I look back and see moments in time where some of the most powerful lessons of crisis communication have been registered:
Tylenol recall by Johnson and Johnson–lesson–be proactive and show you care more about your customers than your bottom line
US Air flight ditching in the Hudson–the power of Twitter and smart phone pics to tell a story quickly
Virginia Tech–the need to warn those in your care of imminent danger using current technology
Arthur Andersen–what happens when you let the lawyers run your crisis communication operation (you win in court and lose the company)
Now there is a new one to add and one of the most powerful and important crisis communication lessons ever:
Penn State–what happens when you are institutionally blind to a problem and hope that it goes away.
In retrospect it is hard to understand that the blindness and moral ineptitude exhibited by Paterno and the university leaders in the Sandusky case could have been so pervasive in a great university. As this Wall Street Journal article asks, why would not even the janitors who witnessed the crimes against the vulnerable not step forward?
Many are asking, as a friend of mine did in prompting this blog, would it have made a difference if a woman was in the halls of power? An intriguing and important question. But my sense is that the overriding commitment to football and football success would have eliminated almost anyone from sharing that power unless that shared that commitment. That is a great strength of an organization like Penn State or Apple, where certain values are shared with an almost religious conviction. But, as we have seen, there is great danger in that.
There are really two terribly important lessons from this great American tragedy (I can see the movies now). One is the potential for this kind of institutional blindness that enables presumably good people to look past unimaginable horrors because of what they consider “the greater good.” This is the story of so much evil, not just Penn State. So many good German soldiers, for example, participated in things they knew to be wrong for the greater good of the Fatherland. Nazism and Hitlerism are easy marks. There are a great many examples closer to home. The scariest people on earth to me, whether they be on the far right or the far left, are those who are so convinced of the goodness, rightness or moral purpose of their cause that they feel it justifies anything to support it–including killing, torture or, in this case, turning a blind eye to the destruction of innocent young lives.
The other lesson is even more obvious. We in crisis communication keep saying: if you have bad news, be the one to bring it forward. If you don’t, credibility and trust will be damaged or destroyed, perhaps unalterably. So much better for you to tell the world what you have done wrong, or your organization, than to wait for a reporter, a whistle blower, a competitor or activist. That is primarily the lesson of Penn State that will be used in board rooms and C-suite offices for many years to come. And that is a great benefit to those concerned about building trust.
The conversation goes like this:
CEO or Corporate Attorney: We absolutely can’t say anything about this, it will destroy us.
PR person: But we have to, because it is all but certain to come out and when it does from someone else it will appear that we have been hiding it.
CEO/Atty: You said, “all but certain,” that means there’s a chance it won’t. Why create a problem that doesn’t exist and may not?
PR: Because if it does come out, the problem will be many times worse.
CEO/Atty: Yeah but, it may not come out.
PR: OK, hide it, It’s your funeral.
PR: You’re right, we could ignore and maybe it will go away. But look at Penn State. Will the end of your wonderful career be written like that of Joe Paterno?
CEO: You’re right. Call the Wall Street Journal.)
POSTSCRIPT: Just saw this excellent post by Richard Levick, one of the tops in this business, on Fast Company.