is also the creator and driving force behind The 3 Minute Mentor website, which provides significant career guidance in three minute videos. The website claims thousands of subscribers from all over the world. Become a 21st Century Executive is based upon episodes and concepts found in the 3 Minute Mentor.