Crisis Management: Rumsfeld Shows How to Communicate: Crisis communications
(I wrote this in the early days of the attack on Iraq and before the hard slogging of dealing with the insurgency and before it became clear that Rumsfeld was wrong-headed about war strategy as obviously I was when I first wrote this.)
Watching Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conduct press conferences with assurance, humor, and grace is TV sport these days. If former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the ultimate crisis manager, Rumsfeld is the master of news conferences. I almost fell out of my chair when a reporter asked Rumsfeld if he knew where Osama Bin Laden was, and Rumsfeld replied, “I’d have to be mindless to answer that question… and people who do (answer) either don’t know or are violating federal law.” Delivered with his engaging squinty-eyed grin, Rumsfeld reminded everyone who’s in command.
I was slow to appreciate Rumsfeld and first thought him dangerously chatty with offhand remarks that he later had to clarify. I am now a convert. He has sharpened his repartee while remaining a charming conversationalist. His learning curve supports author Harvey McKay’s admonition that “perfect practice makes perfect.” There’s no substitute for repeatedly doing the real thing to get it right.
Rumsfeld, like Giuliani, is one of a kind, and any attempt to match his style would be like a basketball player trying to fill Michael Jordan’s shoes. We can’t do it. However, as managers, we can pick up quite a few tips from Rumsfeld’s Pentagon briefings on how to lead meetings with adversaries, and certainly press conferences. These are the tactics that I see as useful, and please notice they are helpful far beyond just dealing with the media.
He first connects with the audience. Rumsfeld walks into the room smiling and engages reporters in small talk. After a whirlwind tour overseas he said to a particular journalist, “I didn’t see you on the plane,” chiding him for missing the trip. Reporters seem to like him.
He begins with a written update. While reading a statement is not his forte, this formal message establishes a serious tone (this is war, remember), and provides precise non-adlibbed information. He never just steps up and lets reporters start firing questions. He is in charge.
He is forthcoming. Rumsfeld genuinely tries to answer questions. He seems to want to provide any information that does not compromise military operations or national security. It would be easy to hide behind, “I cannot comment on that,” but he often doesn’t.
He explains why he cannot answer. Rumsfeld says, “I have not made a decision, I have not given it much thought, I have not seen intelligence reports,” or “I just don’t know.” He tries to be transparent on why he does not provide information.
He doesn’t linger on speculative, open-ended questions. He answers quickly and moves on.
He controls the reporters. You never forget that this is Donald Rumsfeld’s show. When asked to answer a touchy question, he is well-known for saying, “I could, but I won’t.” He needled reporters for bending the rules on follow-up questions.
He accentuates the positive. He routinely offsets reporters’ negative characterizations by restating what has been accomplished, and once paraphrased Shakespeare, “Some things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”
He maintains the context. When asked about American bombs killing civilians, he expresses regret, talks about efforts to avoid it, but reminds you that the terrorists started the conflict, not the U.S.
He genuinely wants to help. – A sucker for a last minute question while walking out of the room, he often returns to the microphone. He seems to want people to understand his point of view, and is unphased by tough grilling.
Most importantly, he knows the overarching themes and communicates them over and over. He does not just answer questions; he drives home messages. You probably remember them yourself. We will bring Osama bin Laden to justice. This war is about more than bin Laden. This war will take years. We are patient. We will lose American lives. We will find those responsible and bring them to justice.
In the end, I believe Donald Rumsfeld’s greatest accomplishment has been to convey to a Sept. 11-stunned America that a thoughtful, reassuring professional is serving as Secretary of Defense and protecting lives and freedom. Such is the power of being a good communicator.