A few years back a former press aide in the White House told me every day in the communication office was a crisis. But these days, the crisis management activity has to be a bit higher than normal. While I approach this political topic with fear and trepidation it is arguably the biggest crisis communication exercise going on today and I think it has some lessons for those who study how crises are handled.
So, here goes.
1. How individuals or groups respond to a brand or organization depends on their starting point.
I’ve heard from both sides on the Obama crises. One friend said he was the most maligned president in history, maligned by the press. Others, of a more Fox News bent, simply have a happy face when talking about these latest issues. That is very important from a crisis management standpoint. How you or your organization fare in a crisis depends largely about the reputation equity you currently have. Are you in an industry (like Big Oil) that is generally distrusted and disliked? Then that is going to bear greatly on the reaction to a spill. Have you had a series of high profile difficulties that undermined trust? That is going to play a big role. Or, do you have years of solid relationship building with key stakeholders with many who trust and respect you? The recent ExxonMobil spill in Arkansas resulted in people on the street waving placards. But, as one nearly unbelieving reporter told me, these were people supporting ExxonMobil. How could that be? I told him it was probably due to a good job the company did in communicating and building support in the community for a long time. Reputation equity in the bank can pay big dividends when it is needed most. This is Obama’s greatest hope–he has a vast constituency of strong supporters who give him the benefit of the doubt in nearly every situation. It will take a lot to erode that and from that perspective he is innocent of involvement in these activities and is being persecuted by political enemies and an unfair media.
2. Classic crisis management activity in play.
There are lots of examples of how the administration’s communication team is playing the various situations–Benghazi, AP records seizure and the IRS targeting of conservative groups. The IRS case is potentially most damaging if it were to be linked to the administration. So here there is a case of outrage, separation from any responsibility, sacking of those involved and promises to make sure this can’t happen again. The other issues seem to be less in play and that too seems strategic in that the farther they appear from White House the better. Keep the Benghazi problem in Clinton’s State Department and the AP issue in the Justice Department. But, there are problems with this…
3. Guilt by culture
It is one thing for a CEO to say “I had no idea such egregious behavior was going on,” another thing to successfully avoid any blame. So here is the real problem with these crises. I doubt very much that anyone will find any evidence linking approval of these problems directly to the White House. That does not make the White House innocent of them. There is the issue of course, that these are the people on their team and they were the ones who vetted them for wisdom and judgment. But there is something deeper and that has to do with culture. I’ve been around DC enough to see that people in high administrative positions have one thing on their mind: how do I keep my job? And the answer to that by keeping to what the boss or bosses or ultimate boss would want me to do. Their judgement if the values, priorities, decisions of the highest leaders determine their ideas of what is right and wrong in various circumstances. Here is where my bias comes in. I was involved in the Gulf oil spill communications and had a near front row seat watching this administration take charge of all communications relating to the spill. They kicked BP out of any communication role, put twenty-somethings in command authority over the seasoned communication professionals because those twenty-somethings had the direct connection to the White House. They firmly implemented firm orders to not allow any communication to go out without White House approval and then embargoed it for an hour after approval to allow them to control the message. Summarily fired a seasoned government communicator for telling the truth to the media as to who was in control of media access issues–he told the press it was the White House, but the story they wanted was that BP was controlling. That was my limited exposure to the culture. Add one more thing. In talking to some high level government officials I was told that no administration they had seen before (going back to Bush I) was anywhere near as micromanaging as this one–particularly as it related to controlling the message. Admittedly, this is scant evidence and only my personal experience. But if it is the case, then these three seemingly unrelated problems are endemic, part of the culture, and the actions taken with higher levels of acceptance than is being presented. If that is the case, we are seeing the beginning of a very significant problem for this administration.
The more important lesson (if I am right and I hope I am not), is that culture matters. The tone set at the highest levels are interpreted throughout the organization and used as a basis for making decisions at that level as to what is acceptable or not. A recent discussion about crisis communication raised the question about the most important thing in crisis management. I and others replied: character. Character at the top determines culture and culture influences (does not control) the actions of nearly everyone in the organization. That is the most important lesson of all.