Garcia’s closing message: “Words have power.”
Watch the full interview here:
Garcia’s closing message: “Words have power.”
Watch 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
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. 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.” 
Exhibit 1: Effective vs Ineffective Crisis response
Source: Knight and Pretty (1997)
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.
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.
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.’
 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.
 Knight, R.F. and Pretty, D.J., ibid., p. 7.
‘‘Time for Exxon to pay,’’ Editorial, The New York Times, January 30, 2004, p. A24.
A version of this post appeared in CommPro.biz.
Last week Cornell University’s Alliance for Science published the first comprehensive study of coronavirus misinformation in the media, and concluded that President Trump is likely the largest driver of the such misinformation.
In any other administration this would have led the news for at least a week.
But the report came five days after President Donald J. Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. It came four days after publication of a massive New York Times investigation that revealed that President Trump paid no federal income taxes for years. It came just two days after the debate debacle in which the President refused to condemn white supremacy and seemed to endorse the Proud Boys. And it came just hours before the news that the President and First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.
I wish the President and the First Lady a speedy and complete recovery.
But it is important that this news not be lost, and that the President be held accountable for the consequences of his words, actions, and inaction.
I am a professor of ethics, leadership, and communication at Columbia University and New York University. This summer my book about Trump’s language and how it inspires violence was published. I finished writing Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It in February. But since then the effect of Trump’s language has been even more dangerous.
In the book, I document how charismatic leaders use language in ways that set a powerful context that determines what makes sense to their followers. Such leaders can make their followers believe absurdities, which then can make atrocities possible. If COVID-19 is a hoax, if it will magically disappear, if it affects only the elderly with heart problems, then it makes sense for people to gather in large crowds without social distancing or masks.
There’s just one problem. None of that is true. But Trump said all those things. And his followers believed him. And the President and his political allies refused to implement policies to protect their citizens.
As I write this, 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and the President is being treated for it at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.
But it didn’t have to happen. 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 in March, and had maintained a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of fatalities could have been avoided.
Trump knew about the severity of the virus in February and March.
In taped discussions Trump told Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward what he knew about how dangerous COVID-19 is:
But he was telling the nation the opposite.
President Trump likes to label anything he doesn’t agree with Fake News. But it turns out that he’s the largest disseminator of misinformation about Coronavirus.
Cornell University’s Alliance for Science analyzed 38 million pieces of content published in English worldwide between January 1 and May 26, 2020. It identified 1.1 million news articles that “disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation related to the pandemic.”
On October 1, 2020 the Alliance published its report. It notes,
“These findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.”
“One major finding is that media mentions of President Trump within the context of different misinformation topics made up 37% of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ much more than any other single topic.
The study concludes that Donald Trump was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’
In contrast only 16% of media mentions of misinformation were explicitly ‘fact-checking’ in nature, suggesting that a substantial quantity of misinformation reaches media consumers without being challenged or accompanied by factually accurate information.”
But Trump may be responsible for more than the 37% of the news stories that name him. The report says that
” a substantial proportion of other topics was also driven by the president’s comments [but did not explicitly name him], so some overlap can be expected.
The most prevalent misinformation was about miracle cures. More than 295,000 stories mentioned some version of a miracle cure. (Note that the study looked only at stories that were published before the end of May, long before the president’s statements about a vaccine being ready by the end of October.)
The report notes that Trump prompted a surge of miracle cure stories when he spoke of using disinfectants internally and advocated taking hydroxychloroquine.
The second most prevalent topic, mentioned in nearly 50,000 stories, was that COVID had something to do with the “deep state.” The report notes,
“Mentions of conspiracies linked to alleged secret “new world orders” or ‘deep state’ government bodies existed throughout the time period and were referenced in passing in conversations that mentioned or listed widespread conspiracies. Indeed, President Trump joked about the US State Department being a ‘Deep State’ Department during a White House COVID press conference in March.”
The third most prevalent misinformation was about COVID-19 being a Democratic hoax, mentioned in more than 40,000 stories.
The report closes with a warning: Misinformation has consequences:
“It is especially notable that while misinformation and conspiracy theories promulgated by ostensibly grassroots sources… do appear in our analysis in several of the topics, they contributed far less to the overall volume of misinformation than more powerful actors, in particular the US President.
In previous pandemics, such as the HIV/AIDS outbreak, misinformation and its effect on policy was estimated to have led to an additional 300,000 deaths in South Africa alone.
If similar or worse outcomes are to be avoided in the present COVID-19 pandemic, greater efforts will need to be made to combat the “infodemic” that is already substantially polluting the wider media discourse.”
In my book, I help engaged citizens, civic leaders, and public officials recognize dangerous language and then confront those who use it. I urge such citizens and leaders to hold those who use such language responsible for the consequences.
I wish President Trump a full and fast recovery. He and those closest to him have now been affected by their own denial of science. I hope that now he can start to model appropriate safe behavior.
But even as Trump is being treated in the hospital his campaign says it will stay the course, including an in-person rally for Vice President Mike Pence the day after the vice-presidential debate in several days. This is both irresponsible and dangerous.
I urge civic leaders, engaged citizens, and public officials, regardless of party, to stop having super-spreader events such as in-person rallies. And finally to begin modeling responsible behavior: Wear a mask, maintain social distancing. Masking and distancing are not political acts; they are a civic responsibility.
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.
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:
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.
“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 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.”
“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.