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Crisis Management Insights From 9/11

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Crisis Management Insights From 9/119/11

At that terrible time we were all asking what the implications were for all of us. Those of us in crisis management certainly were and here is what I wrote shortly after 9/11.

We are in uncharted waters and I believe the administration is doing well. However, missteps are inevitable; so let’s see what we can glean from them for our own use as potential crisis managers. For learning, not criticism, here is what I see as instructive so far.

Go fast – As the hijackings unfolded Sept. 11, both United and American Airlines immediately grounded their own aircraft before the government mandated grounding of all civilian planes. There is evidence this may have thwarted further terrorists ready to go. Speed is axiomatic in a crisis (when did you learn about it and what did you do about it?) In my experience, rapid response – or lack of it – is the most frequent reason companies succeed or fail when trouble strikes.

Speak with one voice – Mixed messages about the anthrax attack from varied officials have been disconcerting. Whom to believe and trust? How great or near is the danger? This confusion is an object lesson in the importance of controlling information flow. A central management source should issue information to all stakeholders – for clarity, not censorship. This might reduce unnecessary alarm, confusion, and resentment; and enhance loyalty, trust, and cooperation. Minimize using multiple spokespeople and the danger of contradictory messages.

I once spoke to the media on behalf of a company closing a plant and laying off hundreds. My mission was to carefully explain the justification. The morning of the announcement I casually asked the plant manager what he would tell the press if he could speak. His comments, had he made them, would have been inadvertently misleading, harsh, and insensitive. He would have meant well, but his remarks could have caused unnecessary confusion – possibly even on Wall Street.

Reassure people accurately about their safety – Readers know I advocate the Reassurance Principle: “During a crisis, people want to know whether they are safe. Your job as a leader – through actions and words – is to reassure them that they are safe.” However, don’t make reassurances you cannot keep. The anthrax attack again provides an example. The government described the first reported case as an isolated, naturally occurring sickness that was under control, and that Americans need not worry. Wrong. Now there is less faith in what government says about anthrax. So, in a crisis, be forthcoming about what you know and don’t know. Your credibility rests on it.

Beware of being long-winded – The administration appears resolved to update Americans constantly. Wonderful. An unfortunate trap is that some officials keep talking and make offhanded remarks later needing correction or clarification, e.g. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld saying Osama bin Laden may never be caught.

This is difficult to execute, but you have to keep your wits about you when talking publicly. A business veteran once reminded me that you are “on the job” from the moment you meet reporters until the moment they leave.

A client once nailed initial press interviews in a crisis and then botched others days later. When I asked him why, he said he got overconfident and started blabbing. Be careful out there.

Know what you are talking about – One top administration official thrust into the limelight to calm fears was so ill prepared about his subject that his performance had the reverse affect. Before public appearances, brainstorm worst-case questions and answer them. Brutally honest bull sessions with colleagues sharpen your mind or warn that you need more preparation.

Tell the whole truth – Short of revealing security and military secrets (or private competitive, financial, and legal data in a business), try to provide as much detail as possible even if it makes you uncomfortable. Facts usually emerge anyway and audiences appreciate that you told them first. This is also a good way to “Get it (a crisis) over with and don’t make it worse!”

These are a few of the lessons so far. Let’s continue to wish our leaders the best, but also watch closely. We will learn from how they navigate these uncharted waters. (2001)

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