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Media and Crisis Management

Watch your mouths – leaders

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: Watch your mouths – leadersCrisis avoidance

As I write this (July 2010), can you recall so many communication screw-ups by so many public people within such a short time?  The last column (about BP) emphasized that actions speak louder than words, but that’s hardly a license to open mouth, insert foot.

General Stanley McChrystal and his aides bad-mouthed the civilian chain of command to a reporter and the commander had to fall on his sword.

BP CEO Tony Hayward said, “There’s no one who wants this (oil spill) over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanbert followed with, “We care about the small people.”

Congressman Joe Barton angered both parties when he apologized to Hayward at a hearing on the Gulf oil spill for what the Texas Republican called a White House “shakedown” of BP to create a $20 billion escrow fund to reimburse victims.

Elsewhere in DC, Congressman Bob Etheridge (D-NC), approached by two young men with a video camera (a likely political ambush) demanded loudly to know who they were and then manhandled one of them as the camera rolled.

White House veteran reporter Helen Thomas talked to a camcorder-wielding Rabbi and blurted out, “Tell them (Jews) to get the hell out of Palestine,” and “go home” to Poland and Germany.

Everyone apologized. Thomas retired.

Even prepared remarks flopped. Hayward”s liability-conscious, sub-low key testimony before an investigating subcommittee failed tonally.  Hometown British papers said, “He looked like a tired undertaker who was rather bored with having to look mournful.”  (A day later the tone-deaf CEO attended a yacht rally.)

President Obama talked about the spill from the Oval Office in a speech criticized as “vapid”, “awkward and robotic”, and “(he) gestured showily, distractingly… because (politicians  are) told by media specialists that it makes them look natural.  They don’t…”  Most comments entered the forever-world of YouTube where gaffes hang on you like video albatrosses.

The lesson is so clear that it ought to be a tattoo on all leaders.   Whenever you are in the presence of the media, a camera or the public, you are on the job.

Everything you do and say is fair game, period.

I drive this home in coaching by asking an executive about a mock shooting.  I ask off-handedly, “How are feeling?”  Most will say, “I’m fine.”  I reply, “Excuse me, you’ve got ‘dead’ employees and customers and you are ‘fine?’”  They immediately realize they weren’t thinking and that their response was inappropriate.  That’s the point.  Eternal verbal vigilance is part of a leader’s job description.

Finally, most people say they admire those who tell it like is, speak their mind, and shoot from the lip.  But they will also hang you from a yard-arm if they don’t like what you say.

An aunt of mine suddenly stopped watching a TV news anchor after 20 years of loyalty to him.  Following a story about corporal punishment, the anchor ad-libbed that a swat on the butt was good for kids every now and then.  My aunt, opposed to spanking, never looked at him again.

Sting sang the warning well.  “I had to stop in my tracks for fear of walking on the mines I’d laid.”

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