Crisis Management: Is it Fair? A good principle to know: Crisis response
When golfing wonder Michelle Wie failed to qualify to play in the Masters at the age of 15, her attempt reminded me of that flap a few years earlier when women tried to get into the Masters. At the time, I saw that as an opportunity to discuss crisis management philosophy. Here is what I wrote then, even though my opinion was in the minority and certainly was not reflected in the eventual outcome…
Let’s say you are Hootie Johnson, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. With board support you can maintain an all-male membership – your constitutional right as a private club – or open it to women, millions of whom either play golf or watch your exquisite Masters tournament. What would you do?
On the one hand, if you accept women you could set a high-profile precedent that private organizations, with enough PR pressure, can be bulldozed into changing who and what they are. On the other, if you hold your ground against women members, you risk linking your venerable reputation to elitism and sexism. Worst case, you could be a symbol of the glass ceiling keeping women out of the highest executive suites.
This is a tough call. In fact, many women have openly sided with Augusta National. The club released a poll saying 7 out of 10 Americans – men and women – support the club’s right to make its own membership decisions.
Many columnists have held forth on this matter, but it particularly intrigues those of us who manage public relations crises. We ask, “If Augusta National were my client, what would my advice be? What perceptions are taking hold here since perceptions can become reality? What principles should we follow to reach the best decision since principles should underpin decision making?
While perceptions are in flux, I believe there is a principle that could inform wise action by Augusta National. Let me digress to explain. Several years ago I created audiotapes with strategies on managing crises. There were 10 crisis action steps. I sent review copies of the tapes to business acquaintances including Wachovia Corporation Chairman and CEO emeritus John Medlin of Winston-Salem. Medlin was widely considered one of the nation’s best bankers, and today he still gives incisive advice to corporate boards and executives.
I wondered what Medlin would say about those tapes. He said some nice things and recommended an addition. He said, “Rick, you might consider adding another principle to your 10 crisis action steps. I think leaders looking for a crisis solution should ask themselves – ‘Is it fair?’ Would most observers perceive the solution as fair?” I thanked him and said I would consider it.
Frankly, in the years since that conversation I have not found a crisis situation in which to apply the Medlin principle of fairness – until now – Augusta National.
Sure, other crisis principles have merit for the club: 1) take care of victims or perceived victims, 2) fix the problem, 3) reassure, etc.; but none fits as well as Medlin’s. Let’s test the fairness question.
Is it fair? Is it fair that half of the population be excluded from an organization whose Masters tournament is the epitome of a sport played by both sexes? Is it fair that a club that relies on viewers of both sexes to make its tournament successful exclude one of those sexes? Is it fair that a sporting and cultural icon says no to one sex because it has the right to do so?
Is it fair? Is it fair that public criticism pound a private institution into submission, a club that does allow women to play on its golf course even though they are not members? Is it fair for opposition groups to stir up boycotts. Is it fair that they attempt to compel Tiger Woods to take his athletic gifts honed since childhood and pull out of the Masters unless women are admitted to the club?”
Read those two previous paragraphs again and ask yourself which, in your heart of hearts, represents the fairest way to look at the Augusta National Golf Club dilemma. Is it fairer to include women or fairer to protect the rights of the club? In my opinion, in this case, I think it is the former.
I would recommend that Mr. Johnson find a way to bring in women. He’d need finesse to lead his members to that conclusion and to explain the decision to the public. Even so, it would be the fair thing to do.