Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News and the lead executive during the Dan Rather fiasco, commented in a PRSA article about what he learned from the crisis. His comments should be posted on the wall of every CEO:
In the frenzy that erupted, you, along with many of your colleagues at CBS, found yourself in the media’s crosshairs. How did you deal with being part of this media onslaught? What can PR professionals learn from your experiences?
Heyward: First of all, I think we handled the aftermath poorly and exacerbated the problem. There are lots of lessons there for PR professionals. In retrospect, they seem so obvious: Be quick to recognize not only that there is a problem but also the magnitude of the problem; be quick to address it, not only with the outside world but also with your own colleagues; and be open-minded about what your critics are saying. At the beginning, it might have been a commendable instinct to stand by your colleagues, [but] loyalty . . . should have been balanced more effectively and quickly with the responsibility to get to the bottom of the criticism and find out what had really happened and whether we had, in fact, fallen short in our reporting — which we had. That took way too long, and that was partly because we were too busy fending off attacks and had placed too much faith in colleagues based on their track records as opposed to the evidence that was before us.
If we had found out what happened and disavowed the parts of the report that we eventually disavowed — if we had done that faster, and if we had said right away, “Look, we believe in the story or we wouldn’t have put it on. We believe in our vetting procedures or we wouldn’t have put it on, but these are important questions that are being raised and we’re going to immediately get to the bottom of them and find out what happened.” If we had done that instead of circling the wagons, this would’ve been less of a controversy and less of a tragedy than it ultimately turned out to be. So, those are certainly mistakes I’ll never make again.
The first instinct when caught in a bad situation is to circle the wagons. You know all the good you have done. You know how hard you and your people try. You know how much some of your enemies would like to get you and how they are working right now to take advantage of this unforseen vulnerability. All of this can easily lead to a reluctance to accept the responsibility that is so obvious. Get out of the bunker. Get real about the situation. Accept responsibility. Ask for forgiveness. Tell what you have learned. Commit to do better. And then get on with things.