By: Helio Fred Garcia @garciahf and Maida K. Zheng @maidazheng
Logos Consulting Group

“I call the head of Exxon. I don’t know, you know, ‘How are you doing? How’s energy coming? When are you doing the exploration? Oh, you need a couple of permits?'” Trump told supporters at a rally in Arizona on Monday. “I say, ‘You know, I’d love [for] you to send me $25 million for the campaign.’ ‘Absolutely sir, why didn’t you ask? Would you like some more?’”

This quote, as reported by the Washington Post is important for several reasons.

What President Trump suggested was not only a possible violation of federal law, (we can save that for another time) – he, in one statement, put Exxon Mobile in a reputational crisis while at the same time signaling big organizations that he would be happy to accept large campaign donations and that he would “wink, wink, wink” take care of them later. Trump’s tendency to imply a connection is a pattern that Helio Fred Garcia describes more fully in his book: Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.

From a crisis management perspective, the first rule is to fully understand the risk, and to mitigate that risk quickly. In this case, the risk is that someone might interpret the comment as referring to an actual call with the Exxon CEO, who would then seem compromised.

The crisis communication strategy is to take control of the narrative and obtain the first mover advantage. If you don’t have the first mover advantage, you must respond and take control of the narrative within the “Golden Hour of Crisis Response,” a metaphor from emergency medicine. The Golden Hour refers not to a particular period of time, but to the observation that incremental delays in responding to a crisis – whether a medical emergency, a flood, or a more routine corporate setback – has greater than incremental impact on the outcome.

However, if an organization is first to define the nature of the crisis, its motives, and its actions, as Exxon Mobil did here, the result is that the organization will likely demonstrate caring and end up controlling the narrative. By capturing the first mover advantage, Exxon also deprived their adversaries of the chance to form a harmful narrative against the organization.

Upon hearing the statement from President Trump, Exxon Mobil immediately responded, posting on Twitter that, “We are aware of the President’s statement regarding a hypothetical call with our CEO…and just so we’re all clear, it never happened.”

This was an important and timely move on Exxon’s part. They named it a hypothetical call, thereby defining the nature of the crisis. And they made clear that the call never happened. If they hadn’t acted as quickly and clearly, they would have lost control of the narrative, leading to negative consequences.

Effective Crisis Response as a Competitive Advantage

Effective crisis response is a competitive advantage; ineffective crisis response causes a competitive disadvantage and can even put an enterprise’s existence into jeopardy.

Whether an organization survives a crisis with its reputation, operations, and financial condition intact is determined less by the severity of the crisis than by the timeliness and effectiveness of the response.

Two Oxford University researchers demonstrated the extent to which effective and ineffective crisis response affects a company’s enterprise value.[1] Rory F. Knight and Deborah J. Pretty studied the stock price performance of prominent publicly-traded corporations that had suffered significant crises. They calculated each company’s stock price performance attributable to the crisis – stripping out market movements and other factors unrelated to the crisis that might have affected the stock price, and thus calculated what they called the ‘‘cumulative abnormal returns’’ for each company.

Knight and Pretty found that companies that mishandled crises saw their stock price (calculated as cumulative abnormal returns) plummet an average of ten percent in the first weeks after a crisis, and continue to slide for a year, ending the year after the crisis an average of 15 percent below their pre-crisis prices.

Companies with effective crisis response, on the other hand, saw their stock fall an average (cumulative abnormal returns) of just 5 percent in the weeks following a crisis, about half the initial decline of companies that mishandled the crisis. More significant, companies with effective crisis response saw their stock price recover quickly, and remain above their pre-crisis price thereafter, closing an average of 7 percent above their pre-crisis price one year after the crisis (Exhibit 1).

In other words, the tangible difference between effective and ineffective crisis response was, on average, 22 percent of a company’s market capitalization. Knight and Pretty assess the reasons for this disparity and conclude that the most significant factors are not the scope of financial damage or reduction in cash flows caused by the crisis. Rather, the most important determinant of a company’s ability to recover and increase its market capitalization after a crisis is the management team’s response. Knight and Pretty conclude that positive stock performance:

“. . . springs from what catastrophes reveal about management skills not hitherto reflected in value. A re-evaluation of management by the stock market is likely to result in a re-assessment of the firm’s future cash flows in terms of both magnitude and confidence. This in turn will have potentially large implications for shareholder value. Management is placed in the spotlight and has an opportunity to demonstrate its skill or otherwise in an extreme situation.” [2]

Exhibit 1: Effective vs Ineffective Crisis response

Source: Knight and Pretty (1997)

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Lessons of the Past

Looking to a relevant historical example, Exxon suffered immense reputational and organizational damage following its ineffective crisis response during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Exxon suffered significant loss of reputation and eventually a great deal of financial loss – because the public perceived that its primary concern was not the harm that the spill caused.

Fifteen years after the spill a federal appeals court upheld a lower court judgment of $4.5 billion against the company (in addition to the more than $3 billion it had previously paid for cleanup and related costs). The Court said its purpose in upholding the award was to achieve ‘‘retribution and justice.’’ The New York Timesopined that such a judgment and such a purpose were entirely appropriate given Exxon’s seeming indifference in the initial phase of the spill.[3]

This perception of indifference is the single largest contributor harm in the aftermath of a crisis, especially when there are victims.

Companies, governments, and leaders are forgiven when bad things happen. But they won’t be forgiven if they’re seen not to care that bad things have happened. This is a lesson that many leaders fail to understand or to act on in the initial early phases of a crisis.

Exxon’s early response to the Exxon Valdez spill demonstrated lack of both situational awareness and self-awareness. They also demonstrated a lack of leadership discipline and command focus. In both cases leaders fell into one of the common missteps in a crisis: denial. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch describes the need to get past denial quickly. In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece soon after the flood, Welch said:

“One of the marks of good leadership is the ability to dispense with denial quickly and face into the hard stuff with eyes open and fists raised. With particularly bad crises facing them, good leaders also define reality, set direction, and inspire people to move forward. Just think of… Churchill during World War II. Denial doesn’t exactly come to mind – a forthright, calm, fierce boldness does.”

Effective leaders demonstrate this forthright, calm, and fierce boldness early. They see crisis response not as an interruption in their stewardship of a company, but as the test of that stewardship. And as the exodus of CEOs in 2004 and 2005 showed, ignoring a crisis won’t make it go away, but it may result in the CEO going away.

It seems that Exxon has learned this valuable lesson because on Monday, Exxon’s stocks were XOM, -1.99%, and after providing the clarification, their stock rose to 0.69%. The numbers don’t lie, and reputation management is indicative of the numbers being reflected in the stock market.

Guidance for Leadership

Exxon clearly learned from its crisis response failures around the Exxon Valdez spilled. Exxon — now known as Exxon Mobil, was ready when Trump put the company and its CEO in the media and social media cross-hairs.

So, what can CEO’s do when faced with a crisis? Here is a CEO checklist for crisis response preparedness:

  1. Have a clear sense of what constitutes a crisis, and know how to mobilize energy and resources quickly:
  • Develop an early warning mechanism/rapid response capability.
  • Designate a senior executive as responsible for crisis preparedness and response.
  • Make this executive accountable and provide sufficient resources to conduct a thorough analysis of vulnerabilities, crisis response strategies, and crisis implementation.
  • Pre-authorize this executive to take initial response steps without going through usual corporate approval processes.
  • Test the system with wargames, tabletop exercises, and other processes that challenge leaders to make tough decisions and act quickly.
  1. Remember that the best plan won’t help if executives don’t know what to do or when do it. Recognize when business as usual needs to be suspended. A quick test:
  • Will those who matter to us expect us to do or say something now?
  • Will silence be seen by our stakeholders as indifference or as an affirmation of guilt?
  • Are others talking about us now, thereby shaping the perception of us among those who matter to us; is there reason to believe they will be soon?
  • If we wait do we lose the ability to determine the outcome?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it is time to respond. If the answer to all four is no, then you have time to monitor the situation and prepare a response in case any of those answers change to a ‘yes.’

  1. Control the agenda: don’t let the media, adversaries, or the rumor mill define your situation.
  2. Keep in mind the Golden Hour of crisis response: incremental delays cause greater-than-incremental harm to reputation.
  3. Remember your stakeholders. What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do when faced with this? The answer to this question should guide your response.
  4. Develop messages and tactics with a goal in mind: How do you want your key stakeholders to think and feel, and what do you want them to know and do?
  5. In a crisis, assure both self-awareness and situational awareness:
  • Coordinate all functions of the crisis response with frequent meetings/conference calls.
  • Correct mistakes early.
  • Understand what your stakeholders, adversaries, the media, and others are saying about you.
  • Keep your focus on the goal: influencing stakeholders. Decisions become clear when you keep your stakeholders in mind.

[1] The Impact of Catastrophes on Shareholder Value: A Research Report Sponsored by Sedgwick Group, by Rory F. Knight and Deborah J. Pretty, The Oxford Executive Research Briefings, Templeton College, Oxford, 1997.

[2] Knight, R.F. and Pretty, D.J., ibid., p. 7.

[3]‘‘Time for Exxon to pay,’’ Editorial, The New York Times, January 30, 2004, p. A24.

Overnight the world learned that President Trump and the First Lady both tested positive for COVID-19. I wish them a full recovery.

But our challenge isn’t that Trump has COVID-19; it’s that the nation does. And it didn’t have to be this way.

A Teachable Moment: Patterns of Crisis

We are in a very teachable moment.

Crises follow predictable patterns. One is that most harm in a crisis is self-inflicted. Sometimes the initial crisis event itself is self-inflicted. But even when it isn’t, most of the loss of trust, confidence, and competitive position is self-inflicted because of an ineffective response.

A foundational principle of crisis response is to understand the scope and severity of a crisis and the risks it represents, and to respond based on those risks. Donald Trump never did.

On January 28 Trump’s national security advisor told him that COVID-19 would be the single largest national security threat in his presidency.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative

On February 7 Trump admitted to Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is spread in the air and is more deadly than the flu.

Three weeks ago Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, estimated that if the nation had gone to national masking and lock-down one week earlier, with a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of the 200,000 fatalities would have been avoided.

Ten Crisis Missteps

In two of my books, Reputation Management and The Agony of Decision, I describe ten predictable missteps in a crisis:

  1. Ignore the problem. Trump did.
  2. Deny the significance of the problem. Trump did.
  3. Compartmentalize the problem or solution. Trump did.
  4. Tell misleading half truths. Trump did.
  5. Lie. Trump did.
  6. Tell only part of what you did. Trump did.
  7. Blame others for your failures. Trump did.
  8. Over-confess. On this one, Trump did not.
  9. Panic, leading to bad decision-making. Trump did.
  10. Shoot the messenger when you receive bad news. Trump did.

Trump has committed nine of the ten missteps when it comes to COVID-19.

The Human Consequences of the Missteps

COVID-19 cases on October 2, 202

Unlike other crises, this has had significant human consequence. At least 75 percent of the cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. would not have happened. And 150,000 people, according to Dr. Redlener, would still be alive.Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most significant challenges. Trump failed this leadership test. Given the magnitude of the failure of crisis response after Trump was fully aware of the risks, this may be the single worst failure of leadership in American history.

I have previously published that I believe Trump’s handling of COVID-19 to be the single worst handled crisis, and largest leadership failure, in American history.

Again, I wish both the President and the First Lady a full recovery. But perhaps now we can move to a national masking, social distancing, contract tracing, and testing policy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends,

I am pleased to celebrate the publication of Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.

Author Tony Jaques is a world-renowned expert on crisis and reputation. He heads Issue Outcomes, headquartered in North Melbourne, Australia. He worked for more than 20 years in Corporate Issue and Crisis Management, mainly in Asia-Pacific, and served two terms as a Director on the Board of the Issue Management Council, in Leesburg, Virginia.

 

The book opens with Dr. Jaques laying out the stakes of getting crisis response right:

“The Economist magazine examined the impact of crises which struck eight major corporations (worth over $15 billion) from 2010 to 2018 and the median share price fell by 33 percent. While most clawed back their absolute losses, compared with a basket of industry peers over the same time period the median firm was worth 30 per cent less in 2018 than it would have been without the crisis, a total deficit of $300 billion across the eight companies.

A survey of 685 business leaders from Fortune 1000 firms found they believed it would take more than four years to recover from a crisis which damaged an organization’s reputation, and three years for a crisis to fade from the memory of most stakeholders.

And an international law firm analyzed major reputational crises around the world and found that in companies unable to recover pre-crisis share value, 15 per cent of senior executives left within a year, compared with a departure rate of just four per cent in companies where share value did recover.”

The caricature of lawyers’ interventions in crisis (honored as much in the breech as in the observance) is that of forbidding the organization from saying anything or doing anything visible. While some lawyers still behave this way, increasingly lawyers are seeing themselves as business advisors as well as legal advisors. And we know that just as any crisis is a business problem before it is a communication problem, every crisis is also a business problem before it is a legal problem. Dr. Jaques points out that just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.

He offers practical guidance to CEOs on how to weigh conflicting advice, to lawyers on how to understand the bigger picture, and to communicators on how to be more persuasive in making the reputation-protecting case.

The book is well-researched and written.

More important, it is easy to read and very engaging, with a wealth of case studies, practical examples, and key takeaways. The case studies are from around the world and from a range of organizations, from companies to governments to the military. And the lessons conveyed are priceless.

I consider Crisis Counsel to be a must-read for those who advise or wish to advise on high-stakes situations, whether you are a lawyer, a communicator, a CEO, or a leader of any other form of enterprise.

Forewords

I am honored to have written one of the three forewords to this important contribution to the field.

The other forewords were written by:

 

Excerpts From My Foreword

Here’s what I said in my Foreword.

“I have been a crisis advisor for more than 35 years and have taught crisis management and crisis communication in graduate business and professional schools for more than 30 years. I have advised lawyers and been hired through lawyers to advise our mutual clients. I have taught lawyers through bar associations and have trained individual lawyers in crisis management. And I have fought with lawyers; sometimes I have won those fights. And I have learned from lawyers.

A typical interaction is this: In the CEO’s office the lawyer will give all the legal reasons to say as little as possible in the early phases of a crisis. The CEO will then look at me. My reply,

‘I believe you have received excellent legal advice. And you should take it seriously. But please recognize that you don’t have a legal problem, at least not yet. You have a business problem. And you need to make a business decision. You need to consider the risk of legal liability seriously.

But not exclusively. You should also consider the consequences of the loss of trust of those who matter to you: your employees, customers, investors, regulators, and others. You can protect yourself from legal liability that will play out years from now but lose the company in the process. Or you can attend to the immediate needs and concerns of your stakeholders now, in ways that manage future legal liability.” It’s very hard for the lawyers to object to that.

I then offer, “Between self-defeating silence and self-destructive blabbering, there’s lots of room to maneuver.”

I then ask the lawyer about categories of possible communication:

  • Can we acknowledge awareness of what has happened? The answer is usually Yes.
  • Can we express empathy toward those who are affected? The lawyers usually say, Yes, but we need to be careful not to admit blame. My reply, Great. Let’s do it carefully.
  • Can we declare our values? We typically have them published on our website. Can we describe the overall approach we will take to address the crisis and resolve it? The lawyers usually say we need to be very careful. I again reply, Great. Let’s do it carefully.
  • Can we make some kind of commitment? How about a procedural commitment: We’ll update you when we know more. Or a substantive commitment: We’ll get to the bottom of this and fix it. This often leads to the lawyers and communicators collaborating early in the crisis to find the balance. It doesn’t need to be adversarial or either-or.

Tony Jaques has written a masterful guide to managing the natural tension between lawyers and communicators. Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict is a highly readable guide to effective and respectful interaction among lawyers, communicators, and business leaders.

He helps us understand the mindset of lawyers and the mindset of communicators, and how leaders can exercise good decision skills.

He includes a wealth of real-world examples of well and poorly handled crises from around the world and across forms of organization. It contains both wisdom and practical tools for responding effectively in a crisis. And he quotes a wide range of crisis experts (full disclosure: including me). This is an important contribution to our understanding of crises, leadership, and decision-making. It’s the kind of book I wish I had been able to read when I was just starting in crisis decades ago. And it is a valuable book for lawyers, communicators, and leaders in all sectors.”

About the Author

Tony Jaques, PhD, Author of Crisis Counsel
(Author book portrait)

Tony Jaques, PhD, has spent much of his working life describing, researching and writing about crisis management, and helping to manage crises in government and in corporations.

He has served as a government ministerial advisor, corporate executive and business consultant and has an international reputation as an authority on issue and crisis management and risk communication. I

In his role as Asia-Pacific Issue and Crisis Manager for The Dow Chemical Company for more than 20 years he was responsible for implementing local issue, crisis and community outreach programs throughout the region and had a hands-on role in managing a number of high-profile crises. He continues to serve as a thought leader in those areas with new projects to educate other fellow professionals as a conference speaker.

Dr Jaques is a New Zealander who now lives in Australia, where he runs his own consultancy and lectures post-graduate students at two universities. At an earlier stage of his career he was a journalist in New Zealand and London, and later worked as a management strategic advisor and speechwriter.

He has written very extensively about issue and crisis management.in academic and business publications around the world, and is the author of three previous books in the field — Don’t Just Stand There: the Do-it Plan for Effective Issue Management (2000); Issue and crisis Management: Exploring Issues, Crises, Risk and reputation (2014); and Crisis Proofing: How to Save Your Company From Disaster (2016). He is also the author of the definitive, three-volume Dictionary of Battles and Sieges (2006). Dr Jaques is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Issue Management Council in Washington DC and received their Howard Chase Award for achievement in the field. He holds a doctoral degree from RMIT University (Melbourne).

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a battle not only for lives, but also for hearts and minds.

We’re in a crisis that no single sector or business is immune to. Every organization, from the family-owned pizza place in your neighborhood to a trillion-dollar corporation, is affected and faced with threats to its viability. Companies must also survive the court of public opinion through effectively responding to and communicating about the crisis.

Recent communications by Marriott and Macy’s and the consequences provide an instructive comparison:

The Wall Street Journal reported on March 17 that Marriott had begun furloughing tens of thousands of its employees, which later was confirmed by the company. Two days later, the company released a video update from its President and CEO Arne Sorenson on Twitter. Sorenson thoughtfully and authentically explained the significant impact that COVID-19 has had on Marriott’s revenues – a more severe and sudden financial impact than the 2009 recession and 9/11 combined. He then articulated a number of steps the company was taking to maintain financial viability going forward.

He closed by empathizing with his employees and highlighting his commitment to them:

“There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates, people who are at the very heart of the company, that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control. I’ve never been more determined to see us through than I am at this moment.”

“Leadership at its finest,” someone commented under the Twitter video, which had been viewed 915.5k times by the time of writing this blog. Forbes applauded Mr. Sorenson for demonstrating “truly authentic leadership.”

Marriott President and CEO Arne Sorenson delivers COVID-19 update

 

Conversely, on March 30 Macy’s announced in a press release that it was furloughing most of its 125,000 employees:

“Across Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and Blue Mercury brands, we will be moving to the absolute minimum workforce needed to maintain basic operations. This means that the majority of our colleagues will go on furlough beginning this week.”

They contextualized this decision by referencing a decline in store sales:

“While the digital business remains open, we have lost the majority of our sales due to the store closures.”

Like Marriott, Macy’s also announced other mitigating measures to conserve cash such as cutting executive salaries and freezing new hires.

For public companies, the individual stock price is a barometer of trust and confidence. While under the best of circumstances stock price indicates trust and confidence, it is arguably more of a critical matrix when people are anxious and hyperresponsive to changes in the pandemic.

On the day Sorenson released his video update, Marriott was at $66.80 per share, up about 4.7% from the day before. On the day of its announcement, Macy’s saw its shares down about 8.5% from the closing price of a day before, even though Macy’s essentially implemented similar business measures.

So, why did Marriott and Macy’s end up in such different places when pretty much doing the same things?

There are five best practices that determine whether companies win or lose trust when implementing unfavorable actions in catastrophic situations:

      1. Actions alone do not communicate your intent. They must be combined with communication.

Actions should always go hand in hand with communications, otherwise you leave room for unintended interpretation. Communicating your intent can frame your actions in a persuasive, positive light. Failure to frame your intent will result in audiences judging your actions alone.

      2. Reset expectations when previous ones cannot be met.

Trust is the natural consequence of promises fulfilled, expectations met, and values lived. When a business is no longer able to operate as usual, it is unrealistic for an organization to fulfill expectations that were set in ordinary circumstances. However, stakeholders’ expectations will remain the same unless the new circumstances that requires new expectations are communicated clearly.

      3. When delivering bad news, be direct, transparent, and specific.

For dramatic actions to be understood by those who matter, the magnitude of the negative event in play needs to be communicated in full and clear terms. Do not use euphemisms. Be sure to show empathy.

      4. Make connections, not announcements.

If possible, put a face to the communication and make personal connections with your audiences. Once a human connection is made, even the most undesirable decisions become more palatable. Sorenson started the video by acknowledging his “new bald look” as a cancer survivor. By exhibiting vulnerability and humility, he bonded with his audience on the emotional level. He then empathized with his employees. Macy’s, however, gave a straightforward, dry business update.

      5. It’s never about you; it’s about them.

It is important to not think or frame the decision from the perspective of the leader or the organization in a crisis. The I/me/we/us frame of reference abandons the opportunity to demonstrate care and empathy and can easily be seen as irresponsible or self-serving. For example, Macy’s simply stated that it was furloughing employees to a basic operation level to support digital sales. However, employees don’t care about “maintaining basic operations;” they care about being able to pay rent and buy food.

It’s difficult to frame any unpleasant decisions from the perspective of stakeholders when the actions will at least in the short term hurt them. However, tapping into a higher value, inspiring a sense of duty and togetherness can help bring people to your side. But this has to be done in a candid and authentic manner, as Sorenson did in the video update.

The best times are often forgotten. Leaders and organizations are remembered for what they’ve done in the worst ones. Therefore, it’s critical for leaders to remember these five principles when they need to take unfavorable actions and deliver bad news. These best practices not only protect companies from losing their case in the court of public opinion, but also provide an opportunity to win more hearts and minds.

Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press is pleased to announce that the Chinese language translation of its book The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis has been published in Beijing.

 

 

The Agony of Decision is the first title published by Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press in July 2017.

The author is Logos Consulting Group president Helio Fred Garcia.

The Chinese publisher is Posts & Telecom Press, a leading publisher of business and non-fiction titles in China. The Chinese translation had been scheduled for publication in February 2020, but the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic delayed publication. Given the continuing recovery in China that began in the last few weeks, the publisher is now positioning the book as an essential tool for Chinese leaders in all sectors to be able to restore trust of critical stakeholders that was lost in the pandemic.

 

 

As with the English edition, the Chinese edition is available as a physical book, an e-book, and an audio book. The Chinese language title is 从危到机: 危机中的决策之痛与领导之术, which translates roughly into English as From Danger to Opportunity: The Agony of Decision-Making and Leadership in Crisis.

The Chinese edition is available at all major Chinese online markets, including Dangdang, JD, Taobao (Alibaba), and Amazon China (e-book available for download only in China).

The Chinese edition was translated from English by Xinyin Lu, deputy director of the Institute of Corporate Communication at the Academy of Media and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China, and by Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, Chair Professor and Dean of the School of Government and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China, the leading Chinese university specializing in journalism, communication, documentary filmmaking, and related disciplines. Dr. Dong also wrote the foreword to the Chinese edition.

 

Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, translator and author of the foreword.

 

Translator Xinyin Lu

 

The Chinese edition of The Agony of Decision has been endorsed by:

  • Yang Yujun, dean of the Academy of Media and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China, former head of the Information Bureau of the Ministry of National Defense of China, and former spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense of China. Both Yang and Dr. Dong are part of the Expert Committee for the COVID-19 pandemic in China.
  • Du Shaozhong, vice chair of All-China Environment Federation (ACEF), and former deputy director and spokesperson for the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
  • Wang Lianglan, former spokesperson for The National Medical Products Administration (the FDA of China)
  • Lv Dapeng, spokesperson for China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (NYSE: SNP, $1,217B market cap)
  • Wu Huanling, managing director of China Public Relations Association (CPRA), former vice president of General electric medical system (China) Co., Ltd.,

Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong

The Chinese edition was made possible by Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, Chair Professor and Dean of the School of Government and Public Affairs, and Provost for Faculty of Professional Studies, Executive Education and Continuing Education at the Communication University of China.

Dr. Dong is also Vice Chairman of the China Public Relations Association (CPRA) and Vice Chair of Communication and Education, All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce.

He is one of the official advisors for transparent governance, strategic communications and crisis management for the State Council Ministries.

Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong conducting a television interview at Communication University of China, 2015

Prior to his current appointments, Dr. Dong was a presenter for the BBC World Service in London and a morning news anchor for the China Central Television (CCTV).

Dr. Dong was among the founders of Journalism School and the founding Chair and former director of the Institute of Public Relations and Strategic Communications at Tsinghua University. He is also a very popular professor of strategic communications for the prestigious EMBA, EDP and DBA programs at Tsinghua University.

He was appointed the Shorenstein Fellow on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University in 2009, and most recently as an Eisenhower Fellow by the Eisenhower Fellowships in Philadelphia, USA.

In 2019, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership awarded Dr. Dong its Outstanding Leader Award in recognition of his consequential professional achievement that sets the standard to which other leaders may aspire; his use of strategic communication to change the world; and having inspired and empowered the next generation of leaders through teaching, mentoring, for their advocacy on behalf of others.

Logos president Helio Fred Garcia presenting the Logos Institute Outstanding Leader Award to Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, May, 2019

The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis is about how leaders and the organizations they lead can maintain reputation, trust, confidence, financial and operational strength, and competitive advantage in a crisis. First, by thinking clearly; second by making smart choices; and third by executing those choices effectively.

But making smart choices in a crisis can be agonizing.

The difference between leaders who handle crises well and those who handle crises poorly is mental readiness: the ability some leaders exhibit that allows them to make smart choices quickly in a crisis. And this ability creates real competitive advantage. One of the predictable patterns of crisis response is that the severity of the crisis event does not determine whether an organization and its leader get through a crisis effectively. Indeed, two organizations, similarly situated, can see dramatically different outcomes based on the quality and timeliness of their individual responses to the crisis events.

And the ability to respond effectively in a timely way is a consequence of mental readiness. This book is for leaders of organizations who need to be good stewards of reputation, trust, and confidence; and for those who advise those leaders, whether in public relations, or law, or other business disciplines.

Graphic of The Ten Most Common Mis-Steps in a Crisis, from the Chinese Edition of The Agony of Decsion

 

In 2018 The Agony of Decision was named one of the Best Crisis Management Books of All Time (#2 of 51) by the leading nonfiction book review site BookAuthority. It is currently listed #3 of 100 All-Time Best Crisis Management Books. BookAuthority uses a proprietary technology to identify and rate the best nonfiction books, using dozens of different signals, including public mentions, recommendations, ratings, sentiment, popularity and sales history.

 

The Agony of Decision has been adopted in a number of universities and professional schools in the United States and abroad.

Garcia was planning a teaching and speaking trip to China in conjunction with the publication of the Chinese edition. But the COVID-19 crisis in the United States makes such a visit impossible for the foreseeable future.

 

Logos Institute Thought Leadership in China

 

Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership has been a thought leader in China for nearly ten years.

The Agony of Decision is the second book by Helio Fred Garcia to be published in Chinese. The first was his 2012 book The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively.

In 2014 Power of Communication was published in Chinese by Pearson Education Asia Ltd in Hong Kong and Publishing House of Electronics Industry in Beijing under the title 沟通的力量.

In 1991, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia was invited to be an International Distinguished Scholar at Tsinghua University as part of an international exchange on crisis management among academics, business leaders, the government, and outside experts. Tsinghua is consistently named the top one or two university in China.

At Tsinghua, Garcia taught graduate students in the Institute for Public Relations and Strategic Communication of the School of Journalism and Communication.

He also taught at a number of Chinese government ministries, including the Ministry of Finance and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. And he did a workshop for the chief spokesperson of all the ministries. He also keynoted conferences for a number of non-governmental organizations and associations.

In 2015, in conjunction with the Chinese language publication of The Power of Communication, Garcia conducted an extensive teaching and speaking tour of China.

He taught in both the MBA and graduate communication programs of more than a dozen leading universities, including Tsinghua University, Peking University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Nankai University, Communication University of China, and Nanjing University He also delivered keynotes at major corporate events.

Since 2015, Garcia has been a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Corporate Communication at Communication University of China.

In addition to The Agony of Decision and The Power of Communication, Garcia is co-author (with John Doorley) of Reputation Management: The Key to Successful Public Relations and Corporate Communication, fourth edition pending July, 2020, third edition 2015; second edition 2011; first edition 2007 by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group; Korean language edition 2016 by Alma Books, Seoul, Republic of Korea.  His two-volume book Crisis Communications was published by AAAA Publications in 1999.

Garcia’s next book, due in June 2020, is Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

— Leon C. Megginson

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a crash course on adaptability.

Our ability to adapt is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit as millions sit inside their homes and wait for the storm to pass. Many have had to adapt to working from home and caring for or supervising children while managing logistics that were mandated almost overnight. Others have had no choice but to grapple with the harsh realities and risks of being an essential worker. Many are furloughed or unemployed, trying to figure out their next steps and future options in an uncertain world. And almost everyone was faced with steep and sudden learning curves, whether setting up a home office effectively or serving as teaching assistants for their children’s online learning.

Adaptability is essential for organizations. Companies and enterprises that have not adapted well, or adapted fast enough, have suffered serious consequences. Some have succumbed already, and others will not survive. Many companies that adapted quickly are still viable, but will need to re-invent and reconfigure to sustain that viability over the long term. However, organizations that have adapted in meaningful ways that demonstrate caring are doing more than just surviving.

In the midst of deep uncertainty, a number of companies have already responded to the COVID-19 challenge and distinguished themselves by shifting their services and product lines to meet the highest-priority needs of their consumers, employees, and communities. For example, alcohol distilleries and major beauty and health companies, Sporting apparel companies, such as Fanatics and Bauer Hockey, have been producing gowns, masks, and face shields. Walk-in food outlets like Panera Bread, and even specialty chains, such as Edible Arrangements, have shifted their operation models to grocery delivery services. And to meet the needs of home-bound exercisers, gym chains like Planet Fitness offer livestream workouts that anyone, member or nonmember, can access for free.

These are just a few examples of companies that recognized a need, both internally and externally, and used their ingenuity to adapt in unexpected and creative ways. As a result, these organizations are not only more likely to survive this immediate crisis, but will also bolster their reputations and increase their competitive advantage going forward.

Adaptability is a leadership discipline. The ability to be nimble and adapt effectively during a crisis is essential not only for survival, but for opportunity and growth. Failure to adapt when circumstances change will cost you and your organization greatly.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, leaders and organizations need to be on adaptation alert as circumstances change. And when the pandemic finally ends, organizations must be prepared to adapt yet again in a post-COVID-19 world, whatever that will look like.

In studying companies that have adapted both well and poorly during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve identified several questions that can serve as a Logos Best Practice rubric to help guide thinking about how to adapt effectively.

When confronted with changing circumstances, ask:

  • What is required for your organization to continue to operate? What level of revenue is required to cover costs? What tools or resources do you or your employees need to continue to function?
  • What is your mission? What is your organization’s goal? What are you designed to do? Does your mission need to evolve in the present moment?
  • What are your core values? What values are embedded in your mission, culture, and business model?
  • Whom do you serve? Who are the stakeholders that matter most to your organization? Are there new or different stakeholders you should be serving?
  • What are the urgent or important needs of your stakeholders? In this moment of crisis, what matters most to your stakeholders? What do your internal and external stakeholders need?
  • What do those who matter most expect from you? How do your stakeholders expect you to live your mission and values? How have their expectations changed amid the crisis?
  • What is your unique competitive advantage? What can your organization uniquely offer? How can you fulfill your mission in a way that provides an essential or important product or service during this crisis?

The answers to these questions will help you think about how to adapt in ways that not only support short-term survival, but also pave the way for long-term success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Maida K. Zheng and Raleigh Mayer

When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.

– Winston Churchill

I salute the United States Navy.

The Navy – and the other branches of the U.S. military – serve the nation every day, protecting every American’s right to freedom, a privilege we often take for granted.

But right now, the Navy is undergoing a reputational nightmare, and it’s one that could have been avoided.

Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was fired after an email he authored regarding COVID-19 expressing his concerns about the potential – and very likely – harm it posed to his ship and its sailors.

The Acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, spoke to reporters about his decision to fire Crozier at the Pentagon in a press conference April 2, 2020. Modly stated the reason Capt. Crozier was fired was the Navy’s loss of confidence in Crozier’s ability to lead as well as the disclosure of an internal memo to the media. Modley suggested that the leak occurred because of Crozier’s carelessness in copying too many people on an email that should have been classified, demonstrating poor risk management and poor judgement.

Navy Brass Felt Blindsided by Fired Carrier Captain's Emailed Appeal

Modly would not tell reporters who was copied on the correspondence, stating “I will not comment on that,” during his Pentagon press conference. That may have been one of his first mistakes. When communicating an issue, a “no comment” response will always be met with suspicion and conveys defensiveness, and the refusal may be interpreted as guilt.

To be clear, the reputational damage to the Navy was not necessarily because of the firing itself, which may or may not have been warranted.  The outrage is due to the manner in which Modly communicated that decision.

Effective communicators know that the framework for guiding the choice, style, and timing of a message should always start with the following question: “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?”

By focusing on damaging hypotheticals such as “[the leak] unnecessarily raised alarms with the families of our Sailors and Marines with no plan to address those concerns” Modly accidentally communicated a lack of empathy toward the seriousness of the situation and what the families were likely already feeling (anxiety).

Modly questioned the professionalism of Crozier, who at that point was literally seen as a hero by service members for risking his career for their safety.  “I could reach no other conclusion than that Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally,” Modly said.

Had Modly employed the best-practiced principle of crisis communication and asked himself “what would reasonable people expect a responsible organization to do in this situation” he likely would have realized how critical (for the sake of the Navy’s reputation) it was for him to publicly state that this was an unprecedented situation, and support Crozier because reasonable people expect the Navy to care. Showing you care does not mean you have to give up on good order and discipline. Reasonable people understand that if a policy or order was broken, there will be consequences.

In every crisis there is opportunity, and when this story broke, the Navy had an opportunity to back Capt. Crozier and explain the actions that had been taken and planned to be taken to ensure the service members would be safe and that the mission would not be abandoned. After all – those plans were already in motion according to Modly. Instead, they punished the person the public had already fallen in love with and thus appeared callous in doing so.

With all that said, below are some tips for success in a situation such as this.

  1. Reasonable people expect an organization to care, first and foremost.  The single biggest predictor of loss of trust in a crisis is the perception that you don’t care.
  2. First mover advantage matters. Whoever is first to define the crisis, motives, and actions is the one who controls the interpretation of the event.
  3. A well-structured stand-by statement, prepared ahead of time for adaptation, is key in ensuring you are communicating effectively during a crisis.

Logos Consulting Group provides the following template for the best possible outcome in tough, touchy, sensitive situations:

  1. Acknowledgement. Open by stating awareness of the event or issue. Do not use euphemisms, which are confusing to audiences, especially those under stress.
  2. Empathy. If there are victims or potential victims, express empathy.
  3. Values. Describe the organization’s values that will give context to the response to the crisis.
  4. Approach. Describe ways the organization is handling the response to the crisis, including what has been done or what is under way.
  5. Commitment. Outline the substantive or procedural commitments you can make now.

On Sunday, April 5, several media outlets confirmed that Capt. Crozier tested positive for COVID-19; the Navy declined to comment.

On Monday, April 6, reports of a leaked speech of Modly speaking to Sailors in Guam was released via several media outlets.

“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either a) too naive, or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly said to the USS Theodore Roosevelt crew.

The speech continues in this manner with Sailors audibly yelling “what the F***” in the background.

Additionally on April 6, Modly wrote a response to a New York Times op-ed where Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson (Tweed Roosevelt) called Capt. Crozier a hero. In his response, Modly said he has the utmost respect for the Roosevelt family, but that Tweed is wrong — “he simply doe not have access to the relevant facts that led to the captains dismissal.” The letter was deleted shortly after it went live.

The Golden Hour of Crisis Response for communicators and medical professionals describes the urgency to “stop the bleeding.” Each day the Navy delays in effectively communicating and showing true empathy causes more and more reputational harm…and bleeding.

We truly hope Capt. Crozier and his crew recover. Fair winds and following seas.

-30-

 

Maida Kalic Zheng is a fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, where she helps corporate leaders maximize their presence, enhance communication, and become more sophisticated at managing their relationships and reputations.

 

Raleigh Mayer, the Gravitas Guru and principal of Raleigh Mayer of Consulting and Senior Fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, helps leaders elevate presence, enhance communication, and become more sophisticated at managing their relationships and reputations. She is an advisor, coach, educator, and speaker, serving large corporations, private firms, and individual executives.

 

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Leadership, Communication, and COVID-19

By Helio Fred Garcia

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

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

Seven Crises in  One

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

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

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

 

Everything is Different

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

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

Crisis Response Best Practices

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

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

And that’s because of the way trust works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applying Best Practices to COVID-19 Communication

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

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

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

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

 

Sending Up a Flare

In the book’s preface Garcia writes,

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

But he also provides a caution:

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

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

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

Garcia’s fears were soon realized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Playbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Stochastic Terrorism to Lone-Wolf Whistle Terrorism

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

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

He says:

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

A Call to Action

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

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

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

Early Endorsers

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

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

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

Evan Wolfson, Founder, Freedom to Marry, says:

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

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

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

Lukaszewski adds,

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

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

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

Prior Books by Logos President

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

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

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

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

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

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