Crisis Management: THIS is how the CEO should relate to reporters: Crisis avoidance
(Former Wachovia Bank CEO John Medlin died unexpectedly June 7)
While John Medlin was renowned for his conservative profitable leadership, community involvement and broad friendship (I was one of his many tennis partners), he had savvy insights into working with reporters. They’ll be apparent as I begin by telling you how I crossed paths with this courtly executive twice chosen most admired banker in the U.S.
In 1983 I returned to this area from St. Louis and became aware of his reputation. Always wanting to learn from successful people I set out to meet Medlin. With the blessings of my employer (WXII-TV) and the bank he and I taped a long interview in his office. This cordial first meeting put my foot in the Medlin “door” that would always remain open. The wisdom many already valued quickly became apparent.
Not long after that first interview, Medlin invited colleague Denise Franklin and me to lunch. Sitting high in the Wachovia tower not once did the CEO mention the bank. He wasn’t selling Wachovia, at least not directly, he was asking about our hobbies, sports, and families; whatever interested us. Since Denise and I anchored the newscasts he was genially building a personal bridge between the bank and us. Should significant news about Wachovia erupt, Medlin had a two-way connection for either side to comfortably contact the other. If he wanted to convey a position or we needed information we could just pick up the phone and ask for each other on a first name basis. He insisted we call him John.
One night I answered a ring. “Hello, Rick Amme.” I heard a now familiar, “Rick, this is John.” He was about to use our relationship to protect the bank. He told me he was going to have surgery with no problems expected. If any questions should arise about his health or the bank’s he told me whom to call. If more was needed, John said to call him, surgery or not. Nothing happened, the operation was successful, but John’s protective barrier had been in place just in case.
He routinely sent me copies of his speeches along with personal notes in the margins written in his distinctively small, crisp cursive.
I was grateful for his tennis gatherings populated with well-read, intellectually curious leaders. Conversations at the net were micro-debates of history, philosophy, and politics.
Our tennis continued after I left journalism to start my crisis consultancy in 1994. So would John’s advice as I occasionally picked his brain. An example came when I showed him a list of crisis management principles. He politely suggested two more:
- When the media come after you, “Get your best comment in the first story.”
- When considering a crisis solution, first ask yourself, “Is it fair?”
I’ll miss John Medlin’s twinkling smile, firm handshake, friendship, and guidance that flowed from the first day we met.