empathy

Presidential Lessons on Leadership in Crisis Management

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Leadership in a crisis involves skills admired in the abstract, but shunned in practice when feathers are flying. In our current moment, crisis leadership too often are AWOL.

In Leadership for Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin traces the evolution of four Presidents from their formative period to the crucible of crisis that defined their legacy. In her narratives about Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin points out the traits that each President employed as he led the nation out of crisis.

The traits she identified from the four presidents are case studies for any leader charged with managing a crisis – careful listening, empathy, thoughtfulness, patience, preparation, dramatic action, humility and personal responsibility. 

Careful Listening: Lincoln surrounded himself with a “team of rivals.” Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt consumed huge volumes of information, but they listened most carefully to human stories. Johnson chose to retain John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet as a sign of respect and ensure he understood the priorities of his predecessor. Listening for all four men was how they learned, especially in a time of crisis when time was the enemy.

Empathy: All four Presidents assumed the role as the representative of Americans at large, not special interests or regional preferences. In their own ways, each President tried to put themselves into the shoes of the soldier, the overworked and underpaid coal miner, the dispossessed farmer and the downtrodden minority. They thirsted for real-life stories that revealed real-life circumstances. From those stories, they developed an empathy that informed and humanized their decision-making.

Thoughtfulness: Each President found a way in the midst of crisis to carve out a space to think. They understood the crisis they faced had both transactional and transformational dimensions. They gave thought to how to address the immediate aspects of crisis while identifying the underlying cause and possible remedies.

Patience: When the Presidents decided on a course of action, they didn’t immediately spring into action. In some cases, they waited for the right moment for public opinion to congeal. In other cases, they took their time to consider options, reactions and precedents. They exercise what you might call creative patience.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Preparation: When a final decision was made, support staff was mobilized to put the necessary steps in place. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps and demanded that 125,000 unemployed and unmarried young men would be recruited, trained and transported to untended American timberlands within months. Few thought it was possible, but it happened because of expert preparation and coordination.

Dramatic Action: In a crisis, actions matter more than words. Sometimes the actions are bold and risky. Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation at a pivotal moment in the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt intervened in a major coal strike. FDR called a special session of Congress to establish new banking regulations. Johnson pushed for passage of the Civil Rights Act. Each dramatic action solidified the perception that these four men were leaders. They were able to accomplish what most people thought impossible – 200,000 new recruits, an arbitrated end to a destabilizing coal strike, federal insurance for bank deposits and the first civil rights legislation of any consequence since the end of the Civil War.

The last two qualities Goodwin identified may be the most important.

Humility: By almost any standard, the Roosevelts and Johnson were not humble. Lincoln came closest to humble, but even he seethed with ambition. In the face of crisis, however, each in their own way displayed humility in service of their objective. Lincoln abided the advice of political opponents. Teddy Roosevelt endured the insufferable attitude of coal company owners. Johnson let GOP Senate Leader Everett Dirksen play the lead role in passage of the Civil Rights Act. These four presidents put their egos in their pockets, at least for a while, to achieve a greater good than could have achieved on their own.

Personal Responsibility. All four Presidents assumed full responsibility for their actions – and the potential for failure. Lincoln’s confidantes warned the emancipation proclamation could redouble the resolve of the Confederacy and led to mass defections from the Union army. Teddy Roosevelt knew his intervention in a strike was outside his constitutional authority. In his fireside chats, FDR admitted some of the policies and programs he initiated were experimental and may not work as intended. Good to his word, Roosevelt modified or ended programs that didn’t work. Johnson was told civil rights legislation would never make it out of a Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers. He told Martin Luther King, Jr. that he could make it happen.

Goodwin’s book focuses on presidential crisis management. However, the principles of effective crisis management don’t change because of different job titles. Any crisis is a fundamental challenge to a reputation, a brand or an identity.

The most significant change in managing a crisis since the eras of Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Johnson has been the advent of the internet, digital media and smartphones. Time is an even greater enemy to a smart response to a crisis.

The only known antidote is more thoughtful advance preparation that includes identifying potential crisis scenarios, go-to resources and an internal crisis team leader. Preparation also should include updated contact lists, a trained media spokesperson and a ghost website with information and imagery that can be shared immediately.

What Goodwin’s treatise on leadership teaches is the imperative of CEO involvement in crisis management. Only the CEO can provide the moral authority as well as the administrative approval for bold crisis responses. Only the CEO can speak for an entire organization, including its consumers, stakeholders and employees affected by the crisis and the response. Only the CEO can see beyond the crisis to the future. Only the CEO can invoke the mission and purpose of an organization as guidance for every person involved in a crisis response.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 


Advice for Conveying Good or Bad News to Employees

Organizational change can be disorienting and disruptive. Announcing change to employees is the job of the CEO who can put the change into context, align it with organizational vision, point to a constructive way forward and provide a human touch. The key is treating employees with respect as the greatest asset of the company.

Organizational change can be disorienting and disruptive. Announcing change to employees is the job of the CEO who can put the change into context, align it with organizational vision, point to a constructive way forward and provide a human touch. The key is treating employees with respect as the greatest asset of the company.

Announcing internal change, especially if it involves layoffs, can be a nerve-wracking communication challenge. It is so nerve-wracking, in fact, that many faint-hearted CEOs are conveniently absent, delegating the unpleasant chore to underlings.

As a general rule, bad news should be the business of the CEO. Only he or she can put the bad news into some understandable context, align it with the organization’s vision for the future and point to a constructive way forward. 

The constructive way forward isn’t just for the employees who will lose their jobs; it’s also for the employees who will remain. How well that pathway is laid out will influence the morale of the continuing workforce.

Layoffs aren’t the only internal communication challenge. Any kind of change – from a modified health insurance plan to a new owner – can create anxiety among employees. The change doesn’t have to be galactic – for example, removing soft drinks from the lunch room vending machine – to generate an employee reaction. 

Executives who carefully render financial, operational, sales and logistical plans too often treat internal communications in a slapdash fashion, with little forethought and haphazard execution. Sometimes “planning” boils down to assigning someone other than the CEO to be the hapless messenger. Flak jackets aren’t provided for the fall guys and gals. 

This is a huge oversight considering employees can be the most influential ambassadors for a company, nonprofit, public agency or brand. If you think of employees as strategic partners, which they are, you should conclude they deserve thoughtful, plainspoken and truthful communications, whether it is good news or bad news.

Elizabeth Baskin, an internal communications specialist writing for ragan.com, offers useful suggestions of how to think strategically about internal communications. That begins, she says, with giving employees more than a superficial whitewash of what’s occurring.

Baskin believes internal communications should pivot on organizational vision, starting with making sure employees know what the vision is. “That vision can help anchor employees in times of change and reassure them that the change is part of a larger strategic plan,” she says. 

Any kind of change can cause jitters, so relating changes – big or small, bad or good – to an organizational vision can be stabilizing. Employees can see the change in the context of a bigger picture. It may not make a pink slip any easier to swallow, but it can give an employee a sense of why the pink slip was necessary. For employees who will bear a heavier workload, it can be reassuring. 

When the news is bad, internal communications needs an empathetic tone and personal. Think of it as talking to members of the business family. “Don’t sugarcoat it nor spin it nor put off communicating the news,” Baskin advises. “National research indicates that employees want to know as soon as possible – especially if it’s bad news.”

It is naïve to expect bad news can be contained. Expect the opposite – that the details of the bad news will be shared on email and social media even as you are sharing it with employees. Don’t get outraged; be prepared to answer media inquiries.

Communicating change to organizations with far-flung operations and multiple offices is especially challenging. Teleconferencing provides an avenue for the CEO to deliver the news to everyone at the same time. It’s worth solving whatever logistical challenges may exist to pull this off successfully.

Baskin’s final piece of advice is to humanize your messages, whether good or bad. “Communicating the nuts and bolts of the change is important, but we must also link it to human outcomes.”

Change is disorienting. CEOs usually have to approve it. They also should be the ones who share the news of it to employees. If they believe employees are their organization’s greatest assets, they should treat them like great assets.

 

Kavanaugh Defense Serves as Crisis Communication Case Study

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

As crisis communications cases go, there is no better example to study than the defense mounted last week by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Supporters, including President Trump who nominated Kavanaugh, praised his fiery demeanor as appropriate for someone who feels unjustly accused. Critics said his emotional, defensive and at times partisan performance raised questions about his judicial temperament.

No one can dispute there was a sharp contrast between Kavanaugh’s hot defense and the cool, measured testimony of his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. It wouldn’t be unfair to conclude that Ford, who admitted she was terrified to testify in public before a national television audience, exceeded expectations as a credible witness. She calmly gave her testimony, answered questions clearly, admitted what she couldn’t remember and showed deference to her questioners. She politely asked for a promised break.

Some commentators summed up the hearing as a “she said/he said” moment, and from an evidentiary point of view, it was. However, on a perception scale, Ford looked credible as an accuser, while Kavanaugh came across as ticked off as the accused. It was a hearing with two “victims.”

The most cogent post-hearing analysis was that Kavanugh offered a Trumpian rejoinder. He denied the accusation of sexual misconduct and focused on what he called the “search and destroy” nomination process, which he blamed on Democrats and left-leaning news media. Maybe “search and destroy” was a clever sound bite Kavanaugh came up with himself, or more likely it was a sound bite recommended by Trump, who used the phrase himself in a tweet after the hearing ended. Senator Tom Cotton repeated the phrase in his appearance Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with sound bites. However, Kavanaugh (and whoever advised him) may have seriously misjudged the tenor of the moment and what a large part of the audience watching wanted to see and hear in response to Ford’s allegations. That misjudgment earned Kavanaugh a follow-up background check by the FBI, which Trump and Senate GOP leaders had previously denied.

Kavanaugh’s miscalculation is the crux of the crisis communications case study. He indulged in what he wanted (or someone wanted him) to say, rather than exercising the discipline to deliver an appropriate message.

We can argue over what an appropriate message would be in this circumstance. No one would have faulted Kavanaugh for expressing frustration over the nomination process, but his main job at the hearing was to declare his innocence and show respect for Ford and her claim. That was in his remarks, but it got lost in the ashes of his incendiary comments. Whatever respect he attempted to show Ford was negated by his disrespect for Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar when she asked him about his blackout drinking. 

A key principle of crisis communications is to project you are in control, even if you aren’t. Kavanaugh failed to do that. If anything, he seemed mad that he had to appear to defend his “good name.”

Another principle is to show empathy. Kavanaugh’s attempt at empathy fell flat. He said he believed Ford may have endured an attempted rape “by someone, at some time and in some place.” That was a barely cloaked way of saying Ford could not corroborate he was her assailant, even though she said she was 100 percent sure it was him. His denial also had the ring of a talking point when GOP Senator Lindsey Graham used the same phrase, with the same, perhaps unintended, dismissive conclusion.

One of the hardest things for someone to do in a communications crisis is to admit wrongdoing. Kavanaugh lawyered up and didn’t admit to anything other than he liked beer as a teenager and still does.

Kavanaugh’s shortcomings as a crisis communicator were amplified by Ford’s performance. She remained under control despite the sensitive nature of her allegation and her previous attempt to tell her story out of the limelight. She readily admitted gaps in her memory. Surely Kavanaugh’s training as a lawyer made him aware that nothing occurs in a vacuum. The hearing was set up, perhaps unintentionally, to hear two sides of the same story – and assess the veracity of both storytellers. He didn’t need to convince his supporters; he needed to have an impact on his doubters.

Maybe the biggest gaffe by Kavanaugh was failing to perceive how the back-to-back testimony would be viewed, especially by women. Ford had nothing to gain by testifying; he had everything to lose. Ford’s detailed account had the ring of authenticity – being shoved into a bedroom, thrown on a bed and “grinded upon” by Kavanaugh as he and his buddy, Mark Judge, laughed – even though some details were blurry or missing. Kavanuagh’s denial was absolute and he acted as if he never knew Ford. He talked a lot about how he “worked my butt off” to get good grades and play sports. He projected an image that raised more doubt about him than her.

Regardless whether you think Kavanaugh is innocent and the victim of a “smear campaign,” there is plenty of room to question his approach to the hearing. If his nomination was assured before the hearing, his performance raised or underscored doubts. Ford can look forward to returning to her life as a college professor. Kavanaugh has to pray he can hold onto his reputation and his nomination.

Without changing any of the facts, Kavanaugh could have emerged from the hearing no worse off or possibly even in a strong position. He could have used a good crisis counselor.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Silverman Shows Friendliness Is No Joke

Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her bawdy, no-holds-barred humor, but how she handled a slur by a Twitter troll is turning heads and reminding us of the disarming power of friendliness.

Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her bawdy, no-holds-barred humor, but how she handled a slur by a Twitter troll is turning heads and reminding us of the disarming power of friendliness.

Unexpected friendliness can be disarming, even for someone who called you a name we can’t print.

Comedian Sarah Silverman, who is known for her bawdy humor, surprised her followers by how she responded to a man’s unprintable one-word tweet. Instead of ripping him in kind, Silverman responded with a friendly, empathetic tweet.

“I believe in you. I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back … sux too. See what happens when u choose love. I see it in you.”

The unexpected sympathy offensive started an exchange that wound up with the man apologizing for his crude comment, confessing he is actually a fan and agreeing to seek out a support group. The man launched a GoFundMe campaign, Silverman encouraged her Twitter followers to contribute and he quickly raised $1,774.

After Silverman offered to pay for his medical treatment, the man said he would dedicate the money he raised for charity. Pretty sweet outcome for an encounter that began with a slur.

Scathing online comments have become an irresistible and possibly irreversible norm. When attacked, we attack back. We dehumanize our critics so we can do our best to humiliate them. We are treated to daily insults from a tweetstorm master who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Based on her style of humor, Silverman is an unlikely disciple of friendly, sympathetic rejoinders. But her actions and continuing engagement with someone who she easily could have dismissed as a sexist troll shows the astonishing power of friendliness.

Silverman took a moment to look beyond a slur to the person’s motivation – and his pain. She displayed empathy after she took the time to scan his online record. She offered encouragement instead of invective. She provided an example more of us should follow.

Issue managers should expand their playbook to consider Silverman’s approach. Getting in shouting matches is never a good strategy, so why not explore how to disarm critics with a little sympathetic listening and a dose of empathy.

If the attacker still foams venom, your calm, mature demeanor can win respect for onlookers. More likely, your genuine effort to understand the source of anger and opposition can convert a heated moment into serious and maybe constructive conversation. Beyond coming across as caring, you might learn something valuable that you can apply to a project and mitigate concerns.

The subtler lesson taught by Silverman is the context for your listening. She capitalized on surprise to change the trajectory of the exchange. Whatever prompted the man’s tweet, Silverman’s response surely took him aback. He probably expected a sharp response, but instead got a sympathetic ear.

Silverman proves that conversations, even on Twitter, don’t have to be vicious and dehumanizing. Before hitting “send,” take a Silverman moment and ask if there isn’t another response. Instead of treating critics as enemies, try listening to them. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results. No joke.

 

Looking Forward Key to Putting Crisis in Past

Looking forward while dealing with a crisis is like showing how you're going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. 

Looking forward while dealing with a crisis is like showing how you're going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. 

The goal of crisis response is to get beyond the crisis. That requires looking forward, not just talking about how you are responding to what happened.

This is the equivalent of showing how you are going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. It’s a difficult balancing act. 

The key to looking forward is to show empathy for those impacted by the crisis. Putting their interests forward gives you a platform to talk about the future.

Care must be taken not to appear as if you are sloughing off the crisis at hand. You have to address it. The point is you can do more and help move the focus from the fire to reconstruction.

It is impossible to fake empathy, and your concern must come from a genuine place. Otherwise, you will do more harm than good. If a retaining wall collapses on a large construction project, raising questions about the engineering and contractor, a good step would be to pay one-on-one visits to adjoining residents or businesses. That creates an opportunity to explain what happened and how you will fix the problem, but also to ask about the project and how it can be leveraged to improve the neighborhood or solve a community issue. You might be surprised at what you find out.

Thoughtful crisis response involves much more than PR spin, which comes across as superficial and, sometimes, uncaring. Talking to people, even if you aren't able to quell all their concerns, builds rapport and ultimately some level of trust, especially if you follow through on what you promise.

This grassroots form of crisis response becomes the foundation for moving past the problem to longer term improvements, like mining the good from of the bad.

Actions always animate successful crisis responses. Forward-looking actions are the first steps to putting the crisis in the past tense.

Responding to Crisis from the Heart and Head

When facing a crisis, should you respond with your head or your heart? A PR colleague argues for both, and with good reason.

A stiff response or an overly emotional response can erode, not build, trust — which is the critical measure of success in crisis communication. An effective response must combine a caring reaction with a rational set of actions. 

Joan Gladstone, who gives strategic communications counsel to clients from her San Diego base, says people affected by a crisis want more than timely, transparent information. They want to know you care. And they want to know you are doing everything possible to end the crisis and prevent it from recurring. They want assurances you are treating the victims with respect.

This requires a response from both the heart and the head.

Empathy can go a long way toward establishing a bridge between the crisis response messenger and the people paying attention. The absence of empathy sends an even louder message. Failing to express sympathy or remorse can be seen as uncaring, disregard or indifference. A simple phone call to victims or their family members can speak volumes.