Crisis Management: Crisis Management From the Heart: Crisis response
Sometimes – sometimes – the best solutions for complex and even frightening public dilemmas come from the heart. I have seen this happen twice during media training. One time, as usual, the client had to solve a mock crisis and defend his solutions to an aggressive reporter. In a dazzling display of self-confidence and reassurance, he glided through a complex problem with uncommon insight, ease, sincerity, and verbal clarity. He did it the very first time, with no input from me and with no previous experience with crisis management.
As I said, I have only seen this happened once before. When I reflected on these two isolated cases, I realized that once in awhile the greatest crisis management tools may be our hearts rather than our heads.
The first encounter came years ago in Asheville. I gave some 100 transportation engineers a tough scenario and asked three volunteers to respond immediately. Two struggled, but the third was amazing. She disarmed the “reporter,” resolved the dilemma, and put the matter to rest in short order. I doubt that an experienced crisis manager with a full day to think about it could have done better.
This standout was Hoda Kablawi of Law Engineering in Charlotte. After the session I asked Hoda the source of her seemingly effortless strategy and reassuring public comments. Had she faced a crisis before? She said, “No!” Had she been interviewed before? “No!” Had she been trained in crisis management? “No!” Furthermore, this persuasive woman was from Lebanon and English her second language.
I asked her how she did this with no background or experience whatsoever.
Hoda said, “It seemed like the right thing to do!” That was it. “It seemed like the right thing to do!”
The more recent tour de force of this kind, the one that began this column, came from American Express’s David Braxton in Greensboro. Facing a nasty snarl of a scenario and a belligerent “reporter”; David, like Hoda, responded almost flawlessly. He reassuringly untangled the predicament, fielded every tough question, and calmly settled the matter. He was “bulletproof” from a media point of view.
I questioned David just as I did Hoda. How did he do it with no background or experience in crisis or media management? Like Hoda, he said, “Because it seemed like the right thing to do.”
I have media trained hundreds of people and encountered only these two aces. Why? What are the rest of us missing? Why does crisis management puzzle us so often? Is there some obvious solution escaping us?
Searching for insight, I recalled a conversation with another crisis manager. We were asking ourselves why some companies resolve potentially explosive situations with seeming ease and grace while others stumble after shooting themselves in the foot? Our consensus was that the successful survivors usually have leaders who value employees and customers and create an environment where people feel good about themselves and their work. Conversely, companies that struggle tend to have autocratic regimes of rigid rules and a bottom line orientation that confine employees to being cogs in a vast machinery. In other words, companies that tend to operate from a golden rule or “do the right thing” philosophy seem to gravitate toward “do the right thing” solutions. Just like Hoda and David. Inflexible institutions, meanwhile, lean toward combative, defensive, or merely legal postures.
Business, crisis management, and life, rarely follow simple predictable patterns, and each situation is unique. And yet the fundamental lesson is that crisis and problem management may sometimes be no more complicated than “doing the right thing” and “saying the right thing.” That is the common thread through Hoda to David to successful problem-solving companies. Actions and words rest upon basic positive truths sincerely believed and readily acted upon.
As I see it, this presents at least two important challenges for companies to prepare to manage crises. 1) Foster a “do the right thing” atmosphere that sets the tone for finding constructive solutions. 2) Identify or attract executives such as Hoda Kablawi and David Braxton – people with strong moral compasses. During times of trouble, they will know what to do. They can see through the fog of uncertainty and guide others in the right direction. This is priceless insight.
This philosophical simplicity is consistent with what I have seen in some crises with which I have been involved. There would be a myriad of issues and loose ends baffling those involved. Once all of us agreed on a few straightforward philosophies, the solutions would seem to materialize. Answers came so fast that you would have thought Hoda and David were there.