Crisis Management, Leadership

In Times of Crisis

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Governor Mark Sanford and Chief of Staff, Scott English going to a Cabinet Meeting, June 2009

In the world of politics, one of the most overused words is “crisis.” Many times, it’s applied to internal meltdowns that mean relatively little to people outside of that circle, or when an event creates a public outrage. Politics is largely driven by narratives – my own posts reflect the use of dramatic moments to illustrate points or reveal lessons learned. Unfortunately, like a good fish tale, “political crises” can get polished over time – especially when the narrator becomes the hero of a story, not just a participant.

Ask any political operative about a crisis and they’ll give you the wisdom of John Kennedy, who once said, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.” It’s a very potent line that illustrates the duality of crisis in leadership. The problem? Kennedy was dead wrong about the interpretation. Chinese linguists have debunked this popular belief for over five decades, but they can’t compete with Camelot.

Churchill QuoteAnother classic quote comes from Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This is a wink and nod to operatives.  When a crisis arises, use it to make a political point – or better yet – leverage it to build up a cause or candidate. Here’s a better quote: “If you want something to sound clever, tell ’em I said it.” – Winston Churchill. Neither quote is real, but both fall into the “true enough” category. Worse, the quote shifts the focus from the people in need to politics.

The best quote on the topic is both accurate and relevant: “In the midst of a crisis, solve the crisis.” I know it’s accurate because I said it myself, and it’s my First Rule of Crisis Management. One of the failings of modern political leadership is forgetting you serve the people first and your own interest second. Too often, we see opportunism or paralysis instead of solutions. Fortunately, most of the so-called crises are self-inflicted political wounds that kill careers and not people. I’ll talk about those separately, but for now, let’s look at actual crisis. I have some rules that have served me well over the years.

Rules of Crisis Management

  1. In the midst of a crisis, solve the crisis. Think of this as another variation of “stop the bleeding.” There are several roads people take here: try to find someone to blame, hide their own responsibility, or seek opportunity. Ironically, political careers are never made this way, but the temptation has never subsided. Taking the wrong path here can actually make matters worse by distracting the very people needed to end a crisis or inflaming the public further.
  2. Define the crisis. There are two types of crises: threats to health and safety and threats to economic viability. What’s more important is understanding the impact on the public. Some threats are incredibly localized, while others can go state- or even nationwide. When balancing the needs of a larger population, localized threats are a big deal in the affected community but might mean almost nothing to anyone else. Before acting, be sure you and others understand the nature of the threat posed.
  3. Bring calm and purpose. Times of crisis understandably elicit emotion from the public, largely because they feel helpless. In 2005, following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a pipeline rupture in the Gulf Coast created a gas shortage in the Southeast, sending gas prices soaring. To prevent hoarding or public safety threats, in the South Carolina Governor’s Office, we provided regular tips to help citizens manage resources through the crisis. In short, everyone can navigate through disruptions, but it’s your job to educate them on how best to do so.
  4. Communicate, communicate, and after that, try communicating. Misinformation loves a vacuum. If you aren’t providing information regularly to the public, idle speculation will fill the space. When that happens, you’re no longer battling a crisis, you’re battling public perception. This is where credibility in leadership dies. It is essential that information and action are communicated regularly to the public – this is especially true for threats to health and public safety when events change almost constantly.
  5. Relax, accountability will happen. There is no greater temptation than to demand someone’s head – almost immediately – but this does little to actually fix the problem or establish calm. Resist the temptation. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, editorial standards sometimes give way to the “scoop.” Getting to the root of the problem is basically piecing a puzzle together and shouldn’t be rushed. This is truer in the social media age as information travels at light speed. Gathering the facts should be deliberate so that accountability is real, and you’re able to avoid repeating the same mistake twice.
  6. Mind the VIPs. It’s critically important to engage the local leadership in the midst of a crisis. Not only are they able to bring resources to the table, but they’re also influencers in the community. It’s difficult, from their perspective, to understand the scale and scope of the threat because they serve a different constituency. In many cases, the crisis affects their entire community, and they need to be a part of the solution. Aside from being the right thing to do, taking this step helps the crisis manager build better relations with the VIP and within the community.

Bad things happen, what you do next matters most. It’s absolutely critical that solving the problem is your first objective, and that this is clear to those affected. Don’t plan photo-ops that disrupt efforts to address critical needs or are transparent attempts to pander to the public while doing nothing. Ultimately, people need leadership when there is a crisis, and failure to deliver is almost certain to end a political career.

 

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