Crisis Communications: A Core Competency for Senior Leaders


Excellente réflexion du Dr. Steve Gerras ce mois-ci, sur le blog de DIME (US War College), que je me permets de reproduire en totalité. Car en vérité, l’essentiel est dit… l’histoire se répète et les organisations, publiques ou privées, ont du mal à apprendre leur leçon… 

Observing the Navy’s public relations reaction to the release of disturbing videos, produced aboard ship four years ago and starring a currently (now formally) serving ship captain, reminded me of a persistent concern I’ve had for several years.  This concern resurfaced over the summer as I watched the CEO of BP inappropriately assess his audience during the Gulf oil spill and was later reinforced last month watching New York’s Mayor Bloomberg assert that New York City’s streets were clear of snow—later realizing he mostly meant Manhattan’s streets, and not the City’s other four boroughs. Neither the Navy spokesman, the BP CEO, nor Mayor Bloomberg had probably envisioned even a week before the event that led to their suboptimal crisis communications performance that they would be communicating on these issues.  This requirement for senior leaders to be able to effectively conduct “no-notice” crisis communications points to a need for stronger emphasis of at least two demands:  planning and training.


            I’m always amazed when I read survey results that show corporate leaders are 95% sure they will face a crisis communications challenge in the short- to mid-term, yet typically only 35-50% of these same leaders admit that they have a detailed plan to address these potential challenges.  Probably more important, the examples of poor crisis communications by senior leaders appear to far outnumber available examples of effective leader communications.  The poor handling of the Abu Ghraib story and Pat Tillman’s case, along with the Army’s awkward response to reported conditions at Walter Reed, points to a need not only to ensure higher fidelity in crisis communications planning, but also to better train senior leaders.  The military will continue to struggle with Strategic Communications—aligning our words, pictures, and deeds—if we don’t do a better job educating leaders how to think through a crisis-communications response.


            In its initial statement to the press regarding the recently surfaced inappropriate videos the Navy asserted the videos “were not created with the intent to offend anyone.  The videos were intended to be humorous skits focusing the crew’s attention on specific issues such as port visits, traffic safety, and water conservation.”  The Navy later reversed this position and said the videos were clearly inappropriate and “were not acceptable then and are still not acceptable in today’s Navy.”  It’s just a guess, but I’d suggest when senior leaders initially saw these videos they thought to themselves, “these are kind of raunchy, but I remember seeing worse when I was at sea” or something like that.  This leads to the question, “How do you train and educate senior leaders to empathize with the views of others—especially of those with whom they infrequently interact”—or even, “can you?”  Why didn’t someone remind the BP CEO of the impact of the spill on the lives of those in the Gulf?  Why wouldn’t the Army educate its senior leaders not to blame the press for its problems (e.g., the Walter Reed response)?  Most importantly, how do you teach senior leaders to surround themselves with folks who are comfortable telling the Emperor he is naked?  I would guess Mayor Bloomberg had staff members at the press conference who knew the other boroughs weren’t plowed.  I’d also guess there were several people who reviewed the Navy videos and understood the significant negative reaction these videos would receive from segments of American society. 


Senior leaders must create climates that encourage subordinates to voice these relevant contrasting perspectives. Closing the “say-do” gap remains a critical component of America’s effort to influence specific audiences and to avoid “digging a deeper hole” when mistakes are made.  To improve Senior Leader communications and align our Strategic Communications efforts, we must educate leaders, insist on detailed preparation, and establish climates that allow the sharing of diverse perspectives.             

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