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The following is a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Forbes on October 19, 2021.

In mid-September the United States passed a tragic milestone: one in every 500 Americans had died of Covid-19. By early October, it was one in every 469 Americans. And counting …

For decades in my crisis management practice, I have preached that the severity of an underlying crisis does not determine how the crisis turns out. Two organizations in the same crisis at the same time can have dramatically different outcomes. Rather, the timeliness and quality of the response determine whether or not an organization suffers a catastrophic outcome. Act effectively and quickly and the crisis resolves or plays out with minimal damage. Delay or dither and things get disproportionately worse.

It is uncommon for multiple organizations to go through the same crisis simultaneously. But Covid-19 is a crisis with which every organization around the world has been grappling. We now have experienced a kind of laboratory experiment of how different jurisdictions responded to the pandemic differently. We can track the different outcomes. We can learn from them. And we can apply those lessons, not only in the continued pandemic response but in future crises, as well.

Crisis Management Works

All the trends point to a common conclusion: Crisis management works. But only when we manage the crisis effectively. Failing to follow crisis management principles can have devastating consequences. There are three rules that lead to the successful resolution of a crisis:

1. Take the crisis seriously.

2. Take the risks seriously.

3. Mitigate those risks.

We can see clearly how the death rates in different jurisdictions were different based on leaders’ adherence, or lack of adherence, to these rules.

A Tale Of Two Nations: Republic Of Korea And United States Of America

On January 20, 2020, the U.S. had its first confirmed Covid-19 case. That same day the first confirmed Covid-19 case was recorded in South Korea.

Unlike the U.S., South Korea took the crisis and the risks seriously. Six years earlier, it had been burned by its mishandling of a public health emergency that had led to dozens of deaths and that had almost brought down the government. Not this time: No dithering, denial or delay.

Initially, South Korea had the highest Covid-19 death rate outside of China. But its leaders quickly worked to mitigate the risks. They launched a whole of government response. In particular, South Korea followed all the mitigation guidelines that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised. These included mandatory masking, distancing, quarantines, contract tracing and testing. And it worked. Infection and death rates plummeted and have stayed low.

The United States did not take the crisis or the risks seriously, nor did the U.S. act to mitigate the risks. President Trump and his allies persistently denied or downplayed the reality of the virus.

The United States never had a whole-government response. And the nation never consistently followed CDC guidelines. In 2020, leaders, including the president, rationalized away the risks. They failed to model safe behavior, even including the wearing of masks. They continued to have large unmasked gatherings. And the pandemic itself became inexorably tangled into the politics of a presidential election, with large numbers taking sides about the reality of the virus itself, a disturbing trend that continues to this day, nearly a year after the election.

But public health experts have been sounding the alarm about the risks for more than a year. Last October, Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness concluded that of the 217,000 American Covid-19 fatalities to date, as many as 210,000 could have been prevented by taking appropriate precautions. At the time the U.S. had the highest Covid-19 rate among peer countries. Korea had the lowest.

At about the same time, the venerable New England Journal of Medicine said that the U.S. had failed at every step to take effective mitigation steps and said Americans were dying because of a leadership vacuum.

In February 2021, the British medical journal Lancet noted that as many as 40% of American Covid-19 deaths could have been avoided.

Even after the vaccines became widely available, the seeds of distrust and division continued to hamper mitigation efforts, especially in states whose governors forbade mask mandates and where vaccine hesitancy prevailed.

By late September 2021, American deaths had surpassed two round numbers — one in 500 Americans, for a total of 700,000 deaths. Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs noted that if the U.S. had done what was necessary to keep the death rate the same as our peer countries, 650,000 fewer Americans would have died.

So, what is the current Covid-19 death rate in South Korea compared to the U.S.? One in every 20,000 South Koreans, compared to one in every 469 Americans.

South Korea followed the three crisis management rules:

1. It took the problem seriously.

2. It took the risks seriously.

3. It did what was necessary to mitigate those risks.

The United States did not. The difference: American Covid-19 deaths are at 42 times the rate in South Korea. Most American fatalities were preventable, especially after the vaccines became available to anyone willing to take them.

We see at the national level dramatically different outcomes to the common crisis. There are many lessons we can harvest from the tragedies — including the dangers of misinformation and of political polarization of science. But the crisis management lesson, devoid of politics and ideology, is clear: In a crisis, take the crisis seriously, take the risks seriously, mitigate the risks fully. The outcomes will be far less devastating.

On September 30, 2021, Logos advisor Katie Garcia was quoted in Platform Magazine on crisis communication in the age of social media. Platform Magazine is a student-run online public relations magazine based at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Garcia was interviewed by the magazine after she participated in a panel discussion at the university about what a career in crisis communication looks like on September 20.

In the article, Garcia defines what a crisis is and what is at stake in a crisis: “A crisis is a turning point where you can no longer operate as usual, and depending on how you respond, you can either gain competitive advantage or suffer meaningful harm.”

She also noted that in the age of social media, the core principles of crisis communication remained the same, even as the execution of crisis communication has somewhat changed. “Now there is an expectation that we are going to engage on those platforms, engage quickly and at times engage in particular ways,” she explained. “The expectation always is that the organization [involved] in the crisis cares. The way you demonstrate that you care has changed, and that is where social media comes in. It means that you need to reach out further and demonstrate care on different platforms than before.”

Read the full article here.

On September 3, 2021, Logos President Helio Fred Garcia was quoted in Loss Prevention Magazine on how 7-Eleven has invested in technology to better execute crisis communication.

 

7-Eleven has heavily invested in both crisis communication processes and software to ensure both company leadership and franchisees can share information with each other and report on specific needs and issues.

 

Garcia noted the importance of having multiple communication channels available for times of crisis to lessen any communication gaps in times of crisis. “You also need to plan for redundancy in the manner of delivering messages. If phone lines are down if the email is down, you still need to communicate,” he explained.

 

Read the full article here.

On July 6, 2021, Logos President Helio Fred Garcia was featured in NYU School of Professional Studies Divisional Highlights for his teaching engagement at the 200th Military Police Command Hosts Detainee Operations Training Event (DOTE) in June.

Garcia is an adjunct associate professor in the MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication (PRCC) program within the NYU SPS Division of Programs in Business.

Garcia, one of two civilian speakers at the three day event, was invited by Senior Military Officers to share lessons learned on crisis communications with over 350 high-ranking military leaders and US Department of Defense (DoD) officials.

“I was asked to provide guidance on how not to repeat the mistakes that were made from a public relations perspective at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay, which ultimately hurt the reputation of the US around the world,” he explained. “I gave lessons from my basic crisis communication course, including the Abu Ghraib case study that I teach in the NYU SPS (PRCC) program, and it was extremely well received.”

Garcia, who has been a guest lecturer for several different branches of the military, reflected on his experience at the event.

“What is fascinating about members of the military is how open they are to a civilian perspective on how to do things better,” he noted. “The senior officers have deep life experiences, but I have yet to find one who was not eager to learn more. They are more than warriors; they are leaders.”

Read the full article here.

On July 1, 2021, Logos President Helio Fred Garcia was featured in Reputation America on crisis management strategies and steps for leaders to mitigate crises effectively.

The article excerpts a speech given by Garcia on crisis management. The article includes excerpts on how to define a crisis, types of crisis readiness, common crisis missteps, how to manage social media in a crisis, and how to ask the right questions in the right order to get through a crisis well.

“The biggest mistake is to attempt to improvise in the crisis and ask the wrong questions in the wrong order. Concern about how to deflect blame or protect one’s own job is not the best strategy in crisis communication management. Companies need to resolve the stress and be rigorous in managing crises,” said Garcia.

Read the full article here.

This is an excerpt of a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published in the May issue of PRSA’s Strategy & Tactics.

A foundational principle of any organization’s crisis response is that indifference to the situation is toxic. Leaders must show they care. This was true before COVID-19 and it will become even more essential as we recover from the pandemic, which has been the most disruptive crisis most of us have ever faced.

To be clear, the need for leaders to care during times of crisis is neither sentimental nor soft. Rather, caring is a necessary discipline for leaders — a fact made clear when we analyze the factors that build trust and reputation.

For all organizations, a common goal in every crisis is to maintain or restore the trust of stakeholders — which include investors, employees, customers, suppliers and increasingly, communities. And it’s much harder to restore trust after it’s been lost than to maintain that trust in the first place.

Trust is the natural result of promises fulfilled, expectations met and values lived. When people experience a company fulfilling its promises — whether those promises are explicit or merely implied by a brand’s identity — their trust in the organization remains or increases. When people see a brand break its promises, on the other hand, their trust in the organization falls.

Similarly, when customer expectations for a company are met, trust in the brand remains or increases. But when leaders or companies fail to meet those expectations, trust erodes.

Such expectations can be set by the company itself, through explicit or implicit promises and/or through precedents set by the organization’s past behavior. Consumer expectations also derive from laws and social mores, which change over time. Company leaders should always stay abreast of social expectations.

When it comes to the trust that rises or falls according to the values lived by a business, the company’s stated values set an expectation. When people experience a company living up to its stated values, their trust remains; conversely, when they see a company failing to live up to its stated values, their trust diminishes.

One of the disciplines of effective crisis response is to get the decision criterion — the basis of choice — right. A poorly handled crisis often results from leaders making decisions based on what scares them least. In times of crisis, leaders need to make decisions based on the tested criteria that determine trust.

 

Caring builds trust

When deciding how to respond in a crisis, leaders do well by first identifying their most important constituents and then asking themselves: What would reasonable people expect a responsible organization to do in this circumstance?

Reasonable people don’t take their cues from internet trolls or bots, from critics or adversaries or even from the news media or social media. Instead, reasonable people respond to those they trust and to those whose trust they need for themselves. Reasonable people have expectations that are appropriate to the crisis, to the harm that people have experienced and to the kind of organization that is experiencing the crisis.

A responsible company asks what reasonable people would expect it to do, which leads to the company having a fuller array of predictably helpful options.

Consider, for example, the scenario that an explosion has occurred at a factory. Reasonable people won’t expect a responsible company to immediately know what has caused the blast. Reporters will ask for an explanation and people on social media will speculate, but stakeholder trust won’t dissolve simply because the company doesn’t know the cause at the time of the explosion.

Reasonable people will expect the company to acknowledge what has happened, to work with first responders to rescue those inside the factory and to provide for the families of employees who were injured or killed.

We can inventory the specific expectations of different stakeholders — including employees and more particularly, those workers directly affected by the disaster; customers and more precisely, those who have used a certain product from a certain retailer on a certain date.

Regardless of the nature of crisis an organization faces, every interested party shares a common expectation: that the organization and its leaders will care. Customers, employees, investors and others expect leaders to care that the organization’s processes, systems or judgment have failed; that as a consequence people have been placed at risk and need to be protected; and that the company may need to make changes to prevent similar crises from occurring again.

In any crisis, what it means for leaders to care can vary according to the circumstances, but the need to care is universal. At a basic level, caring means that leaders mitigate any ongoing risk to people and help them out of the crisis.

 

Building for the future 

In the past year, half a million Americans have died from COVID-19 and 30 million others have been infected by the virus. The pandemic crashed the economy, forcing hardships on many people. Collectively, our mental health has suffered from the stress of the coronavirus outbreak, including the strain of being confined in our homes. How we work has changed, perhaps forever. At the same time, social and political divisions seem to be growing, not shrinking.

Having suffered these hardships, people are fragile, exhausted and vulnerable, even as they try to feel hopeful for the future.

Leaders should know that people need them to care, now more than ever. Some leaders might feel tempted to assume (or to hope) that everything has already returned to normal, so they can step on the accelerator for their businesses. And in non-crisis environments, that may be the case. But for leaders of organizations still recovering from the pandemic, the need for caring has only increased.

Caring requires empathy; and empathy requires humility. Leaders who have successfully guided their organizations through the pandemic have demonstrated humility within themselves and expressed empathy for others. As we move into recovery, we can follow their example.

Read full article here.

On April 28, 2021, Logos President Helio Fred Garcia was interviewed in The American Coin-Op Podcast about Coming Back from A Crisis.

Garcia discusses how crises follow predictable patterns, how much harm within a crisis is self-inflicted, and how to win back the trust and confidence of those who matter in a crisis.

Listen to full the podcast here:

 

On February 16, 2021, Logos Advisor Katie Garcia was quoted in a Carol Roth’s Business Unplugged on how small businesses can stay positive during moments of uncertainty. 2020 was a year of crisis, and as COVID-19 continues to bring uncertainty to businesses across the country, it can be challenging to stay in a positive mindset. In this article, 264 business leaders across industries shared their tips for how to stay positive in this uncertain time.

Garcia’s advice: Remember that uncertainty offers opportunity.

“Every business has struggled over the past year due to Covid-19. The ‘new normal’ post-pandemic is still out of sight for most of us. To stay positive amidst these ever-changing circumstances, remember that there is opportunity in moments of uncertainty,” she explained. “There is an opportunity to reimagine what is possible, for your business and your industry. There is an opportunity to innovate, to explore new ways to grow and to serve those who matter most to your business and industry.”

Read the full article here.

On February 9, 2021, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia was interviewed by MarketScale about the decision for Boeing’s 737 MAX to return to service for commercial flights. Garcia was interviewed alongside Ludovic Chung-Sao, Founder of ZenSoundproof and former certification engineer for 737 Max engines, about the various aspects of the aircraft’s return to the sky years after the two tragic plane crashed that sent Boeing into a multiple-year long crisis.

During the interview, Garcia described how Boeing ended up in a crisis over the 737 MAX. “The foundational principle of maintaining trust in a crisis is to show you care quickly, and Boeing was singularly unable to show that it cared,” he explained. But he also noted another way in which Boeing fumbled in their crisis response was in the company’s insistence that the planes were safe, followed by ‘But don’t worry, we have a software fix coming.’ This mixed message was confusing, and led people to not trust Boeing’s reassurances. Part of Boeing’s challenges, as Garcia explained, was that Boeing was that the company didn’t appreciate the user experience of the pilots of the plan. The lesson: “In a crisis, you must not think like an engineer, but think like the user of your product or technology.”

Click here to watch the full interview.

On February 8, 2021, Helio Fred Garcia spoke with Bill Sherman on his podcast, Leveraging Thought Leadership. During their conversation, Garcia described some of the drivers for trust in the crisis, how he fell into thought leadership, how translates complex ideas for a common understanding, the influence of philosophy on his life and career, and his advice on how people can become thought leaders.

Listen to the full exchange below: