A Crisis is Like a Heart Attack

During the past 30 years, I’ve used a heart attack analogy to explain to management groups why effective crisis communication is less about communication than it is about sound decision-making.

“Let’s suppose that the pressure of meeting with you today causes me so much stress that I suddenly collapse from a heart attack” I tell them. “I don’t know about you, I’d be tempted to call that a crisis in my life.”

image

But if we examine that crisis, we’d find that it’s made up of two components.  

The first is an emergency. With luck, someone administers CPR. Someone else calls 9-1-1. With their help, I make it to the hospital. There, under the care of professionals, I become well enough to go home.  

The second component begins when the emergency ends. This is when the issues begin to emerge.  

A Crisis is a Turning Point
The dictionary defines a crisis as a “turning point.” In medicine, a crisis is the point at which a patient takes a turn for the better or the worse.  

After my heart attack, the turning point is reached if I get my act together: regular exercise; a better diet; fewer stressful meetings with management groups.  

If I don’t change my lifestyle—if I don’t make better decisions—I have not yet reached the crisis. Another emergency is almost certainly just around the corner.  

Just as a crisis in medicine can be traced to an illness, an injury or any combination of the two, a crisis in public relations can find its roots in an issue, an emergency, or a combination of the two.  

A crisis occurs when issues escalate out of control. Media attention leads to public scrutiny. The organization goes on trial in the court of public opinion.  

The crisis point is passed if the resolution of the issues underlying the crisis leads to positive change—a healthier lifestyle for the organization after its analogous heart attack. If there is no positive change, the turning point has not been reached. Another organizational “heart attack” is probably just around the corner.

A Case in Point
Volkswagen is a case in point. The crisis occurred when it was discovered in 2015 that 11 million Volkswagens had diesel engines with altered software that made them appear to emit fewer emissions than they actually did.

At first, Volkswagen appeared to make the right decisions. The president was fired and a replacement named. The company announced that more than two million diesel Audi vehicles had similar issues; it was “coming clean,” so to speak. Volkswagen admitted the problem and said it would fix the software in all the affected vehicles.

But a fascinating New York Times article pointed to two different decision-making issues that may very well lie at the core of Volkswagen’s problems.

The first is what occurs at the boardroom table. The article highlights Volkswagen’s power struggles and boardroom issues, pointing out that a culture of stretching the rules begins at the top.

The second is the attitude of engineers, which the article labeled as “arrogance.” Why should the company meet emission standards, they are reported to have argued, when electric cars in the United States are charged by burning fossil fuels?

If Volkswagen manages to address these two underlying causes of their organizational heart attack, the company has a chance of salvaging its reputation. If not, another emergency is just around the corner. If the company doesn’t address its decision-making issues and embedded arrogance, we could very well be witnessing the death of yet another brand.

One Simple Question
Against this backdrop, effective leaders (and the management groups with whom they work) know that carefully answering one question (and following up with action, not just words) is the key to successfully resolving virtually any crisis and protecting their organization’s reputation.

“What are we going to do to ensure that a similar emergency never, ever happens again?”

Whether you’re having a heart attack as an individual or organization, answering that question is the key to ensuring that issues are resolved and another emergency is not just around the corner.

Perhaps It’s Time to Embrace "No Comment"

As I was listening to CBC radio while driving to a media training engagement a few weeks ago, a featured story inspired me to consider that perhaps, as an industry, we should start using “no comment” as part of our professional lexicon.

image

Immediately after having that thought, I was aghast. I have been a member of this industry since June 14, 1982. During the past 33 years, I can never remember a time in which I would not have cringed if I heard any spokesperson say “no comment” when asked a question by a journalist.

However, I am starting to think I should get over that involuntary reaction. As I sit here three decades later, I must admit that saying “no comment” would potentially have more value than the repetition of meaningless key messages. At least “no comment” is relatively honest and potentially less insulting to the readers, listeners and viewers.

The CBC story that inspired this thought involved a Nigerian priest, an Ontario woman, and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The woman had accused the priest of raping her while he was visiting the southwestern Ontario church at which she was an administrative employee. In 2004, police issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest, but he had already returned to Nigeria. The victim was assured by the CBSA that her rapist would never be allowed back into the country.

However, she later learned that he had returned to Canada in 2013. The victim contacted her local  member of parliament and the CBSA to try and discover how and why an accused rapist was allowed back into the country.

After a seven-month wait, she received a brief e-mail from her MP’s assistant a few weeks before Christmas. The letter apologized that the priest had been let into the country, assured her that appropriate action would be taken, and then wished her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  

After being contacted by a CBC journalist, a spokesperson for the CBSA replied via e-mail to say: “The agency won’t comment on specific cases, but the safety and protection of Canadians are its top priorities.”

Well, knock me over with a feather. Isn’t that obvious?

If anyone at the CBSA does not take the safety and protection of Canadians seriously, they should seek alternate employment. Likewise, if they do not have the moral fortitude to say that they take every situation seriously enough to investigate — without admitting whether a breach of protocol occurred in this specific case — to ensure a situation like this never happens again, at least have the courage to be honest and say “no comment.”

In cases like this, please do not insult our intelligence by expectorating meaningless key messages that overstate the patently obvious.

Be honest. In future, just say “no comment.”

Media Training No Help to Toronto Mayor

(Editor’s note: Originally published a year ago (December 2012), the lessons here bear repeating. Who says that there’s no advance warning of a crisis?)

On a recent trip out of town, a participant at one of my media training sessions asked me whether I thought my program would help Toronto mayor Rob Ford. 

Toronto mayor Rob Ford

I said I didn’t think so. And the reasons are quite simple. 

Regardless of whether you come from the traditional school of media training—which teaches people to stay on message and constantly bridge to messages—or a more balanced approach (which I advocate), which teaches spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, every media trainer I’ve met agrees with Mark Twain:

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and newsprint by the tonne. Or, in today’s vernacular, don’t pick a fight with someone who has unlimited bandwidth and millions of daily dedicated eyeballs. 

In September, 2012, Rob Ford and his brother, Toronto councillor Doug Ford, took to the radio airwaves to spend an hour criticizing Toronto media for their coverage of a variety of issues—the mayor’s economic development trip to Chicago, how he was allegedly using his office’s resources to run the football team he coaches, and his request to speed up road repairs near his family business. 

And the brothers were criticizing Toronto’s journalists even before the mayor called the head of the Toronto Transit Commission to ask about buses for his football team, or an Ontario Supreme Court judge ruled that the mayor was in conflict of interest. 

There are three or four conditions on which media training could help Mr. Ford. First, he has to realize that he is not above conflict of interest guidelines. Second, he has to wait his turn like everyone else. Third, any media training would need to convince him to stop talking once he’s answered a question (which is generally where he, like most other spokespeople, gets into trouble). 

Finally, stop picking fights you simply cannot or will not win. 

(Editor’s note: And when the stuff really does hit the fan, come clean with EVERYTHING before the wire tap evidence becomes worldwide news. As the Toronto Sun aptly put it in yesterday’s headline: Wire, Wire … Pants on Fire!)

Custom Post Images