What a week for crises!

Forget about the financial melt-down, the transition to the new president, or any of the really old news.

Last week was one for the record books.

The curtain rose Monday, December 8, on the usual tired old economic meltdown crises, particularly  the prospect of an auto bailout (that still hasn’t happened).

Then things got curiouser and curiouser…

Not Available on E-Bay

Tuesday Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich was arrested for trying to sell his appointment of President Elect Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat to a high bidder.  He’s still governor (as of 3:30 PM Monday, December 15).

Governor Blagojevich was caught on tape by the FBI openly discussing the senate seat auction, using [expletive] unprintable language.  All this despite knowing that he was under federal investigation for other matters.  [Expletive Expletive]. Makes the mind [expletive] boggle.

A Rogue’s Gallery: Do We Cheat ‘Em?  And How!

Then we got more details of an audacious fraud allegedly carried out by high-power lawyer Marc S. Drier, who posed as other lawyers and talked his way into companies’ conference rooms for meetings with potential investors, to whom he then peddled fraudulent securities.  He was caught when some thoughtful folks wondered why he was using their conference room without them.  His law firm is now collapsing, and he’s out on bail with significant travel restrictions.

And on Thursday the FBI arrested Bernard Madoff, head of a securities firm and former NASDAQ big-wig, for what is now considered the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of financial fraud.

According to news accounts, victims include the proverbial widows and orphans, members of posh country clubs, large international banks and such luminaries as financier Mortimer Zuckerman, Senator Frank Lautenberg, Nobel Peace Prize winner Eli Weisel, and a charity of movie director Steven Spielberg.  The fraud is said to total more than $50 billion.

Who’s to Blame for Abu Ghraib?

Nearly unnoticed Thursday in all the crisis coverage was a report by leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee that concluded that top Bush Administration officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, were responsible for abuses and torture carried out by others down the chain of command.

The report, jointly released by Democratic committee chair Carl Levin (MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (AZ), concluded that the Abu Ghraib abuse case “was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own” but was due to policies approved at the top.  This would have been big news just weeks or months earlier, but it got buried in the Blagojevich, Madoff, and Drier coverage.

Lame Duck Victory Lap

Finally, on Sunday, President George W. Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad to commemorate the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Iraq.  It was supposed to be the president’s victory lap, but it degenerated into farce that could easily have become tragedy when a reporter threw a shoe — and then another — at the president during a press conference.  The underside of the shoe is considered unclean, and the gesture was intended as an insult, and was accompanied by the verbal insult, “This is a farewell kiss, you dog.”

President Bush, in what the otherwise Bush-friendly New York Post calls a Lame Duck, managed to dodge both shoes.  But to me more disturbing than the insult and the potential physical harm to the president is the amount of time it took for the Secret Service and other security forces to surround the president.  The thrower had time to take off and throw a second shoe, and there was still a lag before the president was secured. One shudders to think what would have happend if there had been a second shoe-ter.  And what if instead of shoes the projectiles had been something else?

The Week Ahead and Lessons for Tomorrow

Who can say what this week and next will bring?  Which is the lesson of the week just passed.  As former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld famously said during the Baghdad riots of 2003, Stuff happens.

In our work and in my crisis management teaching in graduate schools we often have clients and students prepare for hypothetical crises.  One common refrain we hear is that “we don’t really have crises” or that they “can’t imagine something going wrong.”  This week reminds us that things go very wrong, very quickly.  While it’s impossible to prepare for every crisis, it is possible to prepare for many, and to understand the dynamics of crisis behavior among stakeholder groups regardless of the particular scenario.

It would have been pretty hard to invent the scenarios of the past week and still be credible with clients and students.  But, as they say, “you can’t make this stuff up…”  Which only reinforces the need to be ready for even the most out-of-left-field crises.

All of the crises of the past week have collateral consequences, affecting lots of people in important ways.  Organizations of all sizes need to be vigilant and ready to respond to the crisis, whether the crisis is within your own shop, or your organization merely suffers collateral harm.

Here’s hoping that next week, that most wonderful time of the year, is relatively crisis-free…


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