The Feeling

For most of us, the days start the same way. You turn over, turn off your alarm, and then check your phone or email notifications.

Most of the time, the notifications you find are the typical daily intrusions or distractions.

But imagine this. One day you read the email, urgent text chain, social media feed, or news story and you discover that your organization has found itself in a crisis that has the potential to jeopardize the future of the organization. A future you and your colleagues have worked so hard to create.

Maybe it is a crisis you had foreseen.

Maybe it takes you completely by surprise.

But in that first moment, you feel the walls coming down around you. For many, a heavy feeling hits them in the gut and weight compresses their chest. A question inevitably sets in:

What are we going to do?

The feelings of fear and desperation are real. In that initial moment, panic quickly sets in and it may feel like the end of the world.

That feeling is okay. In fact, it is natural. In another blog, I will explain the neuroscience behind what’s happening to your brain and your body, and why you feel what you feel during a crisis, including the immediate inability to make rational decisions. (Check back on our site for the release of this blog.)

In the meantime, I’d like to talk through some things you can focus on right now, so you know how to move past that initial flash of panic and gain ability to make decisions. The goal is that in that moment of crisis you are able to move forward and respond to what is happening calmly, clearly, and effectively.

The key to doing so is readiness.

Readiness

Readiness determines how an organization responds to a crisis. The common misconception is that the severity of the inciting incident determines the response. However, when properly prepared and applying the right mindset, your level of readiness will be the deciding factor of whether or not the organization will get through a crisis unscathed and stronger than before.

Most organizations have some structures of operational readiness to respond to a crisis. But the truth is that well-built structures alone are not enough in moments of crisis. That is why so many companies that have well-built structures of operational readiness still fail to respond to a crisis effectively and suffer meaningful harm as a result.

The key is combining operational readiness with mental readiness.

Mental Readiness

Effective crisis response is a combination of both operational readiness and mental readiness. This combination equates to the ability to make smart choices quickly and execute them well in a crisis. Mental readiness helps people faced with crises respond calmly, think clearly, and make smart choices when it matters most.

Mental readiness consists of three parts:

Emotional Discipline. The ability to regulate your emotions to execute decisions well in moments of crisis. In a crisis, making smart choices in timely ways is not always easy. Sometimes there is no good choice, free of pain or discomfort. Sometimes there is only the least bad choice, which may involve discomfort to you but will ultimately serve your stakeholders (those who matter to your organization) the most. Discipline and practice is required to remain calm and make the difficult, but necessary choices.

Deep Knowledge. The understanding of the patterns that drive effective and ineffective crisis response, including why some actions always work while some other actions never work. By studying as many different crises as possible, you are able to learn from others’ mistakes without having to live those mistakes yourself.

Intellectual Rigor. The ability to think clearly and ask the right questions in the right order in order to identify the problem accurately and understand the best course of action forward. The ability to remain focused and ask the right questions, rather than letting distraction take hold, enables you to make smart choices quickly.

By building your mental readiness for moments of crisis, you will be able to foresee crises that are foreseeable. You will be able to assess unforeseen crises and respond effectively as they arise. And you will be able to move past that initial moment of panic when the crisis breaks to lead your team through what needs to happen next.

This is part of a series of blogs on crisis response principles. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.

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About Maida Kalić Zheng

Maida is an Advisor at Logos Consulting Group and a Senior Fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, where she helps corporate leaders maximize presence and enhance communication skills to become more effective in managing both their reputations and relationships. She also serves as the Chief of Client Services.

 

 

About Logos Consulting Group

Leaders change the world. But they don’t do it alone. They ignite others toward a common cause. At Logos Consulting Group, we believe in this world and we see this world in the work that we do. Our mission is to build a better world by equipping people to become leaders who ignite change in the world for the good. We do this by helping our clients inspire those who matter to them to make a difference in their own industries and communities, and the world at large. We advise and coach our clients in three key areas: crisis managementcrisis communication; and executive coaching.

On November 9, 2020, Helio Fred Garcia spoke with Will Bachman on his podcast Unleashed about how leaders and organizations can understand prepare for, and respond effectively to a crisis. Unleashed explores how to thrive as an independent professional.

During their conversation, Garcia discussed the meaning of the word crisis, several key principles of effective crisis response, and ways that Logos Consulting Group works with clients to prepare for and respond to crises.

Listen to the full interview here:

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)

page6image2456111424

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).

“When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

~ George Washington Carver

So: You’re wearing a mask and keeping a socially responsible distance. You’re staying safe but taking long daily walks in the nearly empty streets of New York City to keep yourself healthy and sane. You peer into the dark, empty storefronts as you stroll along. You arrive at the place you always found familiar and comforting; it now looks abandoned and forbidding. There is no human to greet you, only a few words on a single page attached to the front door. Almost every door on every street has a similar sign.

As the days of shutdown have dragged on, I’ve become intrigued by these signs, snapping pictures of at least 100 of them. I’ve read the words again and again. They are breathtaking in their sameness, leading me to the question: How much difference can a few words on a simple sign possibly make?

Businesses reopening in the aftermath of the current crisis may soon find out.

Sometimes the message on the door is just one word – “Closed.” Not terribly helpful, is it? That feels more like the end of a relationship than a reassurance that you and your spot will be reunited in the future.

While heavily trafficked commercial chains may have a following who look for convenience alone, a cozy neighborhood haunt cannot exist without building an emotional bond – appreciation, affection, even love – with its customers. When that business closes indefinitely, or its hours are suddenly and severely curtailed, anxious customers need to see words of gratitude, emotion, and empathy: “We thank you.” “We appreciate you.” “We miss you.” “We understand what you are going through because we are going through it, too.”

Empathy should start right there at the front door.

Surprisingly, even in these difficult times, when those words of connectivity matter most, when customers expect to find love letters from deeply grateful owners, they find crisis boilerplate instead, often written in haste, dashed off as a formality and perhaps copied from a neighboring establishment. Even worse, sometimes, the desired words do not appear at all.

That strategically placed sheet of paper – occasionally drafted with the assistance of a lawyer or a communications professional – may be instructive but it’s not terribly personal. Or authentic. Or meaningful.

That kind of corporate jargon often makes me stop reading – I imagine you know the phrases: “our top priority,” “we are closely monitoring,” “we are committed to …”  But owners use them because they know they need to communicate quickly with customers coming to the door, and they want the message to sound official. Professional communicators reading this will understand that the sign on the door is a kind of stand-by statement to let the entire world, including those critical customers, know what is going on in that moment and what they can expect while the crisis – and temporary closure – continues.

As my colleague, Helio Fred Garcia, has written in The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis, an insightful guide to crisis decision-making (even during one not of your own making), critical communications like that sign on the door should embrace five fundamental elements:

  1. ACKNOWLEDGMENT – a statement of awareness that something has happened.
  2. EMPATHY – an expression of empathy or sympathy to those who are hurting or inconvenienced – and in COVID-19 times, everyone is hurting and inconvenienced.
  3. VALUES – a declaration of the business’ values – including how much that business values those customers.
  4. APPROACH – a summary of the actions the business is taking in the wake of the crisis.
  5. COMMITMENT – a statement that sets future expectations, i.e., “We will keep you up-to-date as we hear any important news and will let you know when we can reopen. We will be here for you online even while we are closed.”

[For a quick summary of these elements, see the Leadership Lesson on Standby Statements]

In all fairness, I’m sure these independent owners also mean to communicate how much they love and miss their customers. But their words – crafted out of necessity and in great haste from a template – don’t quite resonate. They don’t quite say: We are closed, but we miss you and are still there for you.

Contrast those signs with recent updates that a certain coffee company has posted on Instagram – the digital front door for many contemporary consumers. Note the likes and comments.

So, for owners of shuttered businesses – small or large, mighty or nimble – here are two important questions you should ask yourself:

1. How can you communicate your message in conversational human language, rather than boilerplate jargon? You’re dealing with ordinary humans. Why not sound like one?

2. How can you include a message of gratitude at the very top of the page? Owners should express their sincere thanks to the customer who has arrived at the door in the first sentence or two. What would happen if the language of the sign started there? Only good things, I promise you.

Here are some signs that hit the mark beautifully. Which ones do you like best?

One last thought: many of the signs that I see on the doors have been left there unchanged for weeks.

Dear shop owners— It’s not too late to change that sign!

Love,

Your Devoted Customer

 

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.