Penn State scandal gives us yet another Lesson in Crisis Management: the need to frame and characterize a crisis
In a crisis, it is very important to characterize and frame the incident, or someone else will. Indeed, every @tom, @dick and @ harry has the means to do so, and most likely will, particularly if they have had something to do with your organization.
Yet again, the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal has provided timely reminders for crisis management.
This week, Joe Paterno’s family vowed its own investigation of the Sandusky scandal rejecting the findings of the 267- page report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who was hired by the university’s board of trustees.
As reported by The Associated Press , the family characterized the report as “yet another shocking turn of events in this crisis.”
Whether we agree with that characterization is almost immaterial. What is important is that the Paterno family was quick to offer their framing, and The Associated Press report was widely and quickly disseminated around the world.
Charismatic, courageous and competent leaders and spokespeople also understand this imperative. Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks and Anna Bligh, the Premier of Queensland, Australia at the time of the state’s devastating floods in 2011 are but two examples of leaders who got the framing right.
Giuliani was consistently asked what the numbers (of causalities, deaths) could be. Unlike BP, who offered specific numbers and basically lied about the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, he offered this frame “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately.”
In another part of the world, reacting to the floods that had devastated her state, the former leader said “As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are. We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border.”
Her “we are Queenslanders” statement was widely quoted, not only in Australia but around the world. It became the characterization for the floods.
Bligh and Giuliani got it right. They understood the power and necessity for framing; as opposed to the BP framing courtesy of some ill-considered words from Tony Hayward “I want my life back.” Sadly, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be forever characterized by those five words.
The bottom line is this – if you fail to characterize the crisis quickly, someone else will and it is most likely to be a frame that you won’t like.
And Fallout is exactly what Stage Four of a Crisis is all about. As I write in the book (see Chapter 11, page 75) this is the stage that typically marks the end of the crisis; there is some resolution. Often, as in the case of Penn State, the stage is marked by an inquiry of some kind.
The Penn State sex-abuse scandal has absolutely typified Stage Four. The fallout is as varied as it is widespread:
The other big reminder, courtesy of the Penn State crisis, is that Stage Four will also be reported in the context of what first happened as seen in the July 13 edition of the Wall Street Journal : “commissioned by university trustees after allegations surfaced about abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.” So be prepared and fore-warned - know what context your crisis will be reported in. It will always be the last big thing that happened (unfortunately for Penn State, they will be last BIG thing for many other universities and other sex-abuse scandals) and the NEXT big thing that will happen.
Here are some considerations for what to do in stage four:
The role of the apology in a crisis is a vexed issue for crisis management. Who should, when, and what should be said has been not only hotly debated but filled many a research paper.
The (former) Captain of the ill-fated Concordia offers some lessons on what not to do!
Not only did he take a very long time to apologize (try six months! Makes Exxon Valdez’s slow response time look good!) But he did in such a way that made the apology meaningless.
He may as well have slapped the victims on the face.
The Italian cruise ship struck rocks and capsized near the island of Giglio, off the coast of Tuscany in January this year. Captain Francesco Schettino very quickly abandoned his sinking ship. He has been under house arrest but that sentence was lifted this week.
Interviewed on Italian television this week, Schettino said that he thought constantly about the victims. According to a report on the BBC, he said that “he was sorry for the disaster.” Then promptly went on to say that others should also “share the blame,” saying the ship had been under the command of another officer at the time. Really!
This is what he said:
“When there’s an accident, it is not just the ship that is identified or the company, the captain is identified and so it’s normal that I should apologize as a representative of this system.” Does that sound sincere? I think not.
So what should be said by whom and when in a crisis?
1. If an apology is called for, it does need to be the CEO (or equivalent)
2. The golden rule is that an apology if the organization is culpable MUST be done swiftly – within the day, ideally sooner. Some of my esteemed colleagues would say within 15 minutes! Now that is fast and one may not have all the facts.
3. The head and the heart MUST come together in a crisis – sincerity, transparency, humble, as opposed to be seen to saying the right thing and not meaning it.
4. Unless it is genuine and from the heart, an apology really is a waste of time – you may gain some traction in the press with the headlines shouting “I’m Sorry” (think Tiger Woods), but you may also be castigated for your insincerity
5. Take a leaf from Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Foods, the Canadian-based food manufacturer, whose product was linked to the death of 12 people in 2008 – his apology is almost textbook perfect.