Crisis Management: Good Crisis Response, Poor Internal Comms?: Crisis Response
(Written in 2003, but the lessons still hold.)
So what do you do when seven people die on your watch?
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has been facing that responsibility all year since the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry in February. The blame for the tragedy rests squarely on Mr. O’Keefe and his colleagues according to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. A flying piece of insulating foam punched a hole in the wing, but barriers to frank communications within NASA ranks set the stage for what happened.
The irony – and a lesson for all business leaders – is that NASA’s Sean O’Keefe is a master external communicator who may have overlooked critical internal communications.
Let’s begin with how Mr. O’Keefe publicly addressed the disaster. It was textbook crisis communicating beginning literally with day one. Within 6 hours of Columbia’s fall Mr. O’Keefe appeared before the nation to announce that he had already taken these steps: 1. Immediately notified the president and others (keeping stakeholders in the loop) 2. Met with relatives of the dead astronauts and told them what was being done to recover their loved ones and learn the accident’s cause (taking care of victims) 3. Assembled a mishap investigation team (launching an internal investigation) 4. Appointed a mishap investigation board independent from NASA (starting a 3rd party external investigation.)
Mr. O’Keefe also asked people to tell local officials of debris they find (engaging the help of the public) and said, “The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over (expressing regret/concern).” He accepted accountability for all of it saying, “We diligently dedicate ourselves every single day to assuring these things don’t occur. And when they do, we have to act responsibly and accountably and that’s exactly what we will do.”
Mr. O’Keefe’s initial reactions were a benchmark for how to address a crisis. He kept going.
Seeing the investigating board’s ominous handwriting on the wall in July, the NASA chief began setting expectations. He told Johnson Space Center workers, “It’s, make no mistake, going to really be ugly.” At Goddard Space Flight Center he warned, “We’re going to get hammered, but we’re going to come out stronger. That has to be our mindset.”
And the morning of the very day that the report condemning NASA was to be released, Mr. O’Keefe had a column on the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal welcoming the coming storm while simultaneously announcing this phalanx of changes. “To date, we have begun reorganizing the agency’s management operations and mission procedures to improve internal communications and safety practices. We have also initiated hardware redesigns to enhance safety without compromising on flight performance. We have reached out to the U.S. Navy submarine service and naval reactors community to benchmark best practices and help us improve our fundamental operating procedures and processes. We have also formed a distinguished panel led by veteran astronauts, General Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey to monitor and assess all our Return to Flight activities. And we have established an engineering and safety center to ensure that an objective, fresh set of eyes are (sic) on every NASA mission and program.”
Following the release of the report later in the day the NASA administrator met with the press for 90 minutes to say, “We get it.”
Frankly, I cannot imagine better crisis communications than Mr. O’Keefe executed this year, and yet. And yet.
As AP put it, the investigation board found that, “…communication was stifled in NASA and that the safety program was “silent” because engineers with safety concerns were intimidated into silence.”
How could someone who so “get’s it” in communicating with the rest of us run an organization where people aren’t talking to each other and ultimately astronauts get killed? I surely don’t know, but I know this. Good internal communication is often more important than good external communication. Without it your organization can be hollow at the core. As much as I admire what administrator Sean O’Keefe has done, this quote from a NASA employee to the Washington Post haunts, “O’Keefe is probably going to keep us alive, but who’s going to lead us out of here?”