Helio Fred Garcia on How Leaders Can Prepare for the US Election

Many crises are not foreseeable, but civil unrest after the election is and leaders and organization should prepare for this.

On Monday, October 19, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia presented a pre-conference briefing on how to foresee the foreseeable and be ready for it when it happens around the US election at the Professional Speechwriters Association’s World Conference.

During this session, Garcia helped attendees understand a mindset to help leaders think through what to do and say ahead of election day, how to organize their thinking (and schedule) for various Election-Day scenarios, and how to prepare for and respond to five possible scenarios for what might happen immediately after the election.

Watch the full webinar here:

A Tale of Two Leaders: Cuomo v Trump

Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their biggest challenges.

In the COVID-19 crisis we see a contrast of leaders so stark that it can serve as a leadership laboratory for future generations to study.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shows a steady, compassionate, and urgent tone as he informs New Yorkers and the broader world about the reality of COVID-19 in his state. His briefings are direct, honest, consistent, and clear. He sprinkles his commentary with expressions of concern for health workers and hospital patients, he invokes his parents, his brother, and his daughters. And he tells the truth.

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, shows none of these qualities. He bungled the first two months of the pandemic in the U.S. He denied the severity of the virus and downplayed the risk of contagion. He alternates between the rosy – churches full at Easter – and the gloomy – social distancing for much longer. There is still not a whole-of-government response. Rather, there are fragments of a government response. He leaves it to governors to figure out supply chains, even as governors confess that they’re bidding against each other – and the federal government – to secure desperately-needed medical equipment.

President Trump heaps praise on himself and expects others to do as well. He recently bragged during a COVID-19 press briefing that he was the most popular person on Facebook.

Governor Cuomo, who, according to Politico, has a “long-standing revulsion to social media,” has nevertheless “rapidly emerged as an internet star.” (Earlier this week, #Cuomosexual was trending on Twitter.)

President Trump contradicts his own public health experts, who then have to clean up the mess in his absence. He improvises on the existence of testing equipment, medical equipment, and miracle drugs that don’t exist. He violates every principle of effective leadership in a crisis.

Winston Churchill admonished, “You must look at the facts because the facts look at you.” President Trump ignores the facts in front of him and invents new ones.

Trump insists on calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” even though the World Health Organization advises against naming diseases for a particular location because of the stigma involved. And last week the FBI warned about a wave of hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans in this country.

Since the pandemic started my team and I have been studying the best and worst practices in communicating in a COVID-19 world. The best include:

  1. Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values: Don’t dive directly into the facts. Create an emotional connection.
  2. Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
  3. Be direct, no euphemism: It’s confusing and causes unnecessary stress.
  4. Tell the truth, the whole truth: Your stakeholders are in this for the long term.
  5. Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis: A narrow lens is inadequate.
  6. Remember that expectations are dynamic. Calibrate current expectations.
  7. Communicate through multiple levels and channels. Be consistent.
  8. Align on values: Provide detail appropriate to each level and circumstance.
  9. Convey a positive attitude: Convey urgency short of provoking panic.
  10. Express emotion, vulnerability, and humility. Effective leaders do.

Governor Cuomo scores on all elements of this scorecard. The President, sadly, misses the mark. Other leaders can learn from both.

Leadership, Communication, and COVID-19

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Leadership, Communication, and COVID-19

By Helio Fred Garcia

As the COVID-19 Pandemic continues to  grow, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership has been advising clients and carefully studying communication by leaders across a range of sectors and forms of organization.

We have reviewed thousands of communications by CEOs, university presidents, NGO executive directors and secretaries general, and public officials. And we have identified patterns that help leaders and their organizations make smart choices and avoid inadvertent self-inflicted harm.

Seven Crises in  One

One of the foundational principles of effective crisis management is to name the problem accurately and to understand the true scope and likely risk of the crisis.

I believe that the COVID-19 crisis is actually seven crises in one. Think of these as seven different dimensions of the crisis. There’s a danger that a leader might be so focused on any one of the dimensions that he or she will miss the need to address the others. The seven dimensions of COVID-19 are these:

  1. Public Health Crisis: At its core COVID-19 is a public health crisis. Half a million people worldwide have gotten sick; tens of thousands have died. More will get sick and die before things get better. But  now in the United States the public health crisis includes a healthcare delivery system that is being strained to the breaking point. As hospitals in epicenters begin to fill up, there’s also a shortage of medical equipment and personal protective gear. Health workers are at risk, as are other patients.
  2. Business Crisis: COVID-19 presents a business problem for all forms of organizations. There is a cost impact, for most organizations a negative one. There  is a revenue impact, mostly negative; for some potentially catastrophic. There is disruption of operations. There is an HR impact.
  3. Economic Crisis: At the same time there is a significant economic crisis underway. The risk of falling into a major recession, very low two months ago, now is quite high. The markets have exhibited unprecedented volatility. Economic uncertainty is wearing on people and institutions.
  4. Information Crisis: From the beginning of the pandemic there has been significant incorrect information, incomplete information, and in some cases intentionally misleading information in the information ecosystem. This information crisis leads to significant misunderstanding about who is at risk of contracting the illness, who can transmit it, and what precautions are appropriate.
  5. Competence of Government Crisis: Not just in the U.S., but initially in China, Iran, and other nations the initial responses were bungled and the virus  spread. In the U.S. we have yet to see a whole of government response. Rather, we’ve seen a fragments of government response. Only in the third week of March, and the third month of COVID-19 in the U.S., are there sufficient tests and testing sites. But there is insufficient personal protective equipment for health workers, and a shortage of hand sanitizers, rubber gloves, and masks in retail stores.
  6. Social Crisis: People’s lives have been upended; many people are losing or at risk of losing their jobs. Supermarket shelves are bare. Many companies have ordered employees to work from home; schools are closed or have gone to virtual learning. But there has also been a rise of incivility, insult, and violence against people who have been stigmatized. President Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” has led to a wave of hate crimes against people perceived to be Asian or Asian-American.
  7. Mental Health Crisis: Human beings are social animals, and social distancing is having an effect. Compound this with the fear of the illness, the rising rate of infections and fatalities, and the other dimensions of the crisis, people are fraught. They are fragile. And they need extra care. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked for mental health professionals to volunteer to work with people not presently under their care to begin to meet this mental health need. I expect other governors will do the same.

 

Everything is Different

The unprecedented scope of the crisis makes it difficult to predict what will happen next. This crisis is unlike others. Among the differences:

  • This is unlike prior pandemics. This is the first global pandemic in a social media world. Recent pandemics were geographically contained. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was mostly confined to the Republic of Korea. Ebola was contained in the United States, and our military and public health experts were able to contain it in West Africa. And this is the first truly global pandemic in the lifetimes of most people in leadership positions.
  • This is unlike natural disasters. Most organizations are ready or can adapt to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. But those are generally geographically confined and are sudden but short in duration. COVID-19 is widespread and will continue for a very long time.
  • This is not like ordinary corporate crises. Most corporate crises are limited to a particular company, sector, or geography. But this one affects every organization. And unlike most corporate crises, this one has the additional dimensions of public health, economic risk, information challenges, competence of government, and social dislocation.
  • The situation is constantly changing. The scope of contagion, the government and society’s response to it, and our understanding of risk to ourselves are in constant flux. In a matter of days we saw an escalation from no large crowds to no crowds at all to stay-at-home orders to full lock-down orders.
  • This is fundamentally reshaping our understanding of work. As millions of American workers learn how to work from home, and as companies experiment with different modes of delivering products and services, the likelihood of a return to pre-COVID-19 conditions is not clear.

Crisis Response Best Practices

Most ineffective crisis responses begin with leaders asking some version of What should we do? Or What should we say? The challenge with this kind of question is that it focuses on the we – on the entity or leader in crisis. This results in the consideration of options that may make the leader in midst of crisis feel less vulnerable. But it is unlikely to lead to what is necessary to maintain trust, confidence, and support of those people whose trust, confidence, and support are critical to the organization.

What is needed is a different kind of thinking that begins not with the I/me/we/us but rather with the they/them – with the stakeholders who matter to the organization. The leadership discipline of mental readiness – the readiness to shift frames of reference from the first person — I/me/we/us — to the third person — they/them — makes all the difference.

And that’s because of the way trust works.

A common goal for most organizations and leaders in crises is to maintain the trust and confidence of those who matter – shareholders, employees, customers, regulators, residents, citizens, voters, etc. Trust is what makes other elements of competitive advantage possible, from stock price to employee morale and productivity to support of  regulators.

Trust, in turn, is the consequence of three related but slightly different things:

  1. Promises fulfilled. These can be explicit promises, or implicit promises such as in a brand identity. If we are seen to break a promise, trust falls.
  2. Expectations met. These can be expectations we set ourselves, such as by making promises. Or they can be expectations set by law or by government order. Or they can be expectations set by society. If we fail to meet expectations, trust falls.
  3. Values lived.  When those who matter to us experience us as living our stated values, the result is trust. If those who matter to us experience us as not living our stated values, trust falls.

And one of the patterns we notice is that it is much harder to restore trust once it has been lost than to maintain trust before it has been lost.

Asking What should we do? runs the serious risk of failing even to consider stakeholders’ expectations. Worse, it further risks the leader becoming stuck in his or her own perspective, in I/me/we/us. Hence, such crisis whoppers as BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” or even President Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

Most crisis response failures can be traced back to the ultimate decision-makers focusing on their own frame of reference rather than on their stakeholders.

The right question to ask when determining the appropriate course of action in a crisis is not What should we do.

Rather, it is this: What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do when facing this kind of situation?

For any stakeholder group we can answer the question, What would reasonable members of this stakeholder group appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do? to a very granular level. To the level of all employees, or only those employees in this one facility, or only those employees who were present when something happened. We can inventory those granular expectations  for each stakeholder group, and we can then work to fulfill those particular expectations.

But regardless the particular expectations of any given stakeholder group, there is a common expectation that applies to all stakeholder groups all the time:  In a crisis, all stakeholders expect a responsible organization or leader to care.  To care that something has happened; to care that people need help; to care that something needs to be done.

What it means to care may be different from crisis to crisis, or from industry to industry. What it means to care in the early phases of the crisis may be different from what it means to care in the later phases of the crisis. But that we need to care doesn’t change.

The single largest predictor that trust will fall is the perception of indifference. And silence, when there is an expectation of caring, is interpreted by stakeholders as indifference. And it gives our adversaries, critics, media and social media, and trolls the ability to define us as uncaring, or incompetent, or as lacking integrity.

Applying Best Practices to COVID-19 Communication

As the Logos Institute team has studied institutional response to COVIID-19, we have derived these  lessons applying the principle of caring to the pandemic.

  1. Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values, or belief, or intent, or motivation. Don’t dive directly into the facts. Audiences are far more likely to read or listen, understand, and remember when the leader creates an emotional connection first, and that begins with the statement of values.
  2. Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
  3. Be direct: No euphemism. Euphemism is confusing to audiences, especially when under stress. If an employee has died because of COVID-19, say so.
  4. Tell the truth: Avoid misleading half-truths. Remember that you’re in this for the long term. And eventually you’ll need employees to continue to want to work for you, and customers to want to do business with you. If you know that layoffs are likely, and you’re asked whether there will be layoffs, it may be tempting to say something literally true — “At this point there is no plan to lay people off.” This may be true, but the question was not about whether there is a plan but rather about whether there would be layoffs. A better response would be “We haven’t made a final decision, and we will do whatever we can to protect employees, but layoffs are a possibility.”
  5. Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis: public health, business crisis, economic crisis, information crisis, competence of government crisis, social crisis, and mental health crisis. It may be tempting to stay in a single frame, say, business crisis. But your stakeholders are experiencing all seven dimensions of the crisis.
  6. Remember that expectations are dynamic. Yesterday’s expectations may not be helpful today. Calibrate against current expectations.
  7. Communicate at multiple levels. Employees and other stakeholders need to hear from more than the CEO. At this point it is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.
  8. Align on values; allow granular detail appropriate to each level. Whether the CEO or an EVP or VP or department head or project team leader, there should be alignment on the level of values, belief, intent, or motive. But at each level the granularity should be appropriate to the level of the leader doing the communication.
  9. Convey a positive attitude that balances urgency against the provoking of panic. Effective leaders keep the focus on the future even while demonstrating urgency. But emotions themselves are contagious. Leaders need to stop short of provoking panic.
  10. Express emotion, vulnerability, and humility. Arrogance makes empathy impossible, and it is empathy that gets leaders and organizations through a crisis. Leaders are often reluctant to express emotion or vulnerability. But the most effective ones do.
  11. Get good at being on TV. Whether recording a video for public consumption or conducting a meeting via Zoom or Skype  or GoToMeeting, leaders need to get good at communicating through a video camera.
  12. Remember, people are feeling very fragile. People are scared; they’re worried about their jobs and their friends and their families. People’s work lives and personal lives have been upended. And some people are being stigmatized. Now is a time that calls for kindness. Effective leaders care.

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New Book by Logos President: Words on Fire

Logos Consulting Group is pleased to announce that the next book by Logos President Helio Fred Garcia is now available for pre-order.

Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It is about the power of communication to do great harm, and how civic leaders and engaged citizens can hold leaders accountable to prevent such harm. Garcia focuses on the forms of communication that condition an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against a targeted group, rival, or critic.

 

Sending Up a Flare

In the book’s preface Garcia writes,

“In my teaching and research, I study patterns: patterns that help leaders enhance competitive advantage, build trust and loyalty, and change the world for the better. I study the patterns of audience engagement and audience reaction. I study persuasion and influence, and the power of language to change people, mostly for the better.”

But he also provides a caution:

“I’ve also been acutely aware of the use of communication to hurt, to harm, and to humiliate, and of how dehumanizing and demonizing language can lead some people to commit acts of violence. I typically don’t teach those things in a classroom, but I often send up a flare, warning students, former students, and others of the predictable, if unintended, consequences of speech that, under the right conditions, can influence people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.”

Garcia notes that he found himself sending up many flares in recent years, but that something changed in 2018. In the Fall of that year he posted on social media persistent warnings about stochastic terrorism, the technical term for language that provokes some people to commit violence. He says,

“My concern grew into alarm as the 2018 mid-term elections approached and as President Trump’s language crossed a line. I worried that someone would be killed by Trump followers who embraced his increasingly incendiary rhetoric about immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and critics.”

Garcia’s fears were soon realized.

“In a single week, about ten days before the mid-terms, two separate terror attacks took place: one killed eleven people at worship in a synagogue; one failed but had targeted a dozen Trump critics with mail bombs. In both cases the perpetrators justified their actions by quoting Trump language. One of them, the mail bomber, described his conversion from being apolitical to being ‘a soldier in the war between right and left’ that resulted from his several years in Trump’s orbit.”

The following day Garcia posted a blog on Daily Kos describing the relationship between language and violence. That post was republished by CommPro.biz. Words on Fire is the continuation of that original blog post.

In reflecting on the President’s language, Garcia noticed another pattern: the forms of his language were familiar. He realized that the president was using the very same rhetorical techniques that had preceded previous mass murders, including genocides. He worried that, left unchecked, the president would continue, with increasingly dire consequences.

Garcia explored the kinds of language that historically had preceded acts of mass violence. And he studied contemporary sources including the U.S. Holocaust Museum Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The center defines “dangerous speech” as:

“speech that increases the risk for violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. It includes both speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.”

One of the key elements of creating such conditions is to dehumanize others. The Center’s handbook Defusing Hate notes that:

 “Dangerous speech often dehumanizes the group it targets (e.g., by calling its members rats, dogs, or lice), accuses the target group of planning to harm the audience, and presents the target group’s existence as a dire threat to the audience.”

Garcia also studied the work of Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, who says that when leaders persistently dehumanize others they lessen the capacity of citizens to empathize.

The Playbook

Dangerous speech begins with dehumanization but doesn’t end there. Garcia has identified twelve communication techniques that individually and collectively create a social context that conditions an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group. Each technique is a bit different from the other, although the individual techniques have elements in common. They serve as a kind of Playbook that malicious leaders have used to divide communities and to accumulate power. The twelve forms are:

  1. Dehumanize: Calling groups of people animals or vermin who are infesting the nation.
  2. Demonize/Delegitimize: Attributing to a group or rival a menacing, evil identity or calling into question the legitimacy or qualification of a group or rival.
  3. Scapegoat: Blaming a group for all or many of the nation’s problems.
  4. Public Health Threat: Claiming that members of a group are carrying or transmitting dangerous diseases.
  5. Safety Threat: Claiming that a group, rival, or critic is a threat to public safety – likely to cause death or injury to the nation or to the dominant group – or is a threat to civic order.
  6. Violent Motive: Claiming that a group has violent or hostile intentions toward a dominant group.
  7. Severely Exaggerating Risk: Labelling a minor issue or routine event a major threat.
  8. Sinister Identities: Attributing vague or sinister identities to a group or its members.
  9. Conspiracy: Saying that something is part of a sinister conspiracy.
  10. Discredit Information: Discrediting the source of objective information or of information critical of the leader.
  11. Conflation: Conflating the leader and the state, so that any criticism of the leader is seen as an attack on the nation.
  12. Menacing Image: Juxtaposing a menacing image (noose, swastika, flaming cross) with a person or person’s image, a location, or a facility associated with the target.

Words on Fire documents these forms of communication, and the consequences of that language, both before Trump and by Trump.

But it does more. It assesses how American political life came to this dangerous and demoralizing place.

And it offers hope, a path forward: a framework, a mindset, and a set of techniques to help civic leaders and informed citizens recognize the patterns of dangerous speech early, intervene early, hold those who use such language accountable for the consequences, and ideally prevent such violence in the first place.

Garcia and a team of researchers spent 14 months working on the book. In addition to studying historic mass killings that followed the persistent use of dangerous speech, Garcia and his researchers watched hundreds of rallies, interviews, and public appearances by Donald Trump as candidate and president, and read thousands of his tweets. Garcia also examined hate crime violence statistics and trends. And he examined national security and law enforcement scholarship on lone wolf violence up to and including lone wolf terrorism. Garcia synthesizes the fruits of this research and describes how lone wolves develop a terrorist mindset and how they are activated to commit violence.

 

From Stochastic Terrorism to Lone-Wolf Whistle Terrorism

Since 9/11 the use of communication in ways that trigger lone wolves to commit acts of violence, up to and including terrorism, has been known as stochastic terrorism. The name comes from a principle in statistics and describes something that may be statistically predictable but not individually predictable.

But Garcia has concluded that the phrase stochastic terrorism is difficult to grasp, and even to say, and tends to limit discussion. He proposes a different way to describe the phenomenon, based on who is motivated to act on the communication – lone wolves – and what triggers them to so act – a kind of dog whistle that he calls a lone-wolf whistle.

He says:

“Acts of violence triggered by such language I call lone-wolf whistle violence. When such language triggers mass violence with a political, ideological, or similar motive I call it lone-wolf whistle terrorism.”

A Call to Action

Words on Fire also profiles leaders who stepped over the line and were called on it. All, in their own ways and in varying time frames, stopped what they were doing. As responsible leaders do.

Garcia also explores humility as an essential leadership attribute that makes empathy possible. It is empathy that allows leaders to see the damage their rhetoric may cause, and humility and empathy that lead them to stop.

The book closes by providing a framework for civic leaders, engaged citizens, journalists, and public officials to recognize when a leader may have crossed the line, and a way to understand the likely consequences of dangerous speech. Garcia takes the Lone-Wolf Whistle Terrorism Playbook and recasts it as a toolkit or checklist in the form of questions to ask that can help determine whether a leader’s rhetoric is likely to inspire lone wolves to take matters into their own hands.

Early Endorsers

Early reaction to Words on Fire by those who have read the manuscript has been quite positive, and the book has several early endorsers.

David Lapan, Colonel, USMC (ret), former Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security spokesman, says:

“Language is power, and powerful. It can uplift, or harm. Helio Fred Garcia is an astute student of language and communication. This book offers historic examples, keen insights and valuable advice on recognizing patterns of language that can harm or lead to violence.”

Evan Wolfson, Founder, Freedom to Marry, says:

“Drawing on history and his deep expertise in communications, Helio Fred Garcia documents how Trump’s barrage of hate, divisiveness, falsehoods, and triggering are even uglier and more dangerous than we thought, right out of the autocrat’s playbook. During the Nixon administration, John Dean blew the whistle on the ‘cancer growing on the presidency.’ Words on Fire provides a clear and alarming CAT-scan of the cancer growing from this presidency, and a highly readable guide to how we can call out and combat Trump’s toxic language and malignant agenda, pushing back against the corrosive forces that enable Trumpism and put our country in such peril.”

James E. Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru®, says:

“Many of us were taught a lie as youngsters that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Fred courageously, graphically and powerfully illustrates that it is words on fire that bloodlessly, without scars or visible traces cause deep internal permanent damage while often triggering accompanying physical damage. And that if we remain silent one victim incinerated by words on fire damages the rest of us.”

Lukaszewski adds,

Words On Fire should be mandatory reading and a guide book for every reporter and editor anywhere. Journalists have significant responsibility for spreading the flames of intentionally incendiary, punitive, abusive language. There should be ethical and cultural sanctions for mindlessly but intentionally originating or transmitting dangerous language. Every business school needs to develop courses for managers and leaders in detoxifying and extinguishing fiery, intentionally emotional and harmful language, whatever the source, followed by every religious leader and elected official. Important institutions in our society and culture have the affirmative responsibility to stand up and speak out against the users and use of words on fire.

Public reaction has also been positive. In the week after Words on Fire became available for Amazon pre-order, it became the Amazon #1 New Release in Rhetoric and #2 in New Releases in Public Administration the #3 best seller in Public Administration.

Words on Fire is scheduled for publication in mid-June. It is available for pre-order in both paperback and kindle edition.

Prior Books by Logos President

Words on Fire is Garcia’s fifth book. His first, published in 1998, was the two-volume Crisis Communications, now out of print.

In 2006 Garcia co-authored with his NYU colleague John Doorley Reputation Management: The Key to Successful Public Relations and Corporate Communication. That book’s fourth edition is scheduled for publication in late Spring. Reputation Management has been adopted in undergraduate and graduate public relations and communication programs around the world, and was published in Korean in Seoul in 2016,

In 2012 Garcia published The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively. The Power of Communication has been adopted by dozens of graduate and professional schools, and was named one of eight leadership books on the U.S. Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List. It was published in Chinese in Beijing in 2014.

In 2017 Garcia published The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis. The Agony of Decision was named one of the best crisis management books of all time (#2 of 51) by BookAuthority, the leading non-fiction review site. It will be published in Chinese in Beijing later this year.

Garcia has been on the New York University faculty since 1988. He is an adjunct professor of management in NYU’s Stern School of Business Executive MBA program, where he teaches crisis management, and where he was named Executive MBA Great Professor. He is an adjunct associate professor of management and communication in NYU’s School of Professional Studies, MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication program, where he twice received the Dean’s award for teaching excellence, in 1990 and in 2017.  In that program he teaches courses in communication strategy; in communication ethics, law, and regulation; and in crisis communication.

Garcia is an adjunct associate professor of professional development and leadership at Columbia University, where he teaches ethics, crisis, and leadership in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. Garcia is also a Senior Fellow in the Institute of Corporate Communication at Communication University of China in Beijing.

 

Agony of Decision Now Available as Audio Book

Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press is pleased to announce that The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis is now available as an audio book.

The Agony of Decision was published in July, 2017.  In June, 2018 it was named one of the “51 Best Crisis Management Books of All Time” by Book Authority, the leading resource for nonfiction book recommendations. The book was named #2 of 51 on the list.

Image Source: Book Authority

 

Audio Edition on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes

The Audio Book edition of The Agony of Decision was published in October, 2018 and is available on all the leading audio book platforms.

You can order it on Audible here.

 

You can order it on Amazon here.

And you can order it on iTunes via your iTunes app.

The audio book edition was narrated by Andy Waits.

Logos Institute For Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press

The Agony of Decision is the first book published under the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press imprint as well as the first book in the Logos Institute Best Practices Series.

The series provides conceptual frameworks that help make sense of complicated issues by incorporating case studies, actionable tools, tips, and techniques that help leaders make smart choices and build competitive advantage when it matters most.

The Agony of Decision is about the specific ability leaders need in order to maintain reputation, trust, confidence, financial and operational strength, and competitive advantage in a crisis. This ability is mental readiness which comprises 1) emotional discipline, or the self-control needed to execute necessary but difficult choices, 2) deep knowledge, or an understanding of the patterns that show what works and what doesn’t work in a crisis, and 3) intellectual rigor, or the ability to make smart choices by asking the right questions at the right time.

The Agony of Decision was written by Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership executive director Helio Fred Garcia. He is also the author of three prior books:

 

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Logos President Interviews on Women Worldwide Podcast

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Logos Consulting Group president Helio Fred Garcia was a guest on the June 1, 2018 Women Worldwide Podcast hosted by Deirdre Breakenridge. The podcast is also broadcast on the C-Suite Radio Network.

Deirdre Breakenridge, host of Women Worldwide

Breakenridge is the CEO of Pure Performance Communications and the Author of Answers for Modern Communicators: A Guide to Effective Business Communication.

After more than 25 years of mentoring women and professionals in business and communications, Deirdre Breakenridge, an author, speaker, and consultant, launched her podcast, Women Worldwide, on C-Suite Radio to give women, and some men, a voice and platform to discuss their challenging yet rewarding career journeys. Interviewed by Breakenridge, women and men around the globe share their incredible stories; those who have experienced the heights of success and at times, the agony of defeat. With a vision to impart wisdom and to help people to soar to new heights, Women Worldwide uncovers different perspectives and ways for C-Suite listeners to find their inner strength.

 

The interview began with Breakenridge asking Garcia to share his journey as an immigrant to the United States.  Garcia responded,

I guess my journey is what you might call a typical American immigrant journey. I got to this country from Brazil when I was six. I actually arrived one week before first grade. And I didn’t speak a word of English… My first day of school I couldn’t understand what was going on and the teachers just concluded that I was dumb. Because of my appearance — I have fair skin and blue eyes and then had blonde hair — they didn’t see me as the typical Latin American immigrant. They just assumed that I was a dumb kid.”

Garcia described how he was essentially ignored by his teachers for the first five years of school.

“But in sixth grade a very special teacher took me aside on the first day and asked me a bunch of questions. And I have a vivid memory of her just smiling and beaming and her her chin lifting up to the sky and she let out a deep breath and said, ‘My son, you’re not stupid. You don’t speak English. And she realized that for five years I hadn’t failed in school; the school had failed me. And she made me her project.”

Garcia then described how that teacher had kept him after school for 90 minutes every day for a full year.

“We caught up with all the English I hadn’t learned and she had me begin to memorize public documents– the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address.  She had me speak in the front of the room. She had me do elocution. She had me recite so that every syllable could be heard in the back of the room. She had me put marbles in my mouth and do it again so she could hear every syllable. And by the end of that year I was not only caught up, I was way ahead of my classmates.”

After Garcia recounted his personal journey, Breakenridge shifted the discussion to issues arising from Garcia’s latest book, The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis.

You can hear the entire interview here:

 

 

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2018 Leadership and Crisis Preview: The Importance of Humility

2017 is a year defined by arrogance.

Arrogance in national affairs, as the president and his senior staff persistently refused to acknowledge any facts that failed to align with their world view, and attacked those who dissented as purveyors of “fake news.”

Arrogance in business, as we saw Pepsi mishandle an ad alluding to the Black Lives Matter movement, and then be surprised by the backlash before pulling the ad. And then it bungled its apology, in a remarkable display of victim confusion, by apologizing to the ad’s star, reality TV personality Kendall Jenner.

And arrogance as United Airlines’ CEO failed initially to express empathy for a passenger who had been assaulted and severely injured by Chicago Aviation Authority security officers removing him from a plane.

Whisper Networks No More

And we have begun to see the consequences of arrogance in professional relationships, particularly the sexual entitlement of powerful men toward others in subordinate positions. This was brought to the fore initially by a New York Times expose in October of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of systematic sexual abuse. The sexual misconduct of dozens more prominent men in entertainment, politics, business and journalism was revealed in the weeks following. The year ended with news that a two-star U.S. Army general had his nomination for a third star withdrawn as a consequence of treating a female congressional staffer disrespectfully in October.

The year saw backlash to this pervasive arrogance of male leaders in the form of the #metoo movement, a hashtag used on social media by victims of sexual misconduct to empower each other to stand up to their abusers, and find solace in their shared experiences. Just about every woman I know has disclosed that at least once in her life she has been the victim of sexual abuse or harassment, at work or otherwise. Time magazine put some of the women who came forward, whom it dubbed “The Silence Breakers” on its cover as 2017 person of the year.

What these various crises and scandals have in common is a particularly pernicious form of arrogance: a sense of entitlement; an inability to see others as worthy of respect and dignity; a failure of empathy. But mostly they reveal a lack of humility.

The Need for Humility

Humility isn’t a word we often see in business. Humility all too often is interpreted as weakness, especially in competitive cultures like Wall Street, politics, or the top of big organizations.

But in  2018, the best leaders will exhibit humility; the best-handled crises will be those where humility prevails.

One of the common patterns in mishandled crises is the absence of humility. Such bungled crises reflect what my friend, America’s Crisis Guru® Jim Lukaszewski, calls “testosterosis,” which he labels as a “powerful and hugely costly affliction.” He defines the affliction this way:

“Testosterosis: Men and women both have it. It’s that state of extraordinary irritation and agitation when something goes awry which makes us want to lash out rather than fess up; to slap a few folks around to see what happens; an agitated state caused by adverse circumstances which we regret about the time it begins, but is most often one of the things leaders, lawyers and other top people wind up apologizing for.”

But a little humility can prevent testosterosis.

A dollop of humility tempers other attributes, and makes a leader even stronger. Humility helps a leader to recognize that maybe – just maybe – he or she might be wrong; that there may be other valid perspectives; that he or she doesn’t have to be the smartest person in every room, at every meeting; that he or she doesn’t need to prevail in every disagreement.

The best leaders take responsibility in a crisis by using what Good to Great author Jim Collins describes as the paradoxical combination of humility and fierce resolve. He admonishes that humility must not be mistaken as weakness. He notes that the most effective leaders are a study in duality:

“…modest and willful, shy and fearless. To grasp this concept, consider Abraham Lincoln, who never let his ego get in the way of his ambition to create an enduring great nation… Those who thought Lincoln’s understated manner signaled weakness in the man found themselves terribly mistaken.”

Emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, in a Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Good Leader?,” identifies self-awareness as the preeminent leadership skill:

“People with a high degree of self-awareness know their weaknesses and aren’t afraid to talk about them.”

He notes, however, that many executives mistake such candor for ‘wimpiness.'”

Pope: Power Without Humility is Dangerous and Self-Destructive

Indeed, Pope Francis, in a TED Talk recorded in April, 2017, noted that humility is not weakness; rather, it is a kind of fortitude.

He said,

“Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.”

The Pope used a metaphor to illustrate the consequence of having an imbalance of humility and resolve:

“There is a saying in Argentina: ‘Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.’ You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility. Through humility… power… becomes a service, a force for good.”

Humility Enables Empathy

Humility is what makes empathy possible.

Humility helps leaders to connect with others up, down, and across the chain of command; to build organizations and cultures that are more likely to thrive; to understand the perspectives of other stakeholders. The best leaders have a temperament that blends both power and humility that allows them to create a culture of accountability in all directions.

The end of 2017 revealed a powerful example of effective leadership as the tempering of power with humility.  As covered by military.com, the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, was addressing troops in Afghanistan just before Christmas.

U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General Robert B. Neller

He told of the time as a one-star general commanding Marines in Iraq in 2006 he acted grinchy because he was away from his family at Christmas. He initially exhibited some testosterosis:

“It was was Camp Fallujah, it was cold, it was wet, rainy… I just got up in the morning… Overnight they had put up all the Christmas stuff, and Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus, Rudolf, and little trees and lights, and I’m like, [shouting] Who did this? Why are you doing this? I don’t want to be here for Christmas. And this is reminding me that I’m here. Take it all down!”

That could have been it. He was the boss, a general, addressing subordinate staff, in a war zone. But what happened next is remarkable. General Neller recounts,

“And this female sergeant, name escapes me, maybe 5 foot 1, stands up and says, ‘General, you need to knock that sh*t off. I don’t want to listen to any of that whiny sh*t. We’re here, it’s Christmas, we’re your family, you’re not going to be home, so suck it up… Sir!'”

General Neller was taken aback.  He stood silently:

“And I kind of stood there [pause]… didn’t quite know what to say [pause]…  looked at my boots [pause]… and I raised my head and said, ‘Yes, Ma’am, you are correct. I am sorry. This is my family for Christmas. And I will do my very best to have as good a Christmas as I can.'”

This expression of humility, this acknowledgement of his initial failure, this apology and acknowledgment of the rightness of the sergeant’s admonition, is an extraordinary demonstration of leadership. It is also remarkable that despite the disparity of rank and power the sergeant felt empowered to address him directly. General Neller had created an environment in which accountability in the form of such push-back was appropriate.

You can see General Neller tell this story here.

Humility as a Leadership Discipline

This ability to understand the perspectives of stakeholders is critical to being an effective leader and to getting through a crisis effectively.

Finally, humility recognizes that there’s a big difference between responsibility and blame; that taking responsibility regardless of where the blame may lay down the organization is a first step in getting people to focus on a solution rather than simply point fingers.

As we begin 2018, we can look for and notice examples of effective and ineffective leadership and crisis response. My prediction: Humility will mark the best leaders and the best handled crises.

Happy New Year!


Note: The principle of humility as a leadership discipline is covered more deeply in my latest book, The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis.

New Book: The Agony of Decision by Helio Fred Garcia

Logos Institute is very pleased to announce the publication of a new book by Helio Fred Garcia,The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis, volume 1 of Logos Institute Best Practice Series. The book is also the first volume in our publishing imprint, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press.

The book is now available for purchase here for individual or bulk orders. For a 15 percent discount, use the discount code QW9CFYKM. A Kindle edition is also available here on Amazon.

This book is about how leaders and the organizations they lead can maintain reputation, trust, confidence, financial and operational strength, and competitive advantage in a crisis.

Through Fred’s 30-plus years of professional involvement in thousands of crises affecting companies, governments, NGOs, and other organizations, he has discovered that the real value in resolving crises is not in excellent internal and external communication, nor in highest-quality tactical execution, however important they may be – and they are mighty important.

Rather, real value came from helping clients figure out and answer the bigger questions and then make the tough choices in a timely way. The execution would follow. So would the communication.

But people often misunderstand. That’s why Fred felt the necessity of writing this book — to help leaders think clearly, plan carefully, and execute effectively when facing high-stakes decisions. A wise man once said, the only meaningful way to escape the agony of decision is by thinking.

This book is for leaders of organizations who need to be good stewards of reputation, trust, and competitive advantage; and for those who advise those leaders, whether in public relations, law, or other business disciplines. We hope you find it helpful.

Charisma and Humility in American Politics, Guest Blog by Yinnan Shen

This is the eighth in a series of guest blogs featuring my recently-graduated capstone (thesis) advisees in New York University’s Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.

See my earlier posts:

In this blog Yinnan Shen summarizes her capstone on the best blend of charisma and humility to assure success in American presidential politics.

As she shares in her introduction, Yinnan, who did her undergraduate work at Beijing Language and Culture University, came to the United States with an idealized view of American politics. The last presidential election was the first she saw up close.  She chose her capstone topic not only to make sense of this election, but also as an opportunity to dive deeply into American history, politics, and culture in the past 60 years.

While both charisma and humility have been studied extensively, there is very little study of the combination of the two, especially in politics. Her contribution is a good start on a topic that is ripe for continued study: how to balance the seemingly contradictory personality qualities of charisma and humility.

You can download her capstone here.

This week Yinnan starts work as a research analyst at Logos Consulting Group.

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Charisma And Humility in Political Leadership

by Yinnan Shen

Yinnan Shen

2016 was a very interesting year for me, a foreigner who has a keen curiosity about American politics, to experience living in the States. I mean the presidential election part.

I arrived assuming that people are all rational, that there should be a rigorous system with a rigorous standard for choosing the president. That voters rationally assess each candidate referring to that standard, checking boxes, to pick the best candidate to become their president. But sorry Adam Smith; we humans don’t actually make rational choices.

Furthermore, the gap between reality and perception also gets in the way of making rational judgments.

That’s why charisma and humility comes into play in political leadership election and retention. Self-identification and emotion are two key drivers of followers in determining whom to vote for. And charisma and humility appeal directly to followers’ self-identification and emotion, affect their decision-making process unconsciously.

Also, charisma and humility are complementary in assessing a political leader. Humility can prevent charismatic leaders from being egocentric, arrogant, or corrupted.

My capstone therefore takes a deep dive into political leaders’ charisma and humility, and their correlation with political election and retention in the United States of America.

The methodology of this research is simple; build the measurements of humility and charisma first, and apply the measurements on candidates of historical presidential election cycles to find the correlations.

Measurements of Charisma and Humility

In the first part of my capstone, I studied theories on defining and measuring charisma and humility in the history, and then defined the two characteristics and identified key components of them based on past research and my own understanding. I developed a 10-item scale of charisma and a 5-item scale of humility.

Charisma definition: a set of extraordinary qualities and behaviors that inspire admiration, loyalty, and devotion among people, and that naturally separate the individual who possess these qualities from average people.

Charisma measurement:

Leader’s behavior and attributes:

  1. An idealized and even prophetic vision. Having a captivating vision that projects an idealized future for the followers is the foremost characteristic of charismatic leaders. The vision that he or she proposes is most likely to be a challenge to the status quo, a promise to change what has been done wrong in the past to actually excite follower’s trust, sense of belonging, and sense of mission.
  2. Articulation. The articulation of the vision is the key to help the vision reach the 
audience. Charismatic leaders are usually seen to be eloquent and persuasive – to be the masters of communications. Additionally, their tone of voice is always found to be captivating and engaging.
  3. Sensitivity to the environment. Charismatic leaders are most likely to rise from chaos or crisis. They tend to catch subtle trends and patterns of the world around us, which enables them to seize and even create opportunities before anyone else even notices. And this is the birth of their visions.
  4. High empathy. To arouse trust and self-identification with the collective, charismatic leaders are able to empathize with each individual’s needs and emotions, which usually results from their genuine interest in people. Charismatic leadership is actually more intuitive and sensitive than other types of leadership.
  5. Bold and unconventional strategies and tactics to achieve the vision. Charismatic leaders’ visions are convincing only when they go hand-in-hand with revolutionary strategies and tactics in the process of vision implementation.
  6. Willingness to take risks. Leaders are usually perceived as charismatic when they show their willingness to take great risks in making choices. The risk can be personal, or it could be a collective risk that helps achieve a greater good or a collective goal. The charismatic leader stands out when no one else is able to make these “scary choices.”
  7. Confidence in him or herself, as well as in followers. Charismatic leaders usually have high self-esteem, but more importantly, in order to arouse followers’ loyalty and devotion, they also have belief /faith in their followers.  They let followers feel well-involved in reaching the collective goal.
  8. A strong will. A strong will is a necessity for charismatic leaders. They usually have an inexorable will to do what they set mind to. And their drive and persistence can have such a strong influence over followers, and make the followers believe that they will definitely achieve their goals.
  9. High level of trust from followers. Followers trust no matter what the leader proposes or says, and have no doubt in the leader’s abilities to reach the desired vision.
  10. Considered a role model by followers. Charismatic leaders are always perceived as a role model who is everything the followers want to be. They are even idolized sometimes, as if they possess some heroic virtues or divine gifts. The followers also highly identify themselves with the leader. It’s a more personal reaction, usually as a consequence of deep connection, trust, and admiration.

 

Humility definition: a virtue allowing people to have an accurate self-assessment and think less of themselves.

Humility measurement:

  1. Openness. Usually perceived as approachable and able to relate with others, people with humility have the candor to tell the truth, to offer transparency, to open up room for people to get close to them.
  2. Tolerance and forgiveness. An individual with humility is able to listen to contradictory opinions, accept honest advice, appreciate difference, and is open to new ideas. Humility also requires one to not hold too much of a grudge against others, and humble leaders tend to be more understanding than others.
  3. An accurate self-assessment. They usually have an accurate assessment of themselves, including their abilities, strength, and accomplishment. An accurate self-assessment also means that they are able to recognize their mistakes and take responsibility accordingly.
  4. Self-forgetfulness. To have humility, one ought to view him or herself less importantly, which mean they value other people’s inputs, and even put other people’s interests before their own.
  5. Highly secure. Contrary to common knowledge, people with humility actually have high self-esteem and sense of security. They assess themselves and the world precisely, so that other people’s thoughts are less likely to get in the way of making their own choices and their self-assessment. They are also secure enough to show vulnerability, and less likely to exhibit caution and anxiety.

Application on Historical Presidential Election Cycles

In the second part, I studied candidates’ biographies, news reports, opinion polls, speeches, and interviews of the designated political leaders (both the one who won and the one who lost in their respective election cycle). I also conducted in-depth interviews with people who had exclusive insights about those candidates’ personalities,

I applied the measurements on both elected and non-elected candidates in each cycle to grade each candidate’s charisma and humility. For each charisma or humility attribute a candidate exhibited I awarded one point in that respective category.  The results are below, in which the darker colored rows represent the winning candidates.

Conclusions and Guidance on Political Leadership

Using the research results, I drew the four graphs, one per election studied. I took each candidate’s charisma score (x) and humility (y) as this candidate’s coordinate (x, y), and marked it on the corresponding graph. Red dots represent winning candidates and blue dots represent losing candidates.

The blue quarter circle shaded areas were drawn using the radius that equals  the distance from the blue dot to the origin. If we use the linear distance between each dot and the origin, the distance represented by z as a representation of this candidate’s overall performance of charisma and humility, then the blue shaded area means the overall performance of charisma and humility that is less/equal to the losing candidate.

No matter how the x and y varies in each election cycle, the red dots always fall out of the blue shaded areas. That being said, the z value, named as C-H Value, of the winning candidate is always greater than the z value of the losing candidate.

The model implies that political leaders who have a better overall performance of charisma and humility gain more support in political election. It can be applied on any given political candidate, in conjunction with the measurements the capstone created to calculate a candidate’s charisma and humility scores. As long as we have a certain candidate’s charisma score (x) and humility score (y), we’ll be able to calculate his or her C-H Value and compare it to his or her rival’s, in order to have a better understanding of the election result. The model facilitates the interpretation of past election results and helps predict future elections.

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Crisis Management Lessons Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina

 

Helio Fred GarciaHelio Fred Garcia | Bio | Posts
29 Aug 2015

Ten years ago today Hurricane Katrina made landfall.  The rest, as they say, is history.

I won’t recount that history day-by-day here. There are plenty of special reports on TV and in the newspapers this weekend that help us see the horror as it unfolded.  For a day-by-day timeline of the federal response, see Chapter 3 of The Power of Communication, or see Failure of Initiative, the final report of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina.  That congressional report concluded:

“The Select Committee identified failures at all levels of government that significantly undermined and detracted from the heroic efforts of first responders, private individuals and organizations, faith-based groups, and others.”

But on the tenth anniversary of the flood, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of that bungled response and to re-commit to the discipline of effective crisis response.  I will hit the high points (or low points) of Katrina response as teachable moments.

I monitored the hurricane and flood and then deployed to New Orleans in the second week as part of a corporate response to the disaster.  I saw first hand the consequence of the government’s ineffective handling of the crisis.

The author documenting Katrina damage.

The author documenting Katrina damage.

The federal government’s response to Katrina was bumbling, disorganized, and dishonest. It cost hundreds of lives. Many of the nearly 1,500 deaths in New Orleans happened in the days following the flood.  Many of those were preventable.

And the bungled response cost President George W. Bush his reputation. Until Katrina, President Bush had enjoyed a job approval rating above 50 percent. He had won re-election in a tough campaign just 10 months earlier. But after Katrina his job approval fell below 50 percent and never recovered. It fell first to 42 percent and a month later to 38 percent, and was below 30 percent the following year. President Bush finished his presidency with the lowest approval ratings of any president.

Bush approval

That loss of trust and reputation was preventable.  Because most of the bungled response was preventable.

Effective Crisis Management is a Leadership Discipline

Crisis management is the management of choices – the management of decisions that leaders make when things have the potential to go very wrong.

Effective crisis management helps leaders and organizations make critical business decisions that can prevent, mitigate, or recover from an event that threatens trust, reputation, assets, operations, and competitive position.

There is a rigor to effective crisis management that is equivalent to the rigor found in other business processes. But that rigor is often unknown, ignored, or misapplied by many leaders, to their own and their organizations’ misfortune.

That rigor includes a systematic way to think in a crisis.

Many leaders who otherwise are gifted managers – managing finance, or engineering, or marketing, or any other professional discipline, or even a whole company or government – throw rigor to the wind when a crisis emerges. Then they either make up a response on the fly or try to cobble together bits of knowledge from other parts of their experience. Or they ignore the crisis until it is too late. Or they think that their problem is one of public relations that can be rationalized away.

All of these things happened in Katrina. Indeed, from the President to the Secretary of Homeland Security to the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there was lack of situational awareness, ineffective and dishonest assurances of an imminent response, and then denial of their own mis-steps.  They focused more on saying what sounded good, but were singularly unable to deliver on the assurances they made.

Washington, DC, August 31, 2005 -- Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, at a press conference at Homeland Security Headquarters, The press conference was also attended by Stephen Johnson from the Environmental Protection Agency, Secretary Michael Leavitt of the Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary Samuel Bodman of the Department of Energy, Secretary Norman Mineta, Department of Transportation, Rear Admiral Joel Whitehead, US Coast Guard, Acting Deputy Director Patrick Rhode of FEMA and Assisstant Secretary for Homeland Defense Paul McHale from the Department of Defense. Photo by Ed Edahl/FEMA

August 31, 2005 — Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, addresses the media.  Photo by Ed Edahl/FEMA

 Every Crisis is a Business Problem Before it is a Communication Problem

Crisis management is far more than skillful public relations. Seeing PR as the solution to a crisis is a recipe for failure.

Every crisis is a business problem before it is a communication problem, and you cannot communicate your way out of a business problem.

The government set the bar very high early in the Katrina crisis.

The day before the hurricane made landfall President Bush went on television to reassure the citizens of New Orleans and the surrounding areas. He said,

“We will do everything in our power to help the people and the communities affected by the storm.”

FEMA Director Michael Brown also reassured the public:

“FEMA is not going to hesitate at all in this storm. We’re going to move fast, we’re going to move quick, we’re going to do whatever it takes to help disaster victims.”

FEMA chief Michael Brown alongside Governor Kathleen Blanco and Senator Mary Landrieu

FEMA chief Michael Brown alongside Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, center, and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, left.

These were the right things to say.

But simply saying them was not enough.

Regrettably, both FEMA and the larger US government, having set those expectations, spent the next week dramatically under-delivering on them. As the horror that New Orleans experienced unfolded over the next few days, the government’s lack of effective action, and the disconnect between the rhetoric and the work, defined the president and his administration.

Crises play out in an environment of emotional resonance: fear, anxiety, anger, shame, embarrassment and other, often confused, emotions. Effective crisis communication, combined with effective management of other elements of a crisis, can address and even neutralize these emotional reactions.

New Orleans flooded on August 29, 2005

New Orleans flooded on August 29, 2005

Crisis Response =
Effective Action + Effective Communication

Effective crisis response consists of a carefully managed process that calibrates smart actions with smart communication.

The key to making smart choices is to use the right decision criteria – the proper basis for choice. And that means asking the right questions.

Indeed, in my experience working on and studying thousands of crises over more than 35 years, the most effectively handled crises were the ones where leaders asked the right question.  Ask the right question, and the solution can become clear within a matter of minutes. But asking the right question requires mental readiness; a readiness to shift perspective and to think differently.

The Leadership Discipline of Mental Readiness

Most counter-productive crisis responses begin with leaders asking some version of What should we do? Or What should we say? The challenge with this kind of question is that it focuses on the we – on the entity or leader in crisis. This results in the consideration of options that may make the people in midst of crisis feel good. But it is unlikely to lead to what is necessary to maintain trust, confidence, and support of those people whose trust, confidence, and support are critical to the organization.

What is needed is a different kind of thinking that begins not with the I/me/we/us but rather with the they/them – with the stakeholders who matter to the organization. The leadership discipline of mental readiness – the readiness to shift frames of reference from the first person — I/me/we/us — to the third person — they/them — makes all the difference.

And that’s because of the way trust works.

Maintaining Trust: Meet Expectations

A common goal for most organizations and leaders in crises is to maintain the trust and confidence of those who matter – shareholders, employees, customers, regulators, residents, citizens, voters, etc.

Trust arises when stakeholders’ legitimate expectations are met. Trust falls when expectations are unmet.

Asking What should we do? runs the serious risk of failing even to consider stakeholders’ expectations. Worse, it further risks the leader becoming stuck in his or her own perspective, in I/me/we/us. Hence, such crisis whoppers as BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” or even President Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

Most crisis response failures can be traced back to the ultimate decision-makers focusing on their own frame of reference rather than on their stakeholders.  This was the case in Katrina.

The right question to ask when determining the appropriate course of action in a crisis is not What should we do. Rather, it is this: What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do when facing this kind of situation?

Framing decisions in light of stakeholder expectations leads to smarter choices faster, and maintains stakeholders’ trust.

For any stakeholder group we can answer the question, What would reasonable members of this stakeholder group appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do? to a very granular level. And at the very least, one way to determine stakeholder expectations is to reflect on the expectations we ourselves have set.  So, in Katrina, President Bush set the expectation that the the federal government would do everything in its power to help the people affected by the storm.  FEMA chief Michael Brown said that FEMA would not hesitate at all, but would move fast and do whatever it takes to help disaster victims.

But when FEMA was seen to be slow and to create obstacles to rapid response, and when the U.S. government was not seen to be responding or even acknowledging the gravity of the situation, trust began to fall simply because the expectations the government itself had set were not being fulfilled.

 

Photo by the author.

We can inventory expectations to a very granular level for each stakeholder group, and we can then work to fulfill those particular expectations.

But regardless the particular expectations of any given stakeholder group, there is a common expectation that applies to all stakeholder groups all the time:  In a crisis, all stakeholders expect a responsible organization or leader to care.  To care that something has happened; to care that people need help; to care that something needs to be done.

One of the common patterns in crisis is this: The single biggest predictor of loss of trust and confidence, of loss of reputation, and of financial and operational harm, is the perception that the organization or leader do not care.

So effective crisis response, at a minimum, begins with a timely demonstration of caring. And it continues with a persistent demonstration that the organization and leader continue to care, for as long as the expectation of caring exists.

This is what was sorely lacking in the government’s response to Katrina.  Officials said they cared; but the tangible demonstration of caring didn’t match the rhetoric.

New Orleans flooded on a Monday.  Throughout that day and Tuesday, the government kept assuring the news media that FEMA and other agencies were on the ground and helping the victims.  But news coverage showed little federal presence except for U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescues.  But no staging areas for victims; no shelters; but hundreds of people, mostly African-American, struggling against the rising waters and without help.  On Tuesday the news media persistently questioned why there was little evidence of federal help for the city, noting even that dead bodies continued to float by.

On that Wednesday the media not only covered the lack of a FEMA presence on the ground, but also how FEMA prevented or stalled potential aid from other sources.  For example, a fourteen-car caravan arranged by the sheriff of Loudoun County, Virginia, carrying supplies of water and food, was not allowed into the city. FEMA stopped tractor trailers carrying water to the supply staging area in Alexandria, Louisiana because they did not have the necessary paperwork. CNN also reported that during the weekend before the flood Mayor Nagin had made a call for firefighters to help with rescue operations. But as firefighters from across the country arrived to help victims, they were first sent by FEMA to Atlanta for a day long training program in community relations and sexual harassment. When they arrived in New Orleans, the volunteer firefighters were permitted only to give out flyers with FEMA number, but were forbidden from engaging in rescue operations. The media reported not only the resentment felt by the first responders, but also how FEMA’s policies hurt those people who were begging for aid in New Orleans.

That day Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff held a press conference in which he said,

“We are extremely pleased with every element of the federal government, all of our federal partners, have made to this terrible tragedy.”

That day Mayor Ray Nagin went on the radio and blasted the federal government for its failure to respond quickly:

“I don’t want to see anyone do any more g*d-dammed press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t tell me forty thousand people are coming here. They’re not here!”

On Thursday, the news media reported that hundreds of people who had been sheltering at the New Orleans Convention Center without food, water, blankets, or any other help.  FEMA Director Michael Brown went on four network news programs and admitted that FEMA had been unaware of the people at the convention center until the news media reported it.

That day commentators and late-night comedians began to question Mr. Brown’s fitness to serve.

On Friday President Bush visited the area, and famously praised Mr. Brown, addressing him by his nickname:

“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

President George W. Bush addressing FEMA Director Michael Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

That caught people’s attention (and became a defining quote of the President Bush’s tenure as president).  Media analysts wondered why the President would say that: Did he not know how incompetent Brown seemed to many people?  Did he know and not care?  Or did he actually want the ineffective response?  It showed a president out of touch, or worse.  This meme began to make its way across the television networks.

That night, Friday, on a live televised concert to raise funds for Katrina victims, entertainer Kanye West gave voice to the pent up frustrations of many:

“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Kanye West gave voice to pent-up frustrations when he declared on live TV: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

 

This changed the dynamic completely.  The next morning, six days after the flood, the President spoke to the media in front of the White House. Flanked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Meyers, and Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff, the president acknowledged shortfalls in the federal response and committed to direct a more effective response. He said,

“Many of our citizens are simply not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable.”

After six days of seeming out of touch, the acknowledgement of the inadequate response seemed a heartening development. That day a larger federal presence was seen in New Orleans and President Bush ordered over 7,000 troops and an additional 10,000 National Guardsmen to the disaster area.

On the weekend talk shows, the focus shifted from why the response was inadequate to who was to blame for it.

Meet The Press host Tim Russert with Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff

Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press and was questioned by host Tim Russert.  Russert asked whether Chertoff or anyone who reported to him would resign given the poor response.  He quoted the Republican senator from Louisiana, David Vitter, who gave Secretary Chertoff a grade of F.  He noted that Mitt Romney, Republican governor of Massachusetts, said that the U.S. is now an embarrassment to the world.  He then challenged Secretary Chertoff:

“Your website says that your department assumes primary responsibility for a natural disaster.  If you knew that a Hurricane Three storm was coming, why weren’t buses, trains, planes, cruise ships, trucks provided on Friday, Saturday, Sunday to evacuate people before the storm?”

Secretary Chertoff gave a response that was, at best, disingenuous. He said,

“Tim, the way that emergency operations act under the law is – the responsibility, the power, the authority to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials.”

Even if the statement were true, it was a sharp contrast from President Bush’s and FEMA Director Brown’s assurances that the federal government would do everything it could to help those affected by the storm. But as a PBS Frontline special pointed out, evacuation is a shared responsibility. The law establishing FEMA spells out:

“The functions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency include…conducting emergency operations to save lives and property through positioning emergency equipment and supplies, through evacuating potential victims, through providing food, water, shelter, and medical care to those in need, and through restoring critical public services.”

By the following Friday, 13 days after the flood, Secretary Chertoff announced that operational responsibility for the Katrina response was shifting from FEMA to the Coast Guard, and that Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen would take charge.  FEMA Director Brown resigned the following Monday.

9 Lessons for Leaders and Communicators

The Katrina anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on foundational principles of effective crisis management.  These include:

  1. Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most difficult challenges.  Crises can literally make or break reputations.
  2. Crisis management is the management of choices – the management of decisions that leaders make when things have the potential to go very wrong.
  3. There is a rigor to effective crisis management that is equivalent to the rigor found in other business processes. But that rigor is often unknown, ignored, or misapplied by many leaders, to their own and their organizations’ misfortune.  That rigor includes a systematic way to think in a crisis.
  4. Every crisis is a business problem before it is a communication problem, and you cannot communicate your way out of a business problem. Crisis management is far more than skillful public relations. Effective crisis response consists of a carefully managed process that calibrates smart actions with smart communication: Crisis Response = Effective Action + Effective Communication.
  5. The key to making smart choices is to use the right decision criteria – the proper basis for choice. And that means asking the right question: What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?
  6. Trust arises when stakeholders’ legitimate expectations are met. Trust falls when expectations are unmet.
  7. Framing decisions in light of stakeholder expectations leads to smarter choices faster, and maintains stakeholders’ trust.
  8. In a crisis, all stakeholders expect a responsible organization or leader to care.  To care that something has happened; to care that people need help; to care that something needs to be done.
  9. The single biggest predictor of loss of trust and confidence, of loss of reputation, and of financial and operational harm, is the perception that the organization or leader do not care. Effective crisis response, at a minimum, begins with a timely demonstration of caring. And it continues with a persistent demonstration that the organization and leader continue to care, for as long as the expectation of caring exists.