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.”

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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.

In a Crisis, Secrecy is Your Worst Defence

In a crisis, it is difficult to know whether or not information should be released. With privacy legislation lurking in the background, and lawyers often heavily involved, it can be easier to hide behind a shroud of secrecy than be transparent. But my advice to my clients when they are facing a crisis has always been: “When in doubt, let the information out." 

A perfect case in point is a recent article in the Toronto Star that reported Toronto’s student transportation fleet has been in 1,157 collisions with 20 injuries during the past five years. To make matters worse, nearly 80 per cent of those accidents were deemed preventable — which simply means they did not need to occur at all. 

school bus crisis communications

When confronted with these grim statistics, the school boards claimed they were unable to identify how many accidents in which each transportation company has been involved because of privacy legislation. 

According to Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, “They’re not our vehicles, they’re not our drivers, so that’s not our information to provide." 

But Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with Blakes who represents The Star, said the legislation contains a “rarely invoked” clause that allows public bodies to disclose third-party information if it’s in public interest. 

But even after being made aware of this clause, Toronto school boards refused to release the accident statistics of the transportation companies serving them. Is it not in the public’s best interest to know what companies are getting in more accidents than others? I’m sure any parent would feel it is, regardless of whether their children are attending an elementary school in Toronto now, have attended school in the past, or will attend in the future. 

In this situation, child safety should be the Toronto Student Transportation Board’s top priority. Rather than hiding behind privacy legislation, they should be open and transparent, encourage each school board to evoke the disclosure clause, and release the number of accidents in which each transportation company has been involved.

If they hide behind privacy legislation and one more child is injured — which, statistically, is only a matter of time — the issue may grow beyond manageability. 

Releasing the statistics will also have a positive effect on the behaviour of the transportation companies and their drivers. Once accident rates are revealed, these companies will face public scrutiny, ultimately forcing them to change driver behaviour and set higher safety standards.

This is the right thing to do in terms of public interest. Let’s be honest. Eighty per cent preventability is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to child safety.

When dealing with any crisis, transparency is always the best option. By being transparent, companies will prevent bigger problems in the future. 

And, as I always say: “When in doubt, let the information out.”

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Eric Bergman

Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is arguably the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises, and coached spokespeople, for more than 30 years.

To learn more about his media training program, At Ease With the Media, please click here.

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