by Helio Fred Garcia

I have had the privilege of teaching Marines for 25 years.

Of all the teaching I do, it’s one of my favorite things.


But as the Talmud notes, “I have learned much from my teachers; I have learned more from my colleagues; but it is from my students that I have learned the most.”

And of all whom I teach, it is the Marines from whom I have learned the most.  And so have my civilian students and clients.  I am a better corporate consultant and leadership coach because of what I have learned from teaching Marines.  And the more I teach the more I learn.

EGA 17

My teaching Marines started almost by accident.

In 1991, in my fourth year on the NYU faculty, I was teaching a continuing education course on Spokesmanship: How to Be an Effective Spokesperson.  And I had a student, Walter, who was different from his classmates.  Most were in their 20s.  Walter had gray hair.  Most were already working in PR. Walter was a Marine, just back from the first Iraq war, where he had flown helicopters in combat.  He had reached an age when he had to give up flying, but he wasn’t ready to retire.  So he was assigned to the New York Public Affairs office. Walter was to start his new billet in September, and was taking my summer course to get a head start – very much like a Marine.

Earlier that year I had written an article for the journal PR Quarterly (pdf).  In it I reflected that the U.S. military had been guided in the war by the principles of the Nineteenth-Century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.  I noted that just as the military applied those principles in fighting the war, the Pentagon communication office had applied the principles in their public communication about the war:

“Once the touchstone of most Western military strategy, Clausewitz fell out of favor in the late 1950s, replaced by social scientists who brought us systems analysis, gradual escalation and attrition, body counts, and other sins of the Vietnam era.

In the Gulf war, Clausewitz emerged not only on the battlefield; he was also in the briefing room.  We won not only the air war and the ground war; we won the battle for public opinion.  A close reading of Clausewitz… provides a context for understanding both the military victory in the Gulf and the PR efforts that contributed to it.”

Walter showed the article to his commanding officer. My mentor Jim Lukaszewski, who taught Marines, had earlier recommended me to the same person.

The commanding officer called and invited me to teach at an annual meeting of newly-named Marine commanders – lieutenant colonels and colonels – who would gather in New York for a week of public affairs training.  I taught my first Marine in October, 1991.  I have taught at every New York Public Affairs Symposium ever since.

Leadership Factory

The United States Marine Corps is the nation’s crisis response force.  The tip of the spear.  It’s ready to deploy anywhere, any time, on any mission.

The Marine Corps is also a leadership factory.  It instills qualities of initiative, teamwork, and dedication to mission.  It pushes accountability down to the bottom of the chain of command, even as it holds leaders at the very top of the chain accountable for their subordinates’ decisions.  Marines follow orders, but not blindly.  Commander’s intent is an essential part of an order.  Understanding a commander’s intent is the responsibility of each Marine.  And making that intent clear is the responsibility of each commander, of whatever rank.

In 2001, about two months before the 9/11 attacks, I attended a Marine Corps capabilities exercise in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  It was intended to show visiting dignitaries, mostly staff of congressional committees, the range of Marines’ ability to fight in many forms.


We saw, among other things:

  • A HALO (High-Altitude Low Opening) parachute drop where, to avoid detection, Marines dropped from very high altitude, virtually unseen, and opened their parachutes just above the tree line.
  • A beach landing of many amphibious landing craft, with beach masters guiding the arriving Marines as they left their craft, riding on armored personnel carriers and deploying on foot.
  • Marine fighter jets strafing the beach ahead of the arriving landing craft.
  • A simulated helicopter rescue of a downed pilot.
  • A hostage rescue in a simulated U.S. embassy.
  • A chemical weapons decontamination exercise.
  • A riverine assault with Marines arriving on fast rubber inflatable boats.
  • An infantry, armored, and air assault of a simulated urban combat environment; Marines taking a city.

It was all wildly impressive. But what impressed me more was something that happened during this capabilities exercise.

It was July, in swampy North Carolina.  It was over 100 degrees, and very humid. The dignitaries were beginning to wilt.  We arrived at a large field kitchen serving lunch to the hundreds of Marines.

Marine Field Kitchen

I saw one of my contacts, a captain from the New York public affairs unit, speaking casually to some other officers. They invited me to get on the chow line.  I asked whether they had eaten yet. They very matter-of-factly replied, “No, we’ll eat later.”  I asked, “Aren’t you hungry?” One of the other officers replied, “We don’t eat until the enlisted Marines have eaten.” I asked, “Why not?” He responded, “Officers eat last.”

Officers Eat Last

I was taken aback. I work primarily in a corporate environment, where the idea that the senior leaders defer their own benefits to the junior ranks is not common. But I learned that it is an essential element of Marine Corps leadership. Marine leadership has two goals: 1) Accomplish the mission; 2) Attend to the welfare of your Marines.

This one human gesture, officers eat last, captured for me the essential nature of the Marines.

A Learning Organization

The Marine Corps is also at its heart a learning organization.

When they are not deployed Marines are in school. The Corps has dozens of schools, plus other professional military education programs. And an active reading program.

In 2006, during a break while teaching at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia, I wandered into the bookstore. There I discovered the Commandant’s Reading List; more than 100 titles. And as I ran through the books, I noticed some interesting things. First, many were sharply critical of the U.S. military, and of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. I was impressed that the Commandant would encourage Marines to read books by critics. Second, the books covered a broad expanse of subject matter, from history to culture to biography.

And I was honored when, in 2013, my most recent book, The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively, was added to the Commandant’s Reading List.

That book itself arose from my visit to the bookstore that day. In the store I found a slim volume called Warfighting: U.S. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication No. 1. It’s required reading for every Marine. It lays out an approach to strategy and leadership that informs what all Marines do. Think of it as the Marine Corps Bible. And it is extremely well-written.

Flying home on the shuttle, I couldn’t put the book down. As I read, I realized that by changing just a few words in Warfighting l could create a conceptual framework to help civilian leaders develop a much richer and deeper understanding of effective public communication.


Then I had an idea. I was about to teach a new course on communication strategy in the M.S. in Public Relations and Corporate Communication program at New York University.

I decided to assign Warfighting, requiring students to read it before the first class.  When I sent the syllabus to the department it raised a few eyebrows.  But to his credit the academic director gave me the green light, and I posted the syllabus online.

In the first class, before discussing the book, I polled the students:

  • How many were confused when they saw that the first book in a communication strategy course was a Marine Corps book called Warfighting?
    Nearly every hand went up.
  • How many were concerned?
    Most hands stayed up.
  • How many were angry?
    About a third of the hands stayed up.
  • How many are still angry after reading the book?
    All hands came down.

I found the most counter-culture-seeming student who had just put her hand down, and asked, “Why were you angry when you saw the syllabus?” She looked me in the eye and said “I thought you were going to feed us propaganda, try to get us to like the military, to support the war in Iraq.” And now?  She smiled, and said, “I love this book. I have given copies to my parents and friends.  I want to know why we don’t know more about this book.” Some years after graduating, that student joined the NYU faculty, teaching the same course.

I used Warfighting for five years afterward, and not only in my NYU classroom. I used it in strategy boot camps for the public affairs department of a major insurance company, the communication staff of a large pharmaceutical company, and even with clergy and not-for-profit executives, sometimes to their initial discomfort.  I urged individual CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders to read it to help them both to think strategically and to communicate effectively.

In all civilian contexts, my students and clients enthusiastically embraced Warfighting, and the comments tended to cluster into these two categories:

  1. This is one of the single most useful insights into how to be strategic in communication that I’ve ever read.
  2. I never knew the Marines were so thoughtful.

Warfighting Deserved A Broader Audience

The usefulness of the lessons of Warfighting goes well beyond fighting wars or public affairs, but to how to think strategically. It deserved a broader audience.

So I decided to take it a step further: I asked the Marines for the adaptation rights for Warfighting, to incorporate into a book I was planning for a civilian leadership audience. The copyright was held by the Secretary of the Navy. And I asked permission to use the Marine Corps emblem, the eagle, globe, and anchor, in the book.

The Marines secured the permissions, and The Power of Communication was published in 2012.

It was named to the Commandant’s Professional Reading List, as one of eight leadership titles, in 2013.


CMC reading list

Candid Self-Reflection

One thing I have always been impressed by is how the Marines welcome candid feedback on what works and what doesn’t. And they institutionalize it.

Every year the Marine Corps commissions an essay that challenges Marines to perform better in the future. Past MajGen Richard C. Schulz Memorial Essayists include Jim Webb, later U.S. Senator, and Gen. Bernard Trainor, later chief military correspondent for the New York Times.

I was honored to be invited to be the 2013 Schulze essayist.

My essay was an adaptation of The Power of Communication, and it challenged Marines to see their work as winning hearts and minds as well as battles. The essay looked back at the opening moments of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and argued that Marines got the story strategically wrong.

The essay  noted:

“The new battlefield is one where every action is potentially immediately public. In the battle to win the support of those who matter, both at home and in the theater of operations, Marines—from four- stars to privates fresh off of Parris Island—will have greater power than ever before, and they need to harness that power effectively. A corporal draping a flag on a statue, a handful of Marines urinating on the bodies of enemy dead, or U.S. servicemembers burning Qur’ans communicate far more loudly than any words, and they send exactly the wrong message.”


Flag Saddam

And it called on Marines up and down the chain of command to take communication as seriously as other elements of their profession.

“So the burden on commanders is high: They need to be excellent communicators in their own right, and they also need to create environments in which their Marines understand how everything they say and do—and everything they don’t say and don’t do—creates an impression that can affect the reputation of the Corps and the national security interests of the United States.”

It concluded:

“The next war is likely to be fought not on a field of battle, but on television, the Internet, and social media. The tip of the spear needs to be as competent in the modern arenas as in fields of fire.”

The Scope of Teaching and Consulting


Teaching at 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, US Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC

Teaching at 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC

I first taught Marines in the New York Public Affairs Symposia. But more significant than the teaching in these individual symposia was the teaching that resulted from them.

Individual officers who were either organizers of or students in the symposia reached out to me to counsel or teach other Marine or joint military commands.

Teaching at US Defense Logistics Agency

Teaching at U.S. Defense Logistics Agency

Over time I consulted with, taught, or otherwise was actively involved with a number of Marine Corps organizations, including:

  • U.S. Marine Corps East Coast Commanders Public Affairs Symposium, New York City: Since 1991 I have taught about 50 newly appointed commanders per year (mostly lieutenant colonels and colonels) who have assumed command East of the Mississippi river.
  • U.S. Marine Corps West Coast Commanders Public Affairs Symposium, Los Angeles: From 2004 to 2012 I taught about 50 newly appointed commanders per year (mostly lieutenant colonels and colonels) who have assumed command West of the Mississippi river.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA: I taught guest lectures on effective leadership communication and moderated media panels from 2005 to 2010.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Select Orientation Course, Washington, DC:  From 2005 to the present I have taught in the orientation course for colonels who have been selected for promotion to general.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, Quantico, VA: I taught a guest lecture for instructors on how to teach effectively.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico: I helped design and participated in training for first responders during a terrorism incident simulation.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs: I consulted with a number of leaders of the public affairs function over time, both on readiness of public affairs professionals and for dealing with individual crises or issues.
  • II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, NC: In 2016 I taught as part of a Professional Military Education program for 250 of the senior-most leaders of II MEF, constituting about a third of all fighting Marines.
  • Marine Aircraft Station Cherry Point, NC: In 2016 I taught about 200 senior leaders of the 2nd Marine Air Wing.
  • U.S. Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools, Camp Johnson, NC: In 2016 I taught about 300 students and faculty of the various combat support schools associated with Camp Johnson.
Teaching at US Defense Information School

Teaching at U.S. Defense Information School

Marine Corps referrals also led to work advising or teaching in a number of joint commands and non-U.S. institutions, including:

  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Center for Security Studies, Masters In Advanced Studies in Security Policy and Crisis Management, Zurich: From 2007 until 2015 I served on the leadership faculty of this program, essentially the outsourced instruction for the Swiss General Staff College. All but six of the students were senior officers in the Swiss, German, Austrian, or other European military or intelligence services. This appointment came as the result of a Swiss officer who had attended the Marines’ Command and Staff College recommending me to his commanding officer.

    Teaching at ETH Zurich

    Teaching at ETH Zurich

  • Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, Quantico, VA:  From 2004 to 2009 I and my firm served as advisors to and instructors for this joint command focusing on the development and deployment of weapons that serve as the middle ground between a bullhorn and a bullet, intended to deter but not kill an adversary.
  • U.S. Defense Information School, Fort George Meade, MD: Since 2012 I have been a contract teacher at this school for military public affairs officers and communicators.  I teach about eight times per year, the first day in the Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course, mostly for lieutenant colonels, colonels, and their equivalents, and the Joint Intermediate Public Affairs Officer Course, mostly for captains and majors and their equivalents.
  • U.S. Defense Logistics Agency: In 2015 I taught several hundred of their logisticians.

A Family Legacy

When the Marines called and asked me to teach, the decision to answer Yes was easy.  It seemed to be part of the family business.

For the 25 years before he died in 1984 my Dad was a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was recruited to leave his native Brazil to come to West Point, his young family in tow.

I grew up at West Point, during the Vietnam War, surrounded by people in uniform.

My Dad was an inspired and inspiring teacher.  And all of the times I saw him teach he was teaching people wearing a uniform.

Dr. Frederick C.H. Garcia, 1928-1984

Dr. Frederick C.H. Garcia, 1928-1984

So teaching people in uniform seemed like a natural continuation of his work.

And now I’ve spent 25 years teaching Marines and others in the armed forces. Between the two of us, my Dad and I have 50 years of teaching people in uniform.

As immigrants to the United States, we are both honored and delighted to give back and to help build the capacities of those who defend our adopted nation.

Earlier this year I taught the senior-most Marines I have ever taught, 150+ senior leaders of II Marine Expeditionary Force, on the fifth day of their week-long Warfighting Series of Professional Military Education. The opening minutes, where I explain the adaptation of Warfighting to leadership communication, are in the video below.

Among the students were two major generals, a brigadier general, and lots of colonels and sergeants major.

At the end, the Commanding General of II MEF presented me with the commander’s coin for excellence.


I dedicate that coin to the memory of my Dad, Dr. Frederick C.H. Garcia, my first and best teacher, and to how between us we’ve taught people who wear the uniform of the United States for 50 years.

And to how we’ve been taught by them.

Officers eat last.


Semper Fi!

By Helio Fred Garcia

Size of Penis Trump

This week the Donald Trump phenomenon seemed to reach a tipping point, with Republican leaders scrambling to prevent his continued wins in the primaries, and with debate discourse hitting new lows.  Not only did we see him feign ignorance of David Duke and the KKK, but we were even treated to debate commentary about the relative size of the candidate’s genitals.

Trump: Not a Cause But a Consequence

But the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, and all the bipartisan angst it is creating, is not a cause but rather a consequence.

It is the predictable result of decades of degradation of political discourse, facilitated by a media more interested in grabbing an audience’s attention than in covering issues.  And the worst part is that we should have seen it coming.

In fact, we could have seen it coming if we had known what to look for.  And we should have known.

Even now as the frightening reality is finally being recognized, we seem to be grappling only with the symptom of the problem — what Trump says and how to prevent him from ever being in a position of authority  — without recognizing that there’s a greater challenge that will continue regardless of how we address the immediate problem.

We can solve the Trump problem but still be as vulnerable to another authoritarian figure who energizes the disenfranchised, the angry, and the scared to similar effect.

Orwell Called It



Almost exactly seventy years ago George Orwell published Politics and the English Language.   That brief essay served as the nonfiction treatment for what two years later would become Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

Most educated Americans are familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four.  That popular novel is based in a dystopian future in a continuous state of war, where an intrusive and authoritarian government keeps people uninformed, and where political language is intentionally misleading. So the Ministry of Peace wages war. The Ministry of Truth controls all information, news, propaganda, and art. The Ministry of Plenty rations food. Our term “Orwellian” refers to the use of language to convey the opposite of reality.


But most educated Americans are not familiar with the essay that served as the novel’s basis.  Sadly, Politics and the English Language helps us understand the current state of the American body politic, and it isn’t pretty.

Says Orwell:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties… –  is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The problem arises when politicians use language in a disingenuous way, asserting things they don’t necessarily believe and making arguments that may sound compelling but that logically don’t make sense.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

But however damaging individual instances of political language, of insincere speech, or of intentionally misleading statements may be, it’s the effect of these that causes harm.

The central idea in Politics and the English Language is this:

  • Political speech has the effect of reducing citizens’ critical reasoning skills….
  • …This creates a self-perpetuating cycle…
  • …where as people become less discerning they become more susceptible to political speech…
  • …which further diminishes their critical reasoning skills…
  • …and so on…
  • …and so on…
  • …until a fully uninformed public creates conditions for authoritarian government to thrive.


A Cause Can Become an Effect, And So On:

It’s The Cycle That Matters


The key idea, though, is the relationship between cause and effect.

Orwell notes that an effect can become a cause, and a cause can become an effect.  It’s the cycle that matters.  And in the end the result is a citizenry that remains intentionally ignorant of the issues that matter, unaware of what is happening to them, and easily manipulated by politicians.

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

The predictable result of this cycle is a citizenry that is easily manipulated, that becomes immune to persuasion by evidence and reasoning, and that doesn’t notice the multiple contradictions all around.


Choosing Ignorance:

Identity-Protective Cognition Thesis

Three years ago Orwell’s argument that political language causes a decline in critical thinking was supported by research by professors at Yale, Cornell, Ohio State, and the University of Oregon.  Their study,  Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, showed that math problems that seem to be about benign topics are easily solved by people with strongly held political views. But when the same math problems are framed in terms of polarized political issues — in this case, gun rights — both progressive-and-conservative-leaning participants have a very hard time getting the math right.

The authors conclude that

“Subjects [use] their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”

A 2011 essay in Mother Jones by Chris Mooney on the neuroscience of political reasoning helps us understand why this is so.  The piece begins with seminal research from the early fifties by famous Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, who concluded:

“A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

Mooney explains:

“Since Festinger’s day, an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.”

“This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”

Cover What Orwell Didn't Know

Ten years ago, on the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Politics and the English Language, the New York Public Library hosted a conference conceived by five journalism school deans and sponsored by the Open Society Institute. The conference proceedings later were published as a book of essays called What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the Face of the New Politics.  Much of what was described ten years ago can be seen now.

For example, Susan Harding, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, who has written extensively about the religious right, explained a process called “revoicing.”  She described revoicing as creating apparent structures of legitimacy and embedding within them positions, points of view, or ideologies that would not pass muster in actual legitimate institutions.  She says that this revoicing process leads to  controversial positions and institutions becoming mainstream by co-opting the symbols and vocabulary of the mainstream. She gives an example of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell:

“Falwell’s church ministries, media and political organizations, and educational institutions were, in effect, a hive of cultural workshops in which both fundamentalist and secular ideas, images, narratives, and practices were smelted, refashioned, melded, packaged, and distributed with spectacular success.

Falwell’s Lynchburg Baptist College morphed into a liberal arts college, Liberty Baptist College, and then into a university, Liberty University. The Museum of Earth and Life History on its campus occupied the cultural space of a museum of natural history, but recorded displays of man and beast with the assumptions of creation science rather than evolution. Liberty Godparent Homes converted a former home for unwed mothers into a staging ground for pro-life save-a-baby narratives that in turn revoiced feminist story lines in born-again Christian terms.

We can see this revoicing, this co-opting of mainstream symbols, vocabularies, and institutions, playing out over the last decade:

  • The Creation Museum, which has the look and feel of a science or natural history museum, but whose exhibits and educational material assert that the earth is only thousands of years old, that evolution is a fraud, and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.
  • The Intelligent Design Institute, which seems to be a think tank and educational organization is really a media and production group whose work is used to refute the scientific theory of evolution.
  • Fox News, ostensibly an objective news organization, but whose editorial focus in the promotion of conservative causes and candidates.  It even has an appropriately Orwellian slogan, “We report, you decide.”

This process provides cover for those who would ignore mathematics, science, and observation and insist that reality is consistent with a particular political, social, or religious viewpoint.  Take, for example, a fourth grade science quiz administered by a religiously-affiliated school in South Carolina.  The student received a perfect grade for answers that would have been marked as incorrect in a school, religious or otherwise, with a mainstream science curriculum; in fact, some of the quiz’ questions would have been unintelligible in a more traditional science curriculum.  But this approach is influencing millions of citizens and future voters.



At about the same time the revoicing discussion was taking place, the new late night comedy host Stephen Colbert coined the phrase Truthiness to describe political discourse.  Parodying Fox News, he defined truthiness as preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As  Colbert put it, “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.”


In 2005 the American Dialect Society named Truthiness the Word of the Year.

Sadly, what Colbert intended as a comedic take on misdirection has proven to be a defining element of much modern political debate.  Candidates argue not the truth they know but the truth they wish, as if it were known.

Why All Heart Matters

Colbert differentiated between thinking with the brain and knowing with the heart.  He actually hit on something profound about how humans make judgments, and why it’s so easy for political language to have the Orwellian effect.

As described by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones:

“The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.”

“That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”

“We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.”

“We have seen this trend for several decades, where for political expediency citizens have been conditioned to not trust any source of news that includes conclusions contrary to those consistent with a political point of view.”

We Apply Fight-or-Flight Reflexes

Not Only to Predators, But to Data Itself

 Such citizens, who reflexively flee from the facts, are unlikely to be aware of, or even care about, contradictions among any candidate’s positions.  Simultaneously holding two contrary positions, the very definition of absurdity, would ordinarily dismiss someone as not to be taken seriously.  But in the political world such contradictions seem not to matter.

In such an environment citizens literally are unable to notice absurdities. But the same part of the brain, the Amygdala, that causes the flight response also causes the fight response.  So any intruder is seen to be worthy of a fight.  And violence tends to ensue.

And as the French philosopher Voltaire once warned, “those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities.”


So within a week of Trump calling for a ban of all Muslims entering the country, we saw a rash of attacks on mosques and on people perceived to be Muslim or Arab.  We have seen people removed from his rallies while being taunted by Trump from the podium, calling for his supporters to punch the person being removed in the face; to have the crowd strip people of their coats before sending them into the freezing weather.  This week, after his flirtation with the KKK and white supremacists, we saw peaceful non-protesting black students ejected from his rallies, and at least one white supremacist leader assault a black woman as she was being removed from the rally.

So what characterizes the Trump voters?

According to Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, the first common element is lack of higher education:

“The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree. ”

“Diplomas are what Ron Brownstein calls the “new Republican fault line.” In 2012, Mitt Romney struggled for months to consolidate support because, even as he had clear support among college-educated Republicans, he fared worse among non-college voters.”

So there’s more than a passing coincidence in Trump’s cheering “I love the poorly educated!” after the Las Vegas caucuses.

The second characteristic is feeling voiceless.  A survey from RAND Corporation, found:

“Voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. This feeling of powerlessness and voicelessness was a much better predictor of Trump support than age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity.”

This helps explain voters’ reports that they support Trump because he speaks what they feel.

There is also a fear of the other:

“Trump has clearly played on fears of non-white outsiders, by likening Mexican immigrants to rapists, promising to deport illegal immigrants and to build a wall between the U.S. and its neighbors, pledging to keep Muslims out of the country during the Syrian diaspora, and playing coy with his relationship with the KKK.”

“But he has also told a simple three-part narrative to attract the despondent demographic: America is losing; Donald Trump is a winner; and if Trump becomes president, America will become a winner, too. This Great Man Theory of political change, however, strikes others as potentially dangerous…”

Fourth, Trump voters want to wage war against outsiders, both those within and those beyond our borders.  According to Matthew MacWilliams of University of Massachusetts, Amherst,

“The classic definition of authoritarianism implies a tradeoff — more security for less liberty — but MacWilliams says it’s also about identifying threatening outsiders and granting individuals special powers to pursue aggressive policies to destroy them. The best predictor of Trump support… [is] “authoritarianism … [and] a personal fear of terrorism” that best predicted Trump’s support across the state.”

“Trump’s foreign policy, like his policy for anything, is a muddle. He’s cautious toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet he told Fox News he would kill the families of ISIS members to stop their advance, something awfully close to a public pledge to commit war-crimes.”

“But it’s his domestic security policies that have been astonishingly hawkish. He’s promised to shut down mosques, keep a database of Muslims, and round up the children of illegal immigrants. Indeed, when you put it together, Trump’s hysterical promises to protect his white in-group from non-white outsiders looks like race-baiting…”
His support seems to be strongest in places with history of racial animosity:
“According to the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, who used data from Civis Analytics, Trump’s support is strongest from the Gulf Coast, through the Appalachian Mountains, to New York, among marginally attached Republicans (possibly former Democrats). It is a familiar map for some demographers, since it’s similar to a heat map of Google searches for racial slurs and jokes. “That Mr. Trump’s support is strong in similar areas does not prove that most or even many of his supporters are motivated by racial animus,” Cohn writes. “But it is consistent with the possibility that at least some are.”
And what to Trump voters care about?  According to a Public Policy Polling survey of Trump voters in South Carolina,
  • 70% think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the State Capital; only 20% who agree with it being taken down.
  • 38% of Trump voters say they wish the South had won the Civil War; only 24% are glad the North won and 38% aren’t sure.
  • 36% of Republican primary voters in the state are glad the North emerged victorious; 30% are for the South, but Trump’s the only one whose supporters actually wish the South had won.
  • By an 80/9 spread, Trump voters support his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States.
  • 31% would support a ban on homosexuals entering the United States as well, something no more than 17% of anyone else’s voters think is a good idea.
  • There’s also 62/23 support among Trump voters for creating a national database of Muslims and 40/36 support for shutting down all the mosques in the United States, something no one else’s voters back.
  • Only 44% of Trump voters think the practice of Islam should even be legal at all in the United States;  33%  think it should be illegal.  To put all the views toward Muslims in context, though, 32% of Trump voters continue to believe the policy of Japanese internment during World War II was a good one, compared to only 33% who oppose it and 35% who have no opinion one way or another.


Fixing The Body Politic

So what can the nation do to halt the decline and to make things better?

The first thing to note is that things will surely get worse before they get better.

The second is to recognize that there is no easy fix.

Again, Trump is not the problem.  He’s the current symptom of the problem.  South Carolina voters do not hold their positions BECAUSE of Trump.  Trump is merely the person who happens to appeal to their views now.

Rather, the problem is that authoritarian government depends on uninformed, scared, and angry voters, who can channel their negative emotions toward others, and who see in their candidate some relief from their anxieties.

Orwell told us that.  And we have seen it play out over the last few decades.

The problem is a body politic that is comfortable being uninformed and suspicious of facts, data and people with whom they don’t agree or connect.

But the problem arose because of the convergence of social, technological, political, economic, and demographic trends over decades.  The solution is also decades-long.  Regardless of who happens be be the next president.

The central question of our republic is this: Do we continue down the path where authoritarian government becomes both inevitable and seemingly natural, or do we recommit to actual democracy?

There is much we would need to do.

But over the long term, the only sustainable solution will be a restoration of a core founding value of education.  Of elevating the ability of voters to think clearly and to discern carefully.

Indeed, founding father Thomas Jefferson called for education as the key to democracy.

Jefferson becomes the antidote to Orwell.

Jefferson: An Educated Citizenry

is Necessary for a Thriving Democracy


Throughout his life, including before and after serving as president, Jefferson noted that education is the key to accepting others and to exercising effective citizenship.  (Indeed, on his tombstone, he lists only three accomplishments: author of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom; author of the Declaration of Independence; and founder of the University of Virginia.  His term as president didn’t make the cut.)

Among his views on the relation between education and democracy:

  • “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
  • “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”

And, as if in direct rebuke to Donald Trump:

  • “No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity.”
  • “[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.”

A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind

But of all the Jeffersonian notions, the one that most directly speaks to remedying the challenges Orwell describes is a little-remembered but central idea from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  In the opening paragraph, Jefferson describes why the Declaration was needed in the first place.  He declared:

“…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

That decent respect for the opinions of mankind goes in many directions:

  • A decent respect by politicians for the opinions of citizens.
  • A decent respect by citizens of this nation for the opinions of those in other nations.
  • A decent respect by governments for the people.


But decent respect has been sorely missing in American politics for some time.  Orwell called it…


Please note: Helio Fred Garcia is executive director of Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership; board chair of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation; and an adjunct associate professor of management and communication at New York University School of Professional Studies, MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, where he teaches, among other things, communication ethics.  But the views expressed here are solely his own and not necessarily reflective of any other entity.

Introduction by Helio Fred Garcia:

This is my fourth 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.

Wall-Street-Reputation-NYU-Flag-2014-Sep (1)

(See my earlier posts, On Wall Street, Reputation, and Recovery: Guest Blog by Julia Sahin here; On Changing Narratives in Oil Conflict Regions: Guest Blog by Claudia Espinel here; and A 10-C Model for Apologies: Guest Blog by Iris Wenting Xue here.)

In this blog, Jocelyn Jaixin Cao applies a foundational principle of effective persuasion – start with Why – to the core identity of companies. She notes that the most successful companies are those which make the Why a central part of their work, both in their statement of values, vision, and mission, and in the day-to-day decision criteria they use.

Quite presciently, among the many companies she studied, she contrasts Google, which has a very strong Why identity, and which just overtook Apple as the largest company in the world, with Yahoo, which has always been a What company focused on features and benefits but without clear purpose, and which is now struggling to survive, never mind remain relevant.

You can see the complete capstone here.





Jocelyn Jaixin Cao

Jocelyn Jaixin Cao

To stand out from competitors and to survive in a rapidly changing business environment, most companies spend the majority of their time in differentiating their products or services. However, studies show that differentiation is not enough to establish trust and loyalty. Companies need to earn trust by communicating and demonstrating their core values and beliefs clearly and consistently to their audience. Creating a “why” frame that includes these values and beliefs within the corporation becomes vital.

Companies influential on a global scale, such as Google, Facebook, and Uber, follow a similar communication strategy. They tell us first why they exist before talking about what they are selling. They know that to successfully connect with their audience, they need to first address what the audience cares about, not what is important only tothemselves. The origin of the “why” comes from the genesis story and the core values embraced by the company. It is not simply a slogan for the purpose of grabbing attention, but something the corporation truly believes in and is willing to fight for: it is the foundation of a corporation’s mission and vision.

  1. The Importance of “Why” in Business Decision-making and Communication

Google, Facebook, and Uber all have a clear “why” of their existence in the first place. The origin of their “why” is not for themselves, but for better serving the society. Google was created because Larry Page and Sergei Brin wanted to improve people’s search experience at that time; Facebook was brought into being because of the desperate need by Harvard students for a comprehensive online social network based on real identity; Uber was built to tackle the common issue of frustrating taxi services in major cities around the world. They are all originated from finding solutions for problems experienced by people at that time, and this is valued more than making money.

In addition, they all place their “why” at the center of decision-making, whether for big business decisions or day-to-day management. When Google’s engineers were developing a new project, they were encouraged to ask the question “Is it best for our users? Is it evil?” When hiring new employees, Google ensured that the person not only had the skills needed, but also fit into its “smart creative” culture – a culture that is “willing to question the status quo and attack things differently.”

Don't be evil

Facebook rejected advertisers whose businesses were not relevant to a college social culture even though they were companies like Goldman Sachs that could bring large amounts of money to them at their early stage. Later, it also turned down several deals with big investors such as Viacom and Yahoo because Mark Zuckerberg did not think those companies understood Facebook’s vision. When Uber was facing the huge backlash from the taxi industry and government officials, they did not fight back immediately, but focused on presenting their “why” to their customers and local governments through face-to-face conversations. It did not work out in every city, but it provoked a worldwide discussion on this issue, which to some extent increased Uber’s brand awareness.

Smart Creatives

Moreover, they all never stop enlarging and enriching their original “why” frames, which shows their constant thinking about the “why.” Google interpreted its “why” clearly to the public through the “Ten Things We Know To Be True”. Facebook revised its mission statement several times since its first establishment in 2004. Uber positioned itself as a lifestyle and logistics company, rather than a car service company, with its new trials such as Uber Ice Cream and UberCARGO.

In contrast, many of the competitors in the history of Google, Facebook and Uber failed to create their “why” or prioritize their “why” in communications. Therefore, they either lost the competitive advantage quickly or simply could not compete at all.

(1) Facebook vs. MySpace: MySpace existed and was widely welcomed before the inauguration of Facebook. It targeted the same audience – college students, received a lot of early press, and generated huge valuation among its investors. However, Facebook quickly overtook its market share. One crucial reason is that after being purchased by the News Corporation, MySpace’s original “why” no longer fit into its new reality. News Corp tried to guide MySpace by using the “professional management” approach. Leaders from News Corp sat down describing where the business would head, where they would invest and how they would earn a positive ROI by carefully calculating what would work. Those professional leaders at News Corp had no idea about the nature of social network among college students and they ran MySpace like a professional business. Contrarily, Zuckerberg allowed Facebook to go wherever the market wanted it. His team looked into the comments of their users and understood their audience well.

(2) Google vs. Bing: On May 28, 2009, Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, publically demonstrated Bing for the first time at the All Things Digital Tech Conference in San Diego, California. In the live interview at the conference, when asked the reason Microsoft decided to rebrand the name of Live Search as Bing, Ballmer said the search engine industry was a large growing market and Microsoft should be in that market. To make their presence more obvious, they needed a short and crispy name that could “verb it up.” Reports also showed that Microsoft was planning to spend $100 million for the marketing campaign of Bing. Compared to Google, Bing indeed differentiated itself in many aspects to demonstrate its specialty. However, after six years, statistics shows that Google is still the dominant search engine with 66% market share around the world while Bing only accounts for 12% even after its partnership with Yahoo. When companies lose their “why” at the beginning, it is usually hard to catch up later. Microsoft did not know clearly why they rebranded their search engine. Therefore, even though they successfully differentiated the product from competitors’ via marketing campaigns, loyalty did not follow.

(3) Uber vs. Lyft: On May 22, 2012, John Zimmer and Logan Green launched Lyft to “give Uber some low-priced private driver/taxi competition.” Lyft differentiated itself from Uber by adding two more pillars to its business: ride sharing for long-distance car rides, and a University program where Lyft charges colleges for specific campus car-sharing programs. Now three years after its launch, Lyft has indeed received positive reviews from its community and is growing steadily in the U.S. However, compared to the sensation Uber has created around the world, Lyft looks more like a different version of Uber, rather than having its unique corporate identity. When a company’s “why” is mainly based on business competition, rather than the solution to the problems cared by its users, it may see a sound short-term gain by differentiating the services, but will soon be replaced by new companies with better products. Zimride, Lyft’s predecessor, is a failed example.

Uber Ice Cream

  1. Developing the “Why” frame

The process of creating the “why” frame can be divided into two parts:

The first part is the formation of the original “why.” Usually, a company’s genesis story is at the core of its original “why.” Page and Brin created Google in Stanford dorm as part of their PhD research, and their academic backgrounds and personal beliefs later influenced many aspects of Google’s growth. Zuckerberg’s dramatic founding story distinguished Facebook from other startups at that time, and was later brought live on the big screen by Hollywood in 2010. Uber’s original “why” emerged in a raining night in Paris when Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick were annoyed by the taxi services there. At that moment, they decided to crack the problem. These stories were not just stories, but later became core elements of their corporate cultures.

The second part is the enlargement of the “why.” To successfully fulfill the mission of the original “why,” leaders need people who share their vision to make it real together. At this time, corporate culture becomes significant for a company to convey and to represent its “why” to the outside world. Both Google and Facebook establish their unique cultures at very early stage. Both of them adopt the bottom-up management style and the flat corporate structure as they believe in openness and transparency, but despise bureaucracy. Both of them use the working environment to demonstrate and communicate the values to their employees. They build up their offices based on those values so that employees can be constantly reminded and inspired.

  1. Implementing the “Why” Frame in Daily Communications

The implementation of the “why” begins first internally among employees. Google and Facebook start very early on establishing an effective communication mechanism within the corporation. Whether it is Google’s weekly all-hands (TGIF) meetings, the quarterly OKR (Objective and Key Results) reports, or Facebook’s Q&A session every Friday with Zuckerberg, the regular Hackerathon competition, leaders at Google and Facebook know clearly the importance of internal communication to a corporation’s long-term success. Employees are, after all, a company’s best and most valuable brand ambassadors. An inside-out approach to engagement empowers employees in this process by allowing them to personify the company’s values externally. Therefore, companies should first think to develop an efficient and sustainable system for internal communication – to create a culture of “why” within the company.

After having a solid “why” internally, companies will have more confidence in external

communication. One key principle in external communication is to meet audience where they are. This requires companies to shift their focus of communication from brand itself to its audience because the audience, or the market, is always the “why” brands exist in the first place. By first addressing what the audience are concerning about, companies create a frame of communication that provides meaningful context for introducing the facts and features of their brands. It is also a process to activate and connect with the frames already existed in the audience’s minds. Companies should always ask themselves why the audience should care about what they are saying.


Start with Why

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This is the core argument Simon Sinek articulated in his TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” and his book Start With Why. Sinek says there are only two ways to influence human behavior – manipulation or inspiration. Business decision-makers can easily grasp and reproduce manipulative strategies such as reducing prices or increasing marketing campaigns to grab attention, while generating inspiration usually requires richer thoughts and deeper motivation. Developing the “why” frame starts the company on a journey of self-exploration and lays the foundation for a steady flow of inspiration.

The Golden Circle



Jocelyn Jaixin Cao received her BA in English Language and Literature from Southern Yangtze University School of Foreign Studies and Honors School in Wuxi, China. She studied linguistics in the Global Studies program at University of California, Davis. She received her MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication from New York University in December, 2015. She is a certified interpreter in the New York City mayor’s office.

Jocelyn Jaixin Cao with her professor and Capstone advisor Helio Fred Garcia.

Jocelyn Jaixin Cao with her professor and Capstone advisor Helio Fred Garcia.

by Iris Wenting Xue

Eleven years ago, in the book The Game-Changer, Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley defined the First Moment of Truth as the moment when consumers are physically reaching for the product they intend to purchase. The concept was further developed, as the Second Moment of Truth and the Third Moment of Truth, referring respectively to the moment when consumers purchase the product and the moment when they share reviews after using the product.

Five years ago Google released its study on the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT): the moment when consumers research before they decide whether to buy. According to Google, 88% of US consumers explored online before actually buying a product (ZMOT, 2011). The number is still rising as Internet and mobile technology have advanced in recent years to make buying products online and on a phone easier than ever before.

(Source: YouTube)

ZMOT was a revolutionary idea in brand management and marketing by quantifying consumers’ behavior patterns before they bought a product. While many focus strictly on the “numbers” around ZMOT, the impact of this insight could be applied far beyond just numbers. And beyond just brands and marketing.

As I watched the ZMOT video above and read other journal articles about the topic, I found an interesting parallel between this concept and what I have learned and practiced when working with clients on how to manage their reputation. Just as with Moments of Truth when products are being judged, and those same critical moments exist when a company, leader, or organization is being considered and judged. If we understand those moments when organizations can influence the perception of their stakeholders, what I call Moments of Reputation, we can be more prepared to maintain the strong reputation no matter what happens.

Before I translate the four moments of truth into four moments of reputation, we should note that a company’s reputation is not only determined by consumers, but also broader stakeholders such as investors and employees. Reputation symbolizes an organization on a macro-level. It goes beyond the goodwill on the balance sheet. Reputation is the way in which a company is perceived by those who matter most to the company. The same is true of brand reputation, and even an individual’s reputation.


The Four Moments of Truth:
  • Zero – Consumers research a product prior to their purchase decisions.
  • First – Consumers are physically in front of the product.
  • Second – Consumers buy the product.
  • Third – Consumers share their thoughts and experiences about the product.

The goal of the brand or company is to sell the product.


The Four Moments of Reputation:
  • Zero – Whether positive, negative or neutral, every stakeholder holds his or her own perception of an organization. Note: No perception is also a perception; it counts as neutral and is very easy to change.
  • First – Something happens. Sometimes that something is planned (a product launch); sometimes that is accidental (an acute crisis); sometimes that something is not bad enough cause criticism; sometimes that is so good that it evokes envy.
  • Second – Stakeholders are influenced by whoever describes that event first.
  • Third – Stakeholders follow what happens next and judge the company the through a tinted lens. Most of the time, the tinted lens is comprised of what happened in those first three moments.

The goal of  the company, leader, or organization, is to maintain their reputation.


These Moments of Reputation can help us understand when a company, leader, or organization has the greatest chance to influence the perception of the company to stakeholders.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.49.55 AM

From what we can see, after the Zero Moment of Reputation, a company’s perception is taken to some degree outside of their control – something has happened, good or bad, that the company has to manage. This means that first and foremost, companies need to invest in the Zero Moment of Reputation, because this moment is when the company has a greater degree of control in building up the perception of the company to stakeholders, before something else happens that makes them visible.

However, companies also need to be prepared for when that First Moment of Reputation arrives, that turning point for the company and its reputation. It is hard to predict what will happen at any minute, so companies should be equipped with mental readiness the moment something happens to respond quickly and effectively. Most of the time, they rely on the communication department to clear up a messy situation. They think they are safe once they have a communication director, a spokesperson; a media list spreadsheet and a 100-page crisis plan.

But they are not necessarily as safe as they think. This mental readiness goes beyond any practical tactics. It is also about being strategic – how can the company maintain the trust and confidence of their stakeholders. It means thinking more clearly about those practical tools already available to the company with critical eyes. Does the communication director leverage both internal and external partnerships? Does the company have an appropriate spokesperson and is he or she well trained? Is the media list double-checked? Is the crisis plan up-to-date? Can the company seize the initiative when the First Moment of Reputation occurs?

Reputation is hard to measure and manage. The Zero Moment of Reputation is a good opportunity to examine whether a company is prepared for anything that will make it suddenly visible. Once a company passes this first test, it is more likely that it will control the other critical moments when their stakeholders are making judgments about them.

The Zero Moment of Reputation is an undeveloped blue ocean. I will continue study and research this topic. Stay tuned.


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.
by Anthony Ewing | Bio | Posts
8 Apr 2015

Mandatory human rights reporting is coming soon to a jurisdiction near you. Is your company ready?

Large European companies need to review their human rights policies and the risks of human rights impacts linked to their operations over the next two years. The catalyst is a European Parliament Directive adopted in October that requires companies to report annually on non-financial issues, beginning in 2017. Under the Directive, large, publicly listed European companies must report annually on how they are meeting the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, as well as environmental, social and employee-related, and anti-corruption and bribery matters. The Directive mandates corporate disclosure of human rights due diligence and consideration of human rights risks, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Non-financial reports must include a “description of the policies pursued” relating to respect for human rights, including “due diligence processes implemented;” “the outcome of those policies;” principal human rights risks linked to the company’s operations, including its “business relationships, products or services” likely to cause adverse impacts; and relevant non-financial performance indicators. While the regulation is of the “comply or explain” variety – companies must disclose existing policies or explain why they have no policies on these matters – and carries no penalty for noncompliance, the twenty-eight member states of the European Union will implement the Directive through national legislation, in which each country is free to set more stringent disclosure requirements and possible penalties.

The European Non-Financial Reporting Directive is part of a broader trend of mandatory reporting that seeks to promote corporate respect for human rights through greater corporate transparency. Like financial reporting that provides material information for investors, human rights reporting informs consumers, investors and policymakers about the human rights impacts of business operations. Advocacy organizations, like those in the European Coalition of Corporate Justice, and investors, like those in the sustainable and responsible investment network Eurosif, pushed for adoption of the Directive. In the United States, mandatory corporate human rights reporting is emerging around specific issues, such as conflict minerals, forced labor and human trafficking, and specific geographies, such as Central Africa and Burma. No non-financial reporting regulation to date in the United States applies as broadly as the European Directive, however, which is estimated to cover some 6,000 European companies.

The Directive and similar regulations will force many companies to address their human rights impacts for the first time. How should executives prepare? Companies can take a number of steps to meet escalating expectations of greater transparency about corporate human rights impacts:

  • Conduct human rights due diligence.

Companies that understand the human rights impacts of their operations and business relationships are in a better position to prevent or mitigate those risks. Conducting a human rights impact assessment can reveal actual and potential human rights risks and allow a company to prioritize actions to address the most severe risks. Nestlé, for example, based on information from human rights impact assessments (PDF), has taken steps to reduce excessive working hours, improve road safety training for its drivers, add human rights principles to its contracts with security providers, and develop an external grievance mechanism.

  • Integrate human rights considerations into existing policies and procedures.

A growing number of companies have made explicit commitments to respect human rights in corporate codes of conduct, supplier standards and corporate responsibility reports. Adopting a human rights policy is an important step. Companies are also finding ways to integrate human rights considerations into existing management systems, which can be easier than creating stand-alone policies. Even without “human rights” language, corporate policies and procedures can relate to a company’s human rights impacts. Executives should review their employment, security and compliance policies, for example, to identify ways that they can address the human rights impacts of the company’s operations and business relationships.

  • Become familiar with human rights reporting frameworks.

Meaningful human rights reporting accounts for how a company addresses its human rights impacts, especially risks of severe human rights impacts, and serves as a basis to measure future performance. Companies are developing key performance indicators relevant for their businesses and the particular human rights risks they face. Almost all of the world’s 250 largest companies are publishing non-financial reports. More than 7,000 companies have reported non-financial issues consistent with the Global Reporting Initiative Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, which include human rights indicators. The recently launched Reporting and Assurance Frameworks Initiative (RAFI), piloted by the European multinationals Unilever, Ericsson, Nestlé and H&M, can help companies report on their human rights performance in line with the UN Guiding Principles. The European Commission is expected to issue non-binding guidelines for reporting non-financial information under the European Directive.

While European companies now have a regulatory deadline to start reporting, all companies would do well to better understand their non-financial impacts and how to manage them. Whether mandatory or not, non-financial and human rights reporting is an emerging business practice and stakeholder expectation of leading companies with the potential to influence your company’s reputation and bottom line for years to come.

Book Review and Commentary

Helio Fred Garcia Helio Fred Garcia | Bio | Posts
28 Dec 2014

James G. Stavridis tried to leave the Navy in 1981, after his five-year commitment was up, to attend law school.  But he got a call from his Annapolis mentor, then Lieutenant Commander Mike Mullen (later to become Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).  Mullen said, “You want law school. OK. Let me try and get the Navy to send you to a law school.”  The next day he called and offered to have the Navy send Stavridis to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  Stavridis pointed out that Fletcher is not a law school, but school of international relations.

Mullen’s reply: “It has ‘law’ in the name. And it is hard to get orders to it. So you better take it now.”  Stavridis did.  He received a PhD in international relations and was named the outstanding student in his class, setting in motion a career that propelled him to be one of only two 1976 graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy to receive four stars.  (The other, Marine General John Allen, served as head of NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan.)

The nation owes a debt to  Adms. Mullen and Stavridis, both for their service and for the decision-making thirty-three years ago that kept Stavridis in the Navy.


In 2009 Adm. Stavridis was finishing a three-year tour as the four-star head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) when he was appointed by President Obama to become simultaneously Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (a position known as SACEUR) and also commander of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM). He was the first Navy officer to so serve.  In those two roles he was simultaneously in charge of both all NATO operations around the globe (including the International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan (ISAF)) and all U.S. operations on the continent of Europe.  In those capacities he presided over the 2011 campaign in Libya that ultimately removed Muammar Gaddafi from power.

Adm. Stavridis, who retired from the Navy in 2013 to become the Dean of his Alma Mater, the Fletcher School, has written a memoir of his time in uniform, The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO. (Naval Institute Press, 2014)

Accidental Admiral Book Cover

Worth Reading

The Accidental Admiral is my pick for the best leadership and leadership communication book of 2014.

It is worth reading, not just because it is elegantly written and shows in clear language the challenge of leading such complex organizations.  And not just as a good window into both diplomacy and military strategy over the last five years.  But also for three other reasons:

  1. Because Adm. Stavridis is an inspired and inspiring leader, and The Accidental Admiral is also a handbook on effective leadership, with application well beyond the military.
  2. Because Adm. Stavridis is a proponent of effective strategic communication, again with application well beyond the military.
  3. Because Adm. Stavridis is one of the big thinkers about national security, who will be shaping the views of the next generation of national security leaders.  His views on smart power and open-source security (see below) are particularly worth noting.

Adm. Stavridis lays out the theme of his book early:

“The big lesson that I learned along the way, and which is the underpinning of this book, is in one sense very basic: the world is a diverse and complex place, and single-point ‘silver bullet’ solutions for its problems will almost always fail. Unilateral action is usually a disappointment; alliances, partnerships, and friendships are everything. We must apply international, inter-agency, and public-private connections in creating security in the twenty-first century.”

In many ways Adm. Stavridis echos the philosophy of his mentor, retired Joint Chiefs Chair Mike Mullen.  In his 2009 article in Joint Force Quarterly,  Adm. Mullen decried both the foreign policy and the strategic communication failures of the prior decade.  He chided the nation’s leaders for the arrogance; for assuming that our good intentions by themselves would have us prevail.

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate…. I also hope we learn to be more humble, to listen more. Because what we are after in the end—or should be after—are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us. What we need more than anything is credibility. And we can’t get that in a talking point.”

Decision Criteria: When to Use Force?

One of the challenges Adm. Stavridis faced as SACEUR was achieving agreement and commitment for NATO operations, both in Afghanistan and in Europe, from Nato’s 28 member nations.  His investment in relationships and diplomacy came to fruition during the campaign to protect Libyan civilians between March and November, 2011.  That campaign led to the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed by his own people.  In addition to recounting the run-up to and the implementation of that campaign, Adm. Stavridis offers lessons learned from the Libya campaign that can help inform decisions on the use of force in other conflicts, such as in Syria or against ISIL.


“I do think we can draw some quick lessons from Libya that might inform the decision to engage elsewhere…

  1. There must be a pressing need in a humanitarian sense. This is the somewhat controversial legal doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, as it is sometimes called. When large numbers of innocent civilians are being killed or threatened by disaster (man-made or natural), intervention must be considered.
  2. Allies and coalitions are crucial. The age of unilateral action is rapidly passing. Despite all frustrations, working with a coalition is vastly better than going it alone.
  3. Regional support is vital. The presence of Arab coalition partners in Libya was key.
  4. You must understand the language, culture, history, and hierarchy of any nation or region into which an intervention is considered.
  5. Bring lots of capability: intelligence, surveillance, targeting, ordnance, ships, aircraft, and – if necessary (and hope that they are not necessary) – troops on the ground.
  6. Try to minimize casualties. Interventions in today’s world are about relieving human suffering, not increasing it. That means working with humanitarian organizations, energizing public-private connections, using only precision-guided munitions, and paying attention to refugees at sea and on the ground.
  7. It will be expensive. More than you expect. Much more.
  8. Bring lawyers, strategic communicators, and public affairs experts, and engage the media early, often, and continuously.
  9. Do it under the auspices of the UN if at all possible. There may be times when it is not possible, but it is vastly better to intervene under legal norms provided by the UN.
  10. Probably most important, good luck. You will need it. In Libya, we had more than our normal share. It won’t always be so.”

Good advice.  And note that President Obama seemed to follow many of these principles in formulating a response to ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Lessons for Leaders

But the real value of The Accidental Admiral for civilian readers comes from Adm. Stavridis’ leadership principles.  He summarizes his leadership approach:

“Any leader worth his or her salt understands that leaders must work hard to get to know the people on the team as individuals and demonstrate sincere concern for their families. In addition, they must master the skills and technology of any job; encourage teamwork and demand determination and dedication to task and mission; build innovation as a core competency; and insist on civility. In essence, leaders do best when they approach their position with an attitude of ‘leader as servant,’ always treating their teams with dignity, honor, and respect. No mystery there – except, perhaps, why so few leaders actually put those tenets to use…

People will almost always become what you expect and tell them to be: if you are suspicious and certain that they are going to malinger and procrastinate and do anything they can to get out of work, they usually will; if you tell them that they are going to get things done in record time and give them the resources and goals to do it, they usually will… But the key is always ‘leader as servant.’”

Adm. James G. Stavridis

Adm. James G. Stavridis

Adm. Stavridis outlines what he calls “tricks of the trade: important ways in which a good leader can put broad philosophical ideas into operation, make sure the goals of everyone in the organization are aligned, and maintain grace under pressure.”  They include:

  • “Speak and write with simplicity and precision, and don’t accept imprecision from those around you. Casualness in speech and writing can lead to huge disconnects. This is particularly true with e-mail, which – when you hit Send – becomes etched in stone…
  • Prepare thoroughly for key events. Make sure you understand which events truly matter.   Don’t let the chaff floating around in the wind distract you from what is really important to your job…Leaders need to look ahead several months or even a year or two at a time; pick out the events that really matter; and spend an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources ensuring that they are fully prepared.
  •  Be your own spokesperson. When things go wrong, it is much easier to find reasons why you should say nothing than to step up to your responsibilities…. But that gives the impression that the senior leadership is uncaring or unaware…After a sexual assault took place recently in the Australian Army, the Army’s commander, General David Morrison, posted a hard-hitting video and made repeated personal appearances condemning such attacks in the strongest terms and telling the offenders in direct terms: ‘Get out of our Army.’  Similar assaults have plagued the U.S. military, but many senior commanders have held back, fearing that they will ‘prejudice potential juries’ and ‘exert command influence.’ That is the wrong approach in my view – being your own spokesperson means stepping up and calling it like you see it in public.  The Aussies have it right.
  • Carve out time to think. Write down your thoughts. Share them with others whose opinions you respect.
  • Don’t lunge at the ball. Too many decisions are made in haste, under pressure, based on emotional reaction, or with incomplete facts. Take the time to gather the information you need. Don’t be driven by anyone else’s timeline unless absolutely required (i.e., by law).
  • Details matter, but think big thoughts. Balance the time spent on absorbing and understanding details and that spent sitting back from the thicket of the day to day and trying to think through new ideas, concepts, and necessities for your family, your organization, and the nation.
  • Look at the new law or regulation for yourself. Don’t rely on summaries or a staff member’s or lawyer’s opinion as to what the law says. Get it and read it yourself.
  • Organize yourself.  Don’t turn over personal organization to assistants, no matter how good they are. Much of the value of getting organized… is that it forces you to think holistically about events. The essential material thus gets into your head.
  • Carve out time to read. Take a balanced approach: fiction, nonfiction, professional journals, and so on.
  • Make mentorship a priority. Listen, learn, educate, and lead… Walk around and listen to your team. And show up early for meetings.”

Leadership. Churchill

Taking Strategic Communication Seriously

A second reason to read The Accidental Admiral is Adm. Stavridis’ view on strategic communication, which he sees as the glue that holds together all other strategic initiatives.   His recommendations are completely consistent with best practices and with the approach I advocate in my book The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively (FT Press, 2012).  He knows that you can’t move audiences unless you meet them where they are.  In particular, he understands the power of human connection; of taking audiences seriously and engaging them effectively, not as an afterthought but as an essential element of leadership.  As I often say, communication is the continuation of policy, by yet other means.

His philosophy of strategic communication is summarized as follows:

“Effective communication is the key skill a senior leader needs in today’s world… Winston Churchill is said to have observed that the principal difference between management and leadership is communication. Effective communication requires leaders of an organization to take an early and persistent role in deciding how ideas and decisions are shaped and delivered.

Simply stated, the objective of strategic communication is to provide audiences with truthful and timely information that will influence them to support the objectives of the communicator. In addition to truthfulness and timeliness, the information must be delivered to the target audience in a precise way. This generalized approach can be applied to essentially any organization. It may sound easy, but in practice it is as hard as hell. The U.S. Department of Defense and NATO are damn good at launching Tomahawk missiles but can’t launch an idea to save their lives, figuratively (and occasionally literally) speaking.”

Save their lives

He notes that strategic communication is vastly more art than science, but also offers the following insights.

“Here are some things that I have seen work, although none of them is foolproof.

  • Remember that the postman never rings twice. You get only one chance to make a first impression on any story. Pick your spot and start talking carefully, thinking about the setting and the context, getting expert advice, and get out in front – intelligently.
  • You can’t un-ring a bell. Something once said can never be pulled back, especially in the media echo chamber, which demands constant content to fill the 24/7 news cycle. Ill-advised short-, punchy, cute phrases can kill you. Before you speak, make sure you know exactly what you want to say. And remember, there are times when silence is golden.
  • Tell the truth. The most important principle is the simplest: Always provide the truth to your audience. Nothing will more quickly doom strategic communication to failure than a falsehood. A strategic communication team can have a superb message, excellent messengers, and a carefully crafted plan – yet a single lie can bring the entire effort crashing down… Tell the truth and emphasize that you do tell the truth.  Over the long run, it is unquestionably the best approach.
  • Have a good message. The most brilliant strategic communication in the world will not sell a bad message… Again, this seems self-evident, but there are many in the world of strategic communication who believe that a bad message can be sold effectively. It cannot. The strategic message must resonate with the audience because it shares appropriate human values such as liberty, justice, honest, economic improvement, security, and fair treatment.
  • Understand the audience. Can there be two more different countries in the world than enormous Portuguese-speaking Brazil and tiny English-speaking St. Kitts? Or Spanish-speaking, economically strong Chile and poverty-stricken French-Creole-speaking Haiti? The audience is different in each country or territory and each group of people, during each particular season. Therefore, the messages must be evaluated and tailored with the diverse qualities of the receiver in mind.
  • Pull the trigger promptly… Do not let the ‘perfect’ become the enemy of the ‘very good.’ Develop a reasonably good plan fast and execute it right away. Otherwise you are likely to end up back on your heels in the world of the perpetual news cycle. Leaders tend to want to wait until they have all the facts before acting, but they often won’t have the time. Especially in this modern electronic media-driven world you will literally and figuratively be buried before all the facts come in.
  • Think at the strategic level… A strategic communicator must stay at the strategic level and not dip down into the tactical level represented by public affairs…. Indeed, strategic communication consists of a wide variety of tools and processes within a command… Each has a role to play in effective strategic communication at the tactical or operational level, but none of them is a substitute for a strategic plan operating at the level of the entire theater across time, space, language, and culture. At the strategic level, the intellectual firepower of the command must be brought most distinctly to bear.
  • Measure results. Many strategic communication plans flounder because the implementers, thrilled with having developed and ‘sold’ the plan, are completely consumed with its execution and fail to take the most important single step: measuring its results.  The absolute key to effective communication is rolling out a plan, organizing it widely, executing it energetically, and then measuring its results. ‘Organizing it widely’ means making sure that all of the key stakeholders are in on the formulation of the plan – essentially, ‘in on the takeoff, in on the landing.’ Too often strategic communication plans are cooked up by brilliant public affairs professionals, vetted swiftly with the top leadership, and then promulgated. Without wide support on the buildup, though, it is unlikely there will be much ground-level support when the plan comes out.
  • Adjust fire. No strategic communication plan is perfect at conception. All must be adjusted as time goes by. You may go to war armed with the ideas you have, but you will not win unless you are willing and able to modify those ideas along the way – discarding those that fail and welding on new approaches as needed.   One way to approach measurement is to adopt short-, medium-, and long-term views. The short term is immediate reactions – say, twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Medium-term measurement is done after thirty to forty-five days. Long-term measurement takes place at the one-year point. After each of these measurement windows, the plan should be evaluated and recast according to what is working and what is not.
  • Add spice. Strategic communication should not be boring.
  • Maintain steady pressure. Very seldom do strategic communication plans succeed overnight…. All good strategic communication plans take time, sometimes generations, to fulfill.
  • Bursts of energy. The analog of steady pressure, of course, is bursts of energy. In any strategic communication plan there will be moments when it is opportune to hit with bursts of energy…. A creative strategic planner is constantly looking for the right moment to come in high and hard with an energy burst.
  • Accepting defeat and moving on. Some strategic communication battles are un-winnable. Sometimes the message is not going to have any effect no matter how effective the plan.
  • Knowing when you win. Sometimes the hardest thing for any strategic planner is not accepting defeat but rather recognizing victory. As a general rule, ‘winning’ in the world of strategic communication is never clean and seldom obvious.”

These principles make sense, but like Adm. Stavridis I am often shocked by how many individuals and organizations that use the phrase “strategic communication” seem to be neither strategic nor focused on effective communication.  Rather, they tend to blend the strategic and the tactical, or assume that only one set of tools (media, social media, lobbying) matters, rather than seeing the big picture and aligning all the forms of influence.  The discipline of thinking first at the strategic level, what I call being habitually strategic, is difficult, but the key to effective communication.  Flawless execution at the operational and tactical levels also matters.  But if the strategic part isn’t right, flawless execution can have counter-productive consequences.

Adm. Stavridis offers four recommendations worth considering for strategic communication in the twenty-first century.

“First, strategic communication is a team sport. It must be part of a joint inter-agency, and commercial system. It does no good whatsoever to have a perfect strategic communication plan that is ultimately contradicted by other U.S. government agencies, as – unfortunately – is often the case.

Second, at least for strategic communication that goes beyond the shores of the United States, … the international community must be considered and then consulted often.

Third, as we develop and execute our strategic communication plans, we should ask the simple question: who are the thinkers, the idea makers?… Recognize that the ‘strategic communication director’ is more like the conductor of a band than an expert on any given instrument. Moreover, give the director of strategic communication unfettered access to the commander.

Fourth, and finally, anyone who is trying to move a message must work with all the participants to arrive at a shared understanding of what constitutes strategic communication in an international sense.

These insights by themselves would make paying attention to Adm. Stavridis a good investment of time and energy.  And it is gratifying to see this generation of military leaders — Adm. Stavridis, Adm. Mullen, Gen. Allen, understand the need to be effective both in leading complex coalitions and in aligning all actions with effective communication.

But there’s a final reason to follow Adm. Stavridis: He is helping the nation and its leaders re-think the use of power.

Rethinking Power

In many ways he is following in the footsteps of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government professor Joseph Nye, whose 2002 book, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone described the distinction between hard power — military might and economic clout — and soft power — diplomacy, academic and cultural exchange, and other forms of attraction.   The paradox, according to Nye, is that the more the US would use hard power the more it would squander its reservoir of soft power.  But the converse didn’t apply: the US could use its soft power effectively without diminishing its hard power reserves.  And in his 2011 book, The Future of Power, Nye describes how power is now diffusing and how many threats to national security now come from non-state players.


Open-Source Security

While still in uniform Adm. Stavridis took this approach and introduced the notion of Open-Source Security.  In a TED Talk while still serving as SACEUR/EUCOM, he outlined the concepts of Open Source Security as follows:

“Instead of building walls to create security, we need to build bridges.  Open-source security is about connecting the international, the inter-agency, the private-public, and lashing it together with strategic communication, largely in social networks.  Why do we need to do that? Because our global commons is under attack in a variety of ways, and none of the sources of threat to the global commons will be solved by building walls.”

Among the threats to the global commons — the infrastructure we all share — he includes piracy on the seas, cyber crime, and trafficking — the movement of narcotics, weapons, and humans.  These are done primarily by non-state players, but they create instability and flash-points that can lead to shooting wars.  But there is no single state player solution to these global threats.

Says Adm. Stavridis,

“So here we are, twenty-first century. We know our twentieth century tools will not work. We will not deliver security solely from the barrel of a gun.”

Silouhette of sniper.Stavridis

While some military might may be necessary, and while it must always be available to policymakers, the challenges are much more complicated.  He gives the example of the Afghan security forces.  One of the key challenges they face is that the Taliban restricted education.  So most men and women who serve in the Afghan forces join without the ability to read or write in their own language.  So through a combination of security services, many government agencies of many nations, and private contractors, the Afghan security forces learn to read.  This creates lasting benefits and stability for Afghanistan, and helps fulfill the national security interests of the United States, NATO, and our coalition allies.  But it requires resources of the fifty nations in the mission, plus public-private collaboration.


Hard-soft power reastat

He argues,

“Life is not an on-and-off switch. You do not need to have a military that is either in hard combat or is in the barracks. I would argue life is a rheostat. You have to dial it in. And as I think about how we create security in the twenty-first century, there will be times when we will apply hard power in true war and crisis. But there will be many instances… where our militaries can be part of creating twenty-first century security: international, inter-agency, private-public, connected with competent communication.”


His TED Talk is worth watching to the end.  It’s just under 17 minutes long.

His conclusion:

“No one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together. No one person, no one alliance, no one of us… My thesis for you is that by combining international, inter-agency, private-public, and strategic communication together in this twenty-first century, we can create the sum of all security.”

I believe that open-source security will be a key organizing principle of much security discussion in the years ahead.  Reading The Accidental Admiral to see the practice in action, and watching the Ted Talk to see the current conceptual framework, will give you a pretty good head start.

Your thoughts welcomed…




Adam Tiouririne Adam Tiouririne | Bio | Posts
10 Nov 2014 | 7:42PM

A week after Election 2014, the dust has settled. And that dust — depending on your perspective — comes from either a triumphant fireworks display or a devastating carpet bombing. Whether you were waving the red flag or curling up under a blue blanket last Tuesday, here are the top three takeaways from Election 2014.


1. This is what a wave looks like.

Literal waves are usually blue, but this figurative one was red. Deep, deep red.

Races that should’ve been close turned into Republican blowouts. Bruce Rauner (R-IL) claimed the Governor’s Mansion by taking every Illinois county except Cook, home to deep-blue Chicago. Cory Gardner (R-CO) deftly navigated social issues to win by three points and make his seasoned opponent look like a rookie. Michael Grimm (R-NY) retained his House seat by a margin (13 points) almost as large as the number of federal fraud counts he’s facing (20).
And races that should’ve been Democratic blowouts turned close. Mark Warner (D-VA), a man who left the governor’s office in 2006 with a 71% approval rating, hung on to his Senate seat by less than one point. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has won every election since 1986, but it appears that she’ll squeak back into the House this year by only about 600 votes. Peter Shumlin (D-VT), whose race has still not been called, could become the first-ever sitting chair of the Democratic Governors Association to lose reelection.
That leaves Democrats with precious thin silver lining. Just three newly won House seats, one gained governorship, and not a single conquest in the Senate. Astute analysts have argued that voters’ partisan preferences are at odds with their policy preferences, but you have to win to govern — and it’s clear who won Election 2014.


2. It's all about the bench.

Election 2014 knocked dozens of promising young Democrats off the political career ladder, and vaulted a few fresh-faced Republicans to its highest rungs. Keep your eye on these three winners from last week.

Senator-elect Tom Cotton (R-AR) Tom Cotton (R-AR) will be President someday. The telegenic Army veteran from tiny Dardanelle ousted incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor by 14 points and ended Arkansas’s Pryor political dynasty — all after less than one term in Congress. Before Cotton won his 2012 House race, Arkansas Democratic power player John Goodson predicted that Cotton would “be our congressman, then our senator, then our president.” Two out of three (so far) ain’t bad.
Charlie Baker (R-MA) will be a national figure. The Boston Globe editorial board gave its first Republican gubernatorial endorsement in 20 years to Baker. It was a sign of the cross-party appeal that not only vanquished his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley (or, uncharitably, Martha Chokeley), but that will also propel him to national stardom. We shouldn’t be surprised if, for example, he’s tapped for Republicans’ 2016 State of the Union response. Baker is a combination of Chris Christie without the rough edges and Mitt Romney without the flip-flopping. That’s wicked formidable, Chah-lie.
Senator-elect Ben Sasse (R-NE) Ben Sasse (R-NE) will be the next Ted Cruz. The Senate minority (now majority) shadow-leader, Ted Cruz of Texas, has counted on Utah’s Mike Lee as his sidekick and Kentucky’s Rand Paul as an occasional third wheel. Now he can add Sasse to the burgeoning Senate Tea Party caucus. Like Cruz, Sasse comes with an elite pedigree (Cruz excelled at Princeton and Harvard, Sasse at Yale) and Washington experience (each served as a Bush appointee) to inform his fiery anti-elitist, anti-Washington views. Says Sasse, “If it [Obamacare] lives, America as we know it will die.” We can all look forward to his interpretation of Green Eggs and Ham.



Gobsmacked Democrats are left wondering how Republicans managed to take the House in 2010, keep their majority in 2012, and still deliver another wave victory in 2014. The answer lies earlier than any of those elections.

Only one party recognized the 2010 census as a golden political opportunity. After each census, Congressional seats are reapportioned (each state’s number of seats is adjusted for population changes) and redistricted (each district gets new boundaries to reflect population changes). Whichever party controls each state legislature controls redistricting, which determines the new district boundaries, which determine who wins the House. So the Republican State Leadership Committee, which focuses on electing Republicans to state legislatures, established the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) to win as many statehouses — and thus control as many redistricting processes — as possible in 2010. It worked.
Republican-controlled state legislatures in 2010 created districts that favor Republicans. That means gerrymandering most of a state’s Democrats into a few lopsided blue districts, and then spreading the Republicans just widely enough to create several safe red districts. In 2010, that enabled Republicans to win 55.6% of House seats with only 51.7% of the nationwide popular vote. In 2012, the GOP won 53.7% of the seats with only 47.6% of the vote. And in Election 2014, REDMAP delivered again.
REDMAP is the most brilliant — and underreported — political strategy of the 21st Century. Yes, more brilliant than Barack Obama’s caucus plan or microtargeting efforts in 2008, because those only mattered for one candidate in one election. REDMAP locks in a Republican House majority for a decade. Only if Democrats can reverse REDMAP in 2020 redistricting can they return Nancy Pelosi — who will then be 80! — to the Speaker’s chair. The lesson for both parties is that long-term strategy, like REDMAP, works.

Share your thoughts here, like this post on LinkedIn, or tweet @Tiouririne.

Helio Fred Garcia Raleigh Mayer | Bio | Posts
5 Oct 2014 | 9:17AM

One autumn a dozen years ago, when my daughter was about four years old, she was thrilled by an early snowfall. She immediately phoned my mother, who lived just across town, to share her excitement.

“Grammy”, she asked, “is it snowing in your country?”.

Naturally my mother, only one zip code away, was highly amused by the question, and with each winter precipitation our family repeats the punchline.

Kids do say the darndest things, yet there is also a larger leadership lesson here: To consider the other person’s environment — psychologically and intellectually, as well as physically — before assuming their point of view or experience is aligned with yours.

Professor Amy C. Edmondson, The Novartis chair of Management and Leadership at Harvard Business School, explores the concept, known as testing assumptions, in her book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.

“Many conflicts arise from personal differences in values or interests but are presented as professional differences in opinion”, says Edmonson. And that can lead to misunderstandings at best (‘Snow? What snow?’) or, more typically, conflict. Edmondson elaborates, “As often happens, especially in ambiguous situations, conflicting interpretations of the same facts are used to fuel conflicting truths.”

Many of my coaching clients find that when they reframe their perspective on business behaviors through the lens of anthropological study, rather than personal reaction, they not only learn more about the other party’s approach; they also become more sympathetic to opposing views, and a good deal less emotional in managing differences.

One way to do this, as Edmondson describes in her book, is to model effective communication: “Good communication when confronting conflict, especially heated conflict, combines thoughtful statements with thoughtful questions, so as to allow people to understand the true basis of a disagreement and to identify the rationale behind each position.”

Is it snowing in your country?

Adam Tiouririne Adam Tiouririne | Bio | Posts
24 Sep 2014 | 9:40AM

On the morning of Scotland’s independence referendum last week, I made a public prediction:

And sure enough, Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom. But the point of this post isn’t to toot my own bagpipes. It’s this:

Predicting the future is the core business competency.

It’s not just for Miss Cleo and Mr. Silver. Warren Buffett predicts market outcomes and Steve Jobs predicted consumer needs.

Predicting the future is everyone’s job. If you’re a talent recruiter, your job is to predict which people will perform well in which organizations. If you’re a stock investor, your job is to predict which companies will appreciate over which time period. If you’re an ad executive, your job is to predict which messages will convince which consumers.

At Logos Consulting Group, we help our clients predict when crises will evolve, what stakeholders will expect, and how to effectively manage and communicate through defining challenges. As an example, another shameless Twitter plug:

A few hours after that tweet, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced a bill to revoke the NFL’s tax exemption in light of the league’s Washington, DC naming controversy. Later in the week, USA Today and other outlets strung all of the NFL’s stumbles into one not-so-highlight reel.

If the NFL or its advisors could have predicted the outrage from Ray Rice’s initial two-game suspension, their crisis would have been averted.

Predicting the future takes three ingredients.

Experience Experience: For prediction, ditch the hair dyes — gray is good. It’s tough to predict the outcome of a complex situation when you’ve never done it before. After several repetitions, patterns become intuitive. But for accurate prediction, experience needs to be tested against research and formalized in a model.

Research Research: Research is like getting a bunch of experience all at once. Data stands in for memory, and history replaces news. It can be quantitative (surveys, financial statements, statistical analysis), qualitative (interviews, case studies, historical reviews) or both. The goal of research is to model specific inputs — ideally fewer than ten — which reliably influence outcomes.

Modeling Modeling: Every business leader lives with dozens of models. Wait, that sounds weird — not fashion models, but predictive models, or formal frameworks for how the world works. If prices go down, demand goes up; if the distance is longer, shipping costs are higher; if advertising is targeted, consumers are more likely to buy. No model can ever predict every outcome, but a good one is usually close. The key to consistently predicting the future is to craft experience and research into a model — your very own crystal ball.

And here’s the recipe.

Predicting the future involves creating a model with these three steps.

Predicting the future is the core competency for anyone who wants build a business, design a product, or manage a crisis. Or even — as in the case of Scotland — to strike it rich.

So what fortune will you tell?

Share your thoughts here, like this post on LinkedIn, or tweet @Tiouririne.