Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Things Will Go Wrong
Respond Quickly with Compassion and Honesty
When people heard that a U.S. soldier strolled off base in Afghanistan and opened fire on innocent civilians killing 16 people, most of us felt shock, sadness and dismay. This incendiary incident is especially raw because it further complicates American efforts to end this foreign war. That most of the victims were women and children makes the incident particularly heart wrenching. In the world of crisis communication, rapid response to such an event is mandatory. No doubt, there will be repercussions but President Barack Obama called the Afghan leader to express his “shock and sadness” and to make it clear that Washington is committed to “hold fully accountable anyone responsible.” The United States Commander in Chief did the right thing. His immediate apology marks ethical values and a high moral code.
Think of the many occasions when leaders don’t take responsibility for a disaster and their brands become mud. Remember British Petroleum’s former CEO Tony Hayward’s response during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster? Leaders do not publicly broadcast that they want to have their life back.
This is not so atypical. When faced with crisis, companies and individuals often make mistakes. It is unlikely that Bernard Madoff will ever redeem himself, while Michael Milken, on the other hand, has built The Milken Institute, among the most respected nonpartisan think tanks. Similarly, US Air came out of the 2009 Hudson River crash completely unscathed with Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III’s heroism resonating like a miracle resurrection story. That company took responsibility in a way that resonated.
Image has always been particularly difficult for famous people. Many have forgiven, if not forgotten, Bill Clinton’s infidelities and the disrespect for the office of President they created. Yet it is still unclear whether the public has put Tiger Woods’ debacle to bed. Individuals whose images survived their blunders immediately addressed their situations with an apology, deep compassion and a recitation of their strong core values. They made it clear that their values ran deeper than their current difficulties, placing them in the category of a temporary lapse in their normally good judgment. Each stressed that they had developed these laudable core values long before they committed the current round of blunders. The formula works.
Here’s a strategy that doesn’t work. We never heard anything about core values from Bernie Madoff’s camp. He surrounded himself with lawyers. They were more concerned with his legal problems. The apologies issued by Madoff appeared less than heartfelt. In fact, they sounded like they were concocted by his attorneys and forced from his lips at gunpoint.
Cindy Rakowitz is co-author of the new release Emergency Public Relations, Crisis Management in a 3.0 World with Alan B. Bernstein available now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble online bookstores or www.emergencypublicrelations.com.