Crisis Management: Improvise training – Sometimes it is the Best Strategy: Media training
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote memorably, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Let me put it in plain language. “Woe be unto you if you are not flexible.”
Sometimes you solve problems best by dropping well-laid plans and turning on a dime. Adaptability is critical for everyone.
Here are some cases that drove this point home for me. From the perspective of managing people and events, ask yourself as you read along how you have responded in similar situations in your workplace.
My client and I were supposed to media train a couple of cultural experts to face reporters. These were wonderful older folks whom we wanted to elevate to higher levels of performance. One was a fishing folk hero in his late sixties, the other a well-known restaurateur in her seventies. Both were charming: like grandparents you could sit with and listen to all day. And that was their potential problem. They liked to talk. That meant that reporters who would interview them for feature stories would have to pick through their ramblings to find useful information. So, while they were colorful, we nevertheless wanted them to focus their conversations in order to generate better articles.
We videotaped mock interviews to identify weaknesses and strengths. Sure enough, they rambled. Definitive statements were few. We began to critique the tape to see how they could improve. Yet, as soon as I began to make my recommendations, I sensed something was wrong. As I looked into the faces of these life veterans, my advice rang hollow. My heart wasn’t in it. My stomach tightened.
On reflection, my instincts told me that I was meddling with authenticity. I was trying to alter their natural, uncalculated honesty. Their gift to the rest of us was personality and experience honed by decades of living. Imperfections in their case were attractive. Tampering was unwarranted. Sure, I could impose my philosophies, but at what cost? Was message focus worth sacrificing quaint eccentricity? No!
I backed off. The formal sessions became casual discussions of ideas. I tried to eliminate performance pressure. I even stopped the videotape that is so powerful in 99% of media training. It was too intimidating, I thought, and made them self-conscious. Ultimately, they did just fine with only the mildest of guidance from me.
During media training at a Virginia company I discovered a plant manager who was “spot on” in crisis management. From the minute I began to work with him, I could tell that my approach was fuzzing up his own decision-making style and perhaps confusing him. We arrived at the same conclusions, but through different personal styles. I told him to set aside what I had said and continue to follow his gut. The remainder of our time concentrated on less-enlightened colleagues. To this day the plant manager continues to perform well without substantial input from me.
At an Orlando community college, I started a routine media training session, when it was suddenly apparent that the president and her management team were consumed with an overriding issue that had thrust them unpleasantly into the headlines. I dropped my typical program so that the entire group and I could work 10 straight hours on solutions. Again, the usually helpful video camera was never used.
At a hospital in the northeast, a physician warring with administration was stirring up trouble with regulators. Media training was originally the plan, but once again the real-world challenge was so thorny that necessity outweighed the need for the training. Why train when you have reality to tackle? The regular program fell by the wayside as we turned to problem solving that continues to the present.
An international company sat me down with a lawyer and two mid-level managers for media training intended to clarify what the company would say should an embarrassing mistake become public. As we began to work it through, all of us realized that the internal response up to that time had been inadequate, and the company’s reputation was in jeopardy if executives didn’t do something fast. We stopped the media training cold, and within hours, top management all the way to Europe got involved with the situation, and endorsed steps we recommended. From then on, the company was in position to defend itself.
In conclusion, military commanders know that you can train for battle, but when the bullets fly you usually improvise to survive. Sometimes we have to discard careful planning to fix what appears before us. Our survival as leaders and the survival of our companies depend upon it.