The recent Fisher Price toy recalls and Meg Whitman housekeeper situation got me thinking about crisis communications and leadership. This was the one (of many) problems that ruined BP during the tragic oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. If you remember the 1995 movie, The American President, there was a point in the film where the President, played my Michael Douglass was in his office with one of his advisers, Lewis, played by Michael J. Fox. Shepherd jeopardizes his political future with an ill-timed romance, unrealistically claiming a right to privacy. The situation is spun by his political rival as anti- family and anti-American.
Like Toyota a few months ago, the President in the movie was trying to keep silent and not comment on the situation. Here is how it played out in the movie:
Lewis Rothschild: They don't have a
choice! Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want
leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership,
they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want
leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert
toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink
President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference.
I think that line sums it up. It is all about the absence of leadership. What makes a good leader during a crisis or situation, and how can they keep it from irreversibly destroying a company's reputation? The answer is more simple then it seems. It comes down to really three things: (1) be quick, (2) be accurate, and (3) be consistent.
As for the President in the movie? When he finally stepped up to the plate (a little late) and addressed the issue. Shepherd shows courage in changing course, rejecting cynical symbolism, and choosing substance. Check it out! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWRVbWMvi7c
For a total analysis on how to respond during a crisis, I recommend the article Crisis Management and Communications by W. Timothy Coombs, Ph.D