Crisis Management: Good actions need Good Communications in a crisis: Crisis Communications
The fallout from Vice President Dick Cheney’s poor communications following his accidental shooting of a fellow hunter should be a warning shot in every executive suite. In fact, this case demands an axiom. I suggest, “Good actions without good communications often fail.” Not only must you do the right thing, you must say the right thing. And not just to the press. To all stakeholders.
Let’s start with the Texas quail hunting accident. While the Vice President’s immediate actions after shooting Harry Whittington appear appropriate, his anguish and acceptance of responsibility genuine, the dribbling out of information created a void that critics, cynics, and media filled for days with gusto. That is NOT what I think is important to the rest of us. What IS significant is how the foot-dragging generated unnecessary uncertainty about the Vice President and, by extension, the administration. How many average citizens who previously had no strong feelings about Mr. Cheney’s leadership have new doubts?
The case reminds me of advice from a veteran PR professional at Wachovia a long time ago. She said you should rapidly acknowledge a crisis to the media and get your best response in the first story. This wisdom has become richer over the years, and Mr. Cheney’s misfortune is merely the latest example of the penalty for ignoring it.
In 1997, a Wall Street Journal column criticized Nike for bad press communications causing needless negative PR. While reporters lambasted the company for using sweat shops to make its shoes, the column said Nike corrected each case. Nevertheless, the column reported that the company did such a poor job of dealing with the media that “the company sure made itself look guilty. …Nike would have been better off not acting as if it had something to hide.” (Company officials once put their hands in front of a CBS camera at a factory in Vietnam.) Since then, Nike has thrown open the doors on its factories, but those missteps nine years ago are still illustrative. Without good communications, corrective action is like a tree falling in a forest.
During a recent crisis in a major media market in another state, a client and I had just three hours to act before TV reporters would conduct “live shots” concerning a damaging story about the client. We raced to convey critical information to journalists within that brief window and were able to make a constructive difference in how the story was reported. From the beginning the client had done the right thing, but it might have come to naught if our team had not dispatched vital information to the press/public.
And this involves more than the news media. As I have said in other columns, internal communication is equally important or more so. A client was about to announce necessary but negative news to the community. Stakeholders did not know it was coming. We scrambled to bring everyone into the tent so that when the article emerged, good internal relations were maintained. (In the Cheney case, reportedly the Vice President did not personally talk to President Bush about the shooting until two days later. Would you have done such with your boss?)
To be sure, unless Mr. Whittington were killed or maimed, this event was bound for the pantheon of White House mishaps along with Clinton & Lewinski, Gerald Ford’s stumbling, and Bush 41’s “read my lips.” Mr. Cheney’s wayward shot will linger. Much more significant to the rest of us is the keystone cops communication. While the Vice President is said not to give a hoot what the press says about him, I suspect the administration isn’t so sanguine. And if your company makes a mistake, I don’t think you will be amused if your best efforts are masked by a failure to communicate. Good actions without good communications often fail.