Crisis Management: Crisis and Communications Lessons From Events in the News: Crisis response
Read a newspaper or turn on the news and you’ll almost always find a communication lesson embedded in current events, and with the force of being based in reality. Here are some disparate events or articles from 2003 and lessons to be gleaned from each:
Guilford College student investigated for planting box cutters on passenger jets to call attention to security holes. A wonderful college is thrust into the national news by events beyond its control. One minute Guilford is a quiet Quaker school of notable alumni and excellent reputation, the next it is the home of a student whose alleged actions give a post 9/11 shiver. You never know when your business or organization is going to be hijacked by outside forces. If Guilford College can be jerked into the national news, you can too. Prepare for it. At the least, designate a crisis response team of 3-5 of your best thinkers with backups. Provide philosophies upon which to base actions and words. At most, have a crisis plan. Just remember that plans are helpful, but most decision makers rely upon people when the chips are down.
Rush Limbaugh is investigated for involvement in illegal prescription drug traffic and checks himself into a detox center for painkiller addiction. I see two lessons from Rush. Practice what you preach – The conservative talk show star had been pillorying others for moral failings while secretly deep in his own private hell. When in trouble, accept accountability – While sidestepping legal questions, Rush admitted his addiction, his responsibility for it, and acted. You know he was doing something right when liberal Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman admitted she felt sorry for Limbaugh. She wrote, “So call me a wimp. When bad things happen to bad people, I have trouble going for the jugular. Wimpathy by another name is plain ol’ empathy. And willy-nilly, Rush gets a slice of mine… but I will hope that while big Rush is in rehab, he learns to walk a corridor in somebody else’s shoes.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger apologizes for “groping” women and then wins California governorship. I wondered whether the actor was going to survive the volume of the complaints since more than just one or two accusers stepped forward to accuse him. I thought that in the quiet of the voting booth the issue might stick as a character issue. Yet, his straightforward apologies for previous admittedly boorish behavior seemed to ring true and the mea culpas given to myriad reporters apparently registered. It is hard to stay angry at someone saying, “I was wrong.” (Of course Governor Davis’ self-destruction didn’t hurt.)
More than 1000 Los Angeles Times readers cancel subscriptions to protest the newspaper’s expose of Schwarzenegger’s groping history one week before the election. Countless others complained. Acquaintances of mine, knowing I am a former reporter, griped to me. My take? Sometimes the news business can’t win for losing. In 1992 The Washington Post tried to avoid similar criticism by holding off on a front-page sexual misconduct story about U-S Senator Robert Packwood until after the election in which the Oregon senator was narrowly re-elected. By 1995, those misdeeds would force him from office. Should the Post have alerted voters before the election and risked L-A Times type of heat, or should it have waited as it did to be fair to the candidate? What would you have done?
“Nothing in (Presidential candidate John Edwards’) speech ever lives up to his gesture.” This AP story out of Washington criticized the NC Senator and other candidates for artificial gesturing in their speeches. The article said, “Flapping, waving, pounding, pointing – these motions can be their own language…but figuring out what their gestures mean is not always easy.” You can almost always spot improperly coached speakers by watching for robotic, non-sensical gestures. It is true that gestures sometimes add emphasis to parts of a presentation, but they must be genuine and part of the way you have communicated all your life. Movements must be unconscious, natural and not choreographed. Phony-looking gesticulating can make a speaker look insincere, hyperbolic, or even untrustworthy. Remember that researchers have found that genuine gesturing is more for us than for our audience. It’s an action some use during conversation to help recall information from memory. Furthermore, when seen in slow-motion, real gestures actually slightly precede the point being made, and you cannot fake that. False gesturing in presentations interferes with believable communication. Let it come naturally or not at all.
So check out the news. Communications lessons are there for the picking.
Rick Amme is President of Amme & Associates, a media/crisis communications company in Winston-Salem. He is also a member of the Business Journal’s Editorial Board of Contributors.