Torod B. Neptune
Late last month U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former federal prosecutor and Arizona governor, made what is perhaps one of the most seminal missteps in crisis communications — speaking without the benefit of the facts.
As a quick refresher, a failed effort (thwarted thanks to some brave and quick passengers) to blow up a Detroit-bound flight en route from Amsterdam caught the U.S., and perhaps the world, completely off guard. But during an interview in which she was called on to discuss the Obama administration’s handling of the incident — and more specifically the security screening procedures that had failed to detect the explosives hidden by the attempted bomber in his underwear or keep him from boarding a plane altogether — the nation’s top homeland security executive responded by suggesting that “the system worked really smoothly.”
Her comments, quickly the topic of public scorn and debate among political operatives, the public and elected officials worldwide, have been described as “bizarre and inappropriate” by one prominent member of Congress and more graciously as “subject to a misunderstanding” by another.
Now a typical defense of Secretary Napolitano’s comments could be that she was dealing with a crisis which, in the span of only a few hours, was escalating while an increasingly angry public was demanding to know how such a near catastrophic breakdown in procedure could have happened. The questions were even more pointed when you consider the unprecedented post Sept. 11 security investments in technology and protocols since that tragic incident nearly nine years ago. It’s also obvious that, at the same time of her remarks, neutralizing or mitigating the political damage to the Obama administration of this incident was of significant importance as the administration was attempting to appear on top of the situation. So it is in this context that Secretary Napolitano, put on the spot to respond, could be said to have been merely speaking to the facts as she understood them at the time, even though unconfirmed. All are logical points to make, and all are examples of excuses we’ve probably all used before — either professionally or personally. But unfortunately in the heat of a crisis, logic and reason seldom prevail and the time to prepare a thoughtful and accurate response is always in very short supply.
So the question now is how to avoid being caught in the same situation as Secretary Napolitano. Perhaps continuing to recommend early preparation for any crisis is not making the point strongly enough anymore. During my career I’ve spoken those cautionary words to countless numbers of clients and colleagues. But then again, I can’t imagine that in all her years as a prosecutor and then as governor of a very large state, Secretary Napolitano would underestimate the value of not speaking without the benefit of all the facts. And that, when forced into a box by people trying to get her to comment, she would be so easily prodded to say something she could not confirm. But alas, she did, and we now have another proof point as to the value of crisis planning.
But the admonition bears repeating — the only time to prepare for a crisis is before it happens. I’m sure the folks over at the Department of Homeland Security have this lesson fully engrained now. Let’s all hope so anyway.
Posted on September 17, 2009 by — Comments Off
Welcome to the first posting on the Waggener Edstrom Worldwide Crisis and Issues Management Blog. Through this forum, we hope to foster communications on the differences between an issue and a crisis, as well as strategies and tactics to anticipate and manage these situations. We will also explore the paradigm shift under way in the global marketplace —— the evolution of social and mainstream media, shifting consumer behaviors, new regulatory and corporate governance requirements, and the emergence of powerful and sophisticated interest coalitions —— and the opportunities and challenges this creates for communicators and others tasked with crisis and issues management responsibilities.
To many, these shifts are the prime ingredients in a recipe for disaster. To others, it creates an opportunity to seize control of an issue and advance their organization’s goals. No matter which view you espouse, it should be clear to everyone that there are many variables that affect how rapidly issues and crises are recognized and spread.
The underlying theme of E.M. Forster’s novel “Howards End” is the phrase “Only connect.” I believe that this premise has always defined, and will always define, the most basic tenet in issues and crisis management. Yes, the environment in which a crisis unfolds has changed dramatically in recent years, but no matter what the landscape, organizations that successfully handle these situations have done so because they have made investments to anticipate what might happen, identify influencers on all sides, and forge connections with these stakeholders.
I am writing this post aboard a flight home, so I offer an example that is top of mind.I can think of no more stark a contrast between connecting in the modern world and old-school thinking than the airline industry.
Granted, all airlines have protocol in place to deal with an “aircraft incident” —— a true crisis such as a plane crash. There are however, true catastrophic crises, and then there are issues that, if not managed via connecting with stakeholders, can rapidly boil into a crisis of another kind – brand crisis. So it amazes me that some of the world’s largest carriers are facing a reputational crisis because they refuse to adopt (or are even repulsed by) new ways to connect with their customers. If you have a complaint about United or American Airlines, don’t bother to call or send them an e-mail. You need to send them a letter or a fax. I don’t even know how much a stamp costs these days.
This adherence to an old-school stance is mind-boggling at a time when airlines are slashing services and charging fees for everything from checked baggage to bottled water. It is even more ludicrous in an era when social media and the Internet offer frustrated travelers a global forum to post complaints (and compliments) instantaneously.
Juxtapose this disconnect of these dinosaur carriers with the progressive upstarts such as Jet Blue, Virgin, Southwest, and Alaska. These companies have taken the time to figure out new ways to have an open and immediate dialogue with their customers via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, and the like. Of course, these airlines can still subject us to canceled flights and poor service —— but when this does happen, we feel like there is someone listening and responding to our concerns. The result is customer loyalty and advocacy. From the carriers’ standpoint, it is turning inevitable travel issues into a competitive advantage.