Archive for the ‘Crisis Communication’ Category

True Confessions

It’s hard to tell who gets the most out of Lance Armstrong’s true confessions – the disgraced former Tour de France champion or the one-time champ of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey. To say that the two seem to be made for each other is like saying bicycles have tires.

Just review the run-up to the already celebrated interview that hasn’t even aired yet. First, its leaked to the New York Times days ago that Armstrong is going to come clean – pardon the pun – after years of denying what everyone knows, that he is a serial (cyclical?) cheater. That scoop is followed immediately by vehement denials by unnamed sources “close to Armstrong.” The plot thickens.

Finally, Winfrey – her struggling cable channel looking about as successful as Al Gore’s did before Al Jazerra came calling – says she’ll sit down with Lance for the big interview. The content, we now learn, is so compelling that Oprah has decided it needs to be spread across two – count ‘em – two nights of TV. But, before the klieg lights could cool word leaks that, yes, Lance has confessed. How could he not confess – tearfully, perhaps – sitting on the American family sofa in Oprah’s living room?

Then the interviewer, the most accomplished sports interlocutor since, say Brent Musburger - hold on – speaks on CBS This Morning! Yes, Lance did confess! Film on Thursday. Stay tuned.

Was he contrite? Well, Oprah says, I’ll leave that to the viewers. And, by the way, he really, really surprised me with the way he handled the interview. And, did I mention, its so darn good “my team” decided we needed to spread out of the goodness over two nights.

One of the best lines on all this comes from Dave Zirin writing in The Nation: “(Armstrong) is attempting to use the forgiving, New Age, healing glow of Oprah to please multiple masters with a mix of candor, charm, and puppy dog sympathy. There is a slight flaw however in this plan, which would challenge the smoothest of operators: that’s the stubborn fact that Lance Armstrong is also a person who makes Rahm Emanuel look like Tickle Me Elmo.”

In one respect, Armstrong and his lawyers are engaged in a brilliant piece of damage and mind control. In the age of Twitter, by the time the damn interview airs this week Lance’s confession will be like yesterday’s garbage – take it to the curb, we’re done with it.

This is, of course, what the cycling cheater had in mind all along. No sense confronting the people Armstrong has defamed or the real reporters he has mislead while repeatedly, vehemently and righteously putting himself above his sport and anything approaching a shred of sportsmanship, not to say honor.

In the curious world in which we live some cheaters – Pete Rose and Barry Bonds come to mind – are consigned to the dust bin where failed heroes go to sulk. Others, if they have the moxie, are given a second or third act. Lance Armstrong is using his Oprah moment in just as cold and calculating a manner as when he engaged in one of the greatest sports cheating scandals of all time.

Stay tuned, after the confession comes the phase where Lance will turn state’s evidence and in the blinding white light of rehabilitation cast himself not as the guy who forever tainted an entire sport, but as the guy who now comes to clean it up.

Oprah should know, it’s tough to be contrite when you’re calculating. Tickle Me Elmo is giggling somewhere.

 

Leaking Oil and Credibility – Part II

obamaThe President as Crisis Manager

As a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Barack Obama has learned – let’s hope he’s learned – some lessons about leadership in a crisis.

Some of the criticism leveled at the President, such as the BP mess being “Obama’s Katrina,” seem a little off base and the media driven storyline about Obama needing to show a little temper was mostly just a made for cable controversy. Still the facts are that with the oil company clearly not acting quickly enough and ultimately not having a real plan to contain the damage from the big blow out, residents of the Gulf region and the county looked to Obama to lead. His record is, in my view, at best spotty.

Many Americans embraced the Sarah Palin “drill, baby, drill” notion during the last campaign, but at the same time those same folks are no fans of Big Oil. In a new USA Today poll, 71% of those surveyed say Obama should get tougher with BP. His speech from the Oval Office tonight seems likely to take a harder line, but that’s only part of the lesson from this crisis and its comes late in the crisis management game.

Most executives learn – sooner or later – that the most difficult thing to uncover in a crisis is quality information upon which to act. It became pretty clear pretty fast that the information deficit in the Gulf would be a major problem. While BP tried one Rube Goldberg fix after another, the President and his people came late to the realization that BP was making it up as they went. In short, there was little reliable information about the best strategy to contain the growing spill and all the ideas seemed to be coming from the less than credible company that caused the crisis in the first place. Everyone involved also seemed to lack good intelligence on what the moving oil slick would likely mean to the Gulf coast.

Obama needed better information earlier and faster. Lesson number one.

Most executives also learn – eventually – that you can’t delegate responsibility when you’re the top guy. For days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was the administration’s face on the scene. Nothing against Salazar, but we all know where the buck stops. The President and his advisers should have realized that this was his crisis to manage, and manage aggressively almost from day one.

So, lesson number two. Obama should have taken charge much sooner and more forcefully. I think, and again hindsight is easy, that he should have insisted on face-to-face meetings with BP leadership in the Gulf and in DC. Realizing that the government doesn’t possess the expertise to plug a blown out oil well a mile deep in the ocean, he should have raided major oil companies, universities, the national labs, private industry and foreign sources for the best available talent to manage the containment. I think the most profound criticism to level at the President is his failure to take the containment job away from BP early on. If he can fire the CEO of GM, he certainly has the moral authority to take over in this case. He should have.

Who is to say whether better solutions would have been forthcoming, but such a move would have clearly signalled that he was in charge and not relying on the company to address its own obvious failures.

Another lesson: when all is said and done this disaster will largely be about who pays and how much. Apparently the President is now insisting on a BP escrow account to be available to finance the clean up, pay claims, etc. Better late than never, but still very late. Money won’t fix all that will need to be fixed in the Gulf, but money will certainly do until something better comes along. Obama could have displayed real toughness by both taking control of the containment effort and forcing BP to put real money on the table a lot earlier.

Finally, I expect the President has learned another valuable, but painful lesson from this long ordeal: its hard to mobilize the government to effectively deal with a crisis that is both big and unpredictable. Katrina not withstanding, we generally have pretty effective national response to natural disasters – flood, hurricanes and the like – we struggle when the crisis is outside the usual box. Hard as it is to believe, federal agencies – state agencies for that matter – are rarely or routinely called upon to work together and coordinate an overall approach to a problem. They tend to be isolated, siloed organizations where even top managers, in say, the Transportation Department don’t know their counterparts over at Interior. It is a problem endemic to any large organization, but it can be particularly acute in government.

As John Kennedy famously said when the right hand of his government didn’t know what the left hand was doing – “there is always some dumb SOB who doesn’t get the word.”

That’s why any President – or Governor or CEO – needs to be able to reach down in the bureaucracy and crack heads in the interest of action. Action in government, where most folks practice survival skills full time and are horribly risk averse, even during a crisis, requires aggressive, demanding leadership.

A final lesson from history. When the great (and flawed) Winston Churchill took over as British Prime Minister in the dark days of 1940, he insisted, against almost unanimous advice, on reserving to himself the portfolio as Defense Minister as well as Prime Minister. Critics said it was too much for any one man, particularly one pushing 70 years of age. Winston was told he needed to delegate the day-to-day running of the war and focus instead on the big picture strategy.

But Churchill, who knew a few things about human nature and leadership, understood that he would get the credit or blame for every military success or failure regardless of whether some other figure had the official title. Churchill insisted on being in the middle of every decision, pushing, prodding, selecting personnel and reading reports and issuing demanding memos. He craved the responsibility and, while he certainly didn’t get every call correct, he inspired great confidence and dogged determination just when both were needed the most.

In a crisis – the Battle of Britain or a oil spill in the Gulf – the top guy is the responsible party. Might as well make the most of it, a lesson President Obama now seems to be embracing, finally.

Leaking Oil and Credibility

oil+spillLessons to Learn

I’ve been asked a dozen times since the BP oil spill developed in the Gulf of Mexico what I would have advised the company’s executives as they face what may prove to be – or already is – a truly catastrophic environmental disaster. Alas, BP hasn’t called, but of course I have some ideas about what they might have done differently.

The general consensus has now developed that BP has irreversibly lost the PR battle, with some now comparing the lackluster response to Exxon’s handling of the Alaska spill years ago, and has yet to win the battle to stop the oil flow.

Could it have been different? Hard to tell, but maybe.

Rule number one of a real crisis, I think, is simply that it is almost impossible for any entity – corporate, governmental, etc. – to move fast enough. The first hours in responding to a disaster, particularly such a public disaster, almost always establish the public perception of how well the crisis is being handled. The first hours and days of the Gulf spill now seem like a blur. What was happening, who was in charge, was this really bad, could it be quickly contained? Instinctively, I think, most people watched the television pictures of the burning oil rig and concluded that this would be a real mess. Meanwhile, BP and the government seemed slow out of the blocks.

So, BP – and the government – failed the first test of crisis. They couldn’t or wouldn’t move fast enough. In the early hours of a major crisis, action is always better than talk.

What might BP have done differently? I have five suggestions for what could have been done and one guess about why none of it happened.

First, how might it have changed public perception had BP’s CEO, the much-beleaguered Tony Hayward, immediately gone on television – from the Gulf – and announced that he was asking the state of Louisiana to establish an account, that the state would control, in which BP would immediately deposit – pick the number – $250 million as a down payment on the clean up? Real cash, not a promise to pay all “legitmate claims” might have made a powerful statement that the big oil company was really serious.

Additionally, BP might have announced that it was immediately suspending al offshore drilling every where in the world while it conducted, with the help of outside experts, its own assessment of safety and emergency response.

Hayward could also have humbly asked for an immediate meeting – in the Gulf – with President Obama, the Secretary of the Interior, the top Coast Guard officials, the heads of Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and the governors of the Gulf states. The purpose of the meeting: establish an immediate crisis response team, seek the best possible industry help to determine the best way to stop the leak and contain the oil and, most importantly, get all the responsible folks in the same room and on the same page.

It might have also helped BP’s credibility from the first moment had Hayward admitted what almost all the rest of us suspected – the company did not know the extent of the leak, did not fully understand the cause, didn’t have a sure fire solution to contain the oil and fully expected the worst with regard to the environmental consequences. It is remarkable what a humble admission of “we don’t know and we need help” will do to retain credibility and, frankly, buy time to get organized and really figure out what to do.

Hayward should also have become the sole face of the company’s response. He should have camped out in the Gulf, constantly meeting with local officials, business people, environmentalists and fishermen, and working the media. He should have aggressively engaged the President and his administration rather than appear to be a reluctant participant in the whole process by suggesting he wanted “his life back.”

Here is a bet as to why BP seemed to do nothing in the first days except to say it took responsibility while seeming to downplay what was really happening. I’m betting the company’s lawyers took charge of the response and the overriding objective became to contain the financial and legal liability for BP and its shareholders. I can almost hear a smart, articulate attorney telling the CEO that he must do nothing that would eventually be used to shape the inevitable legal cases that will drive BP’s liability.

Don’t get me wrong, the lawyers must be in the room when a crisis is unfolding, but in a career of helping manage various kinds of crisis – nothing admittedly this big – I have concluded that the “right thing to do” is almost immediately in conflict with what constitutes the best legal strategy for the entity responsible for the crisis. It’s hard for any CEO – even the most well intentioned – to ignore the legal advice he will receive, but doing the right thing – and fast – is almost always the better long-term option than to craft a response that is driven largely by legal considerations.

Now, as the President heads back to the Gulf today, the New York Times reports that he will demand a BP escrow account, summon the company’s executives to the White House and generally ramp up the public pressure on the company. Some might argue it’s a little late.

It is easy to second guess while looking in the rear view mirror, but I think, had BP acted faster and more decisively by putting real money on the table and seeking help and buy in from the industry and government, it could have taken charge of the unfolding narrative in the first hours and saved itself some major and long-lasting PR heartburn.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on lessons for the President in the government’s response to the spill.

Toyota’s Troubles

toyotaAnatomy of a Recall, er, Recalls

David Letterman’s monologue hit a little close to home the other night. Dave said that things had gotten so bad at Toyota that the “navigation lady was praying.”

Indeed, prayer may be the next strategy at Toyota. At least it would be a strategy.

Whatever happens next, Toyota could do well to follow the lead of the navigation lady. She is the best thing about my Toyota. The navigation lady is always polite, authoritative, just a bit assertive in that favorite aunt kind of way, and she is always well prepared, unlike the top brass at Toyota. When you take a wrong turn, against her advice, the navigation lady will gently remind you to “make a legal U-turn” and get back on track.

Better than prayer, Toyota response to its current crisis of quality requires a legal U-turn. Listen to the navigation lady.

Toyota has violated all three of what I think of as the basic rules of handling a crisis. The company’s response has been consistently ineffective, slow and lacking a message. Three strikes.

Until very recently, Toyota failed to take charge of the crisis, admit the obvious and directly and convincingly apologize.

It seems like no one in charge at the big company asked the fundamental question that should always be asked in a crisis situation – what is the right thing to do to protect the public? Answering that question honestly and then acting in the public interest is almost always the surest way to protect the corporate reputation and maintain public trust. The image of Toyota’s CEO getting ambushed at a swanky Swiss resort during the world economic summit, followed by his escape in a sleek Audi (with good brakes no doubt) only helped drive the narrative of a company lacking real leadership and unwilling to assume responsibility for serious quality shortcomings. A brand as resilient as Toyota’s could have withstood an early, frank admission of lack of performance followed by a heartfelt apology and immediate corrective action. Instead, the response was halting, ineffective and forced. Most folks are forgiving, even of corporate CEO’s, if they believe they are getting the honest story and that contrition is genuine. Toyota dented the fender on this basic requirement.

Toyota has lacked a consistent, believable message.

Communication 101 here. A consistent message from the beginning of the crisis; a message that addressed what went wrong, what needs to be done to fix it and restating the company’s commitment to safety and quality would have helped shape the public – and Letterman’s – response. Perhaps Toyota should have immediately invited third-party supervision of its processes and aggressive engaged the regulators as it engineered a technical response to the crisis. Instead, customers and the public got what looks a lot like the stonewall.

And, Toyota has made the classic mistake in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, it has failed the test of speed.

Speed kills. In the age of instant communication, speed kills bad news or a lack of speed feeds the flames of crisis. Toyota’s response has been so slow and so defensive that it helped spawn a whole series of stories, like the lead piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, that only fed the notion that Toyota’s reputation for quality is a myth. With Toyota failing to provide a quick, credible counter narrative – no recognition of the need for speed – the crisis has kept growing.

Toyota will probably pick its way through this mess, but it will take some time and the damage will last a while. I’ll keep paying close attention to the navigation lady, at least for a while, but I may need some convincing to take a chance on another Toyota. The company is paying the cost of incredibly sloppy handling of big and very public troubles. In the modern world, a precise, quick and genuine response to a crisis is the only way to avoid an even bigger crisis.