“Don’t Let A Good Crisis Waste You!”

Tommy E. Jones, Griffin Fire Chief

November 6, 2012

“Don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” artfully coined by Rahm Emmanuel while he was the White House Chief of Staff, has become an interesting point of discussion among crisis communications experts and enthusiasts. Is there such thing as a “good crisis?” Emmanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, would probably agree that a crisis can be used to provide opportunities in the political boxing ring. However, to the average government and business leader, a better way to look at the issue of crisis management is to approach the topic from the point of ‘Don’t let a good crisis waste you!”

It is a law of nature that each and every one of us experiences a crisis in at least three ways: 1) We are just coming out of some type of crisis; 2) We are currently experiencing a crisis; or 3) We are heading to a crisis. In some instances, Rahm’s point that a crisis can prove useful in some ways is valid....if the crisis is handled properly. When all is said and done, the practitioner of a good crisis communications plan will come out of a crisis situation with less dirt on their armor.

According to Dr. Steve Adubato, the definition of crisis communications is:

“It’s a strategy or plan that helps you respond to an out-of-the-norm problem, event, or situation that cannot be handled through standard operating procedures, smart management and common sense leadership.”

In his book What Were They Thinking?, Adubato goes further by pointing out that crisis communications is also:

“A strategic method of response that allows you to reach out to key stakeholders (customers), clients, sponsors, stockholders and the general public–and inform, reassure and ultimately cement their loyalty and support, or at least get the benefit of the doubt.”

With those two insightful definitions, one can see that a crisis, whether at work, church or at home, can be better handled if the leader is prepared ahead of time with a clearly developed plan of action that can be initiated on a moment’s notice. Furthermore, a crisis can serve as an opportunity for a person or organization to actually come out better in the long run.

Abudato further points out that, “A crisis can happen to anyone at any time. This includes the Guilty, the Innocent, Victims, Villains, Individuals and Organizations.” This observation tells us that we as leaders must “pay it forward” by examining a whole realm of potential minefields that we could step on both personally or professionally. This is an easy suggestion to make and a difficult one to plan for because many times people and organizations get blind-sided by situations and events. For example, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis of 2010 resulted from an incident that was even more severe than any organization could have possibly expected or adequately planned for. The same thing can be said for the 9/11 attacks. Who would have ever dreamed that such an event could have happened in this country? Although the responses from BP and the Bush Administration to these two events were, in this author’s opinion, both excellent, it illustrates the point that not all crisis scenarios can be planned out to the letter.

One of the most innovative forms of posturing that a leader can do to manage a crisis is the theme of a wonderful book by Michael Useem called The Leadership Moment. Useem stresses that leaders should be in constant study of the triumphs and tragedies, mistakes and accolades that other leaders have made during their time of crisis. He writes:

“It is my view that one of the most effective ways of preparing for challenges (critical moments) is by looking at what others have done when their leadership was on the line. By examining their experience and asking what they did and what they could have done, and by wondering what you would have done yourself, you can better anticipate what you should do when faced with your own leadership challenges.”

No incident bears to mind the importance of critiquing leaders in their moments on the hot seat then that of the Carnival Cruise Ship Splendor fire of November, 2010. As a professional fire chief and crisis communications connoisseur, I followed the response of the Carnival company, particularly the actions of their CEO, Gerry Cahill, with great interest. Most people agree that Cahill and his team did an outstanding job in controlling the crisis by setting up a command post….not in the plushness of a corporate atrium, but on the dock of the very port the ship sailed from. Cahill’s timely news conferences with the world’s press hearing updates straight from the mouth of the company’s top man was a perfect example of sending a clear message in a time of trial.

I have nothing but praise for the CEO’s performance, but I will say that Cahill might have missed an opportunity that would have landed him as the keynote speaker of every John Maxwell or Ken Blanchard seminar for the next three years. As the images of ships’ passengers eating Spam out of can were broadcast to the world, I was glued to my TV and armchair quarterbacking the incident by telling the CEO, “Gerry, get on a boat or helicopter and jump aboard that ship and ride this out with the passengers.” I don’t know if it was logistically possible to get him there, but think of the images of a corporate CEO sitting there enduring what his customers were going through. I’m sure that, while chowing down on that Spam, Gerry would have gotten a constant ear-full from disgruntled passengers, but hopefully you understand Useem’s point of making it a habit of always being on the lookout for your Leadership Moment.

From what we’ve discussed so far, having a Crisis Communications plan that is established, documented, and trained-on is critical for today’s leader. The elements of the plan should first come from five assumptions that famed corporate CEO Jack Welch wrote about in his book Winning. As the leader of GE, Welch was very familiar with the handling of scandals and bad press in his long and distinguished career. He cites that every leader of a crisis scenario should first grasp five assumptions that will better prepare them for the long haul of the scandal and its fallout.

Assumption #1—The Problem is Worse Than it Appears!
This allows the leader to “out-run” the totality of the predicament and formulate worst-case scenarios that spur creative thought towards ending the crisis sooner.

Assumption #2—There are No Secrets in the World, and Everyone Will Eventually Find Out Everything!
What a painfully true statement. Heed his advice and get everything out in the open from the beginning.

Assumption #3—You and Your Organization’s Handling of the Crisis Will be Portrayed in the Worst Possible Light!
The immediate media and public opinion onslaught can and will sway emotions toward your organization that won’t be favorable. All eyes will be on your organization and how well you handle the crisis in its entirety. Don’t dig your hole deeper than it has to be.

Assumption #4—There Will Be Changes in Processes and People!
Almost No Crisis Ends Without Blood on the Floor! How true is that, but take heart…..those changes in processes and people have been the salvation for some companies and their long-term growth strategies.

Assumption #5—The Organization Will Survive, Ultimately Stronger For What Happened!
The maturity and experience gained from the ordeal of a crisis can be very valuable for future planning and response to other incidents. Try to focus on what the experience is going to give you instead of what it is going to take away.

Tommy Jones is the fire chief in Griffin and is a 25-year veteran of crisis situations. Chief Jones holds a B.A. degree in Communications from Mercer University and Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Columbus State University.