It is like a slowly simmering pot, ready to boil over at any moment, this Occupy Wall Street enigma. It seems to defy any analyst explanation and those who do try to interpret the meaning of the protest agree on only one thing: there is no simple, coherent message coming from the thousands who continue to gather in major cities around the world.
Anger and frustration without a clearly defined rationale has its own message. It is deeper, more sustained, and potentially more dangerous than the anger caused by a clearly defined offense. That is one thing that is concerning to me about this protest. It has more in common with anger of Germans in the 1930s and the anger of the youth of Paris a few years ago, than it does the anger of the protesters of my generation in the late 60s and early 70s. The fact that it simmers adds to the concern.
There is a connection here to the issues of crisis management and crisis communication. One thing I have been talking about for years is the growing animosity to any person or organization with a profit motive as well as any person or organization that is perceived to have substantial power. I don’t know exactly where this animosity comes from. I do think our education system has failed to instruct the last couple of generations about the realities of economics, about the value of free markets, about the role of entrepreneurs and innovators in creating the incredibly wealthy and comfortable world many of us live in. I also think the media has much to account for in creating attitudes that see nearly every business executive as evil. But certainly, those caught in major scandals such as Worldcom and Enron also carry a high responsibility for the growth in animosity against the business world. Hollywood seldom treats executives or the powerful very sympathetically–the latest to highlight the villains is Margin Call based on the financial misdeeds that are blamed for our current economic malaise. The timing for this film couldn’t be better since it is the Wall Street villains who seem to be a primary focus of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
The problem that this raises in crisis management is the mistaken belief of many leaders that they start a crisis at ground zero. They think their job is to protect the good reputation they have and not allow the crisis to weaken it. They think the audiences that matter are reasonably objective and have some degree of willingness to see the company’s point of view and give some credence to all the good things they are doing. The fact is that almost any major company or organization or government entity starts from a deep hole when they enter a crisis. Some, of course, more than others.
For example, if you are a major oil company and you have a big spill, you should recognize that you enter a public environment with exceptionally high negative scores on the trust meter. You have very little credibility. A high percentage of the audience already believes what the media will quickly and inevitably conclude: that you put profits above people. Does this make a difference in what you say, how you say it, and what your actions are? It sure as heck should, but most recent events demonstrate that this is not really understood or accepted.
This does not just apply to oil companies. Again, almost any for-profit entity is painted with this brush, the fear and loathing of the powerful extends to almost every major organization and government entity. If you have any question about the facts about this I suggest you carefully review one of the many studies being done today about the decline of public trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer remains one of the best.
When I look at the young people continuing to gather in major cities around the world, I see this simmering anger. I am concerned about what this means for our world because if the economic conditions continue to deteriorate, this anger and frustration will only grow. I am sickened and disheartened by those politicians of the populist bent, including some very high placed, who are playing and will play to this crowd, further intensifying the fault finding against those who are in business. Of course, many in the media (especially Hollywood) will see opportunity to continue to play up the villains that this over-simplified melodrama performance requires.
CEOs and senior executives who are concerned about their reputations–their own and their companies–should look at the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon for what it means for their next crisis. The anger is simmering. Try real hard not to be the next target. But, if despite your best efforts you find yourself the target of this simmering anger, understand that you are but a symbol of the evil that many have come to see in the world of business and power. You must approach this crowd and this situation with more humility than you ever thought would be necessary. And you had better be prepared to borrow others’ credibility sooner than later as yours will be limited at best.