Tim Cook, Ted Bishop, the invisible Ebola czar and other random thoughts

Lots going on in our world of crisis communication, but as I’ve been busting it getting a big project done for a client (series of 18 training videos on global crisis communication), I haven’t had much time to comment, let alone think about some of these things.

Ted Bishop, former president of PGA. He was stripped of his job, his title and all the privileges (considerable) of being a former president of the Professional Golf Association. He must have really, really screwed up. Well, yeah. He tweeted a somewhat thoughtless comment. Jumping into the post Ryder Cup discussion, he derided Brit golfer Ian Poulter who derided commentator Nick Faldo who had criticized Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia. What was his so highly offensive tweet? He called Poulter a “lil girl.” Ouch!

Obviously a good lesson here: think before you tweet. Another lesson: outgoing presidents probably shouldn’t tweet at all. Another lesson: opinions of any kind need to withstand the ire of the lowest common denominator hyper-sensitive among us. What do I think of this? This is a microcosm of what is happening in our world–and I find it disgusting. The level of what is acceptable and unacceptable is getting so ridiculously low (except for rude, lewd, and nasty language which seems to be almost universally acceptable) such that freedom of expression is being killed in the court of public opinion. Should he have said it? Probably not. Did the PGA–and the media who are all over this as indication of the “diversity problem” in the PGA–over react? Well, you know my opinion by now.

Tim Cook? Big headlines, all over the news, Mr. Cook comes out of the closet. Nieman Labs is among those saying what a glorious moment this is in journalistic history. Yet, they raise an important point. Wasn’t this known a long time ago? I doubt that Cook’s coming out was a big surprise to most in the tech world. And for that matter, most of the Apple community. Which brings up the point, when is news news? Apparently only when the major news media decide its news. Not really. This was non-news as well known as it was and yet there are so many pretending that it is news. Which means of course, that while a great many leaders still think about PR as “managing the media” there is very little management left. The conversation about Cook and what it means for the CEO of one of the most important and powerful companies in the world to be gay has been going on for a long time. It’s nice to have Mr. Cook join the conversation finally.

The Ebola “czar” and bungled crisis communication. Had a chance to discuss this briefly with my friend and social media expert Patrice Cloutier. Patrice, Bill Boyd and I collaborated on a project a couple of years ago with a major municipal public health agency helping them train staff and operationalize social media monitoring.

Now the media stories are filled with how confusing and contradictory the various messages about Ebola are. Well, of course, the media’s got to write something that will get people fired up. But, they are making an important point. When the fears first started hitting the US, particularly with Dallas, the CDC’s Tom Frieden was the face of the CDC and de facto face of the federal government and the health community. Yes, there were some glitches, but overall he was effective and we knew where we could go with the best available information.

Here comes this administration, obviously feeling the pressure. Like he did in the gulf oil spill, Obama took control of communications and since then it has gone to heck. Like it did in the spill. He dismantled the Joint Information Center operation, put twenty-something White House operatives in charge of communications and required that the several hundred highly experienced communication experts sit around while the WH had to approve and politicize all the information coming out of the spill. How do I know? I was there. While he used every opportunity he could to kick BP’s “behind,” it became clear that while the government was posturing, it was up to the company and its experts to put an end to the endless gushing. Did public trust in government go up as a result? No, and just when it was most needed.

The CDC is the nation’s best resource in a situation like this. He stripped them of their voice and credibility just when it was most needed. (I almost laughed out loud when I saw that CDC announced a rapid reaction team and the next day the news report that said Obama ordered the CDC to put in place a rapid reaction team. Shades of the spill communications all over again (remember the ridiculous posturing around dispersants?)

So he does he have for the face of Ebola? An appartchik as someone has said. Admittedly, Ron Klain is not twenty-something, but what are his credentials compared to a Dr. Frieden, or almost anyone from the CDC? And, where the heck is he? For being asked to be the face it seems all anyone has seen is his backside. As Krauthammer said, he is in self-quarantine.

Ok, I’m being curmudgeonly and overly harsh. I’m sure the PGA, journalists covering the Cook story, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Klain are all doing their very best. But, we have to take our lessons where we can.

And today’s lessons:

1. Come on people, let’s not overreact to one little questionable comment on Twitter and ruin a guys life over it.

2. Be careful what you tweet–don’t call big time golfers lil girls.

3. We live in a hypersensitive environment, one in which there are a great many who stand to gain from fanning the tiniest spark into a giant firestorm. (Makes you want to just buy a small farm and move out into the country, doesn’t it?)

4. In a crisis, especially a crisis characterized by irrational fears fanned by the flames of media trying to buy eyes, a calm, consistent, credible voice and message are essential. (And Mr. President, it doesn’t have to be you in every case.) If I get one wish from this is that the CDC and not the White House communications operation, will once again become the voice of best available information on Ebola and any future health crisis.

The $25 billion (probably) avoidable crisis

Like most crisis observers (pundits) I didn’t really think of the PIMCO problem as a crisis. I was a little more interested in its affect on my portfolio. But the financial services firm has seen an outflow of investor dollars of $25 billion since the crisis hit in September.

What would cause investors to pull $25 billion in invested funds? Would seem a cataclysmic event. Indeed, it was. PIMCO founder and investment manager Bill Gross left to join a competitive firm, Janus. Since then, the fund Gross is now managing jumped $66 million in September.

PIMCO is clearly fighting for its life with new announcements daily of major investors pulling out. This is a crisis.

The key questions are: what caused it and could it have been avoided. Knowing as I do that the way things look inside is always a lot different from outside, I should hesitate to jump in. But, I haven’t before.

The crisis was caused by Bill Gross leaving. It could have been avoided by:

1) keeping him from leaving

2) keeping him (or any other single individual) from building an individual brand and reputation separate from the organization brand and reputation

3) managing the departure better

After reading the Wall Street Journal report detailing his departure it is very clear that him leaving was no great surprise. He apparently isn’t the nicest man in the world, or his co-workers didn’t have the awe and respect for him that investors apparently do. So if things were going sour, how could it possibly be that he left with so little preparation and with such devastating results?

There are so many powerful lessons in this event that I’m sure there will be books coming out. As crisis pundits we tend to look at the cyber breaches, the active shooter incidents, even tornadoes and earthquakes to prepare for. In the world most of our clients live in, things like key people leaving are real world crises that cause worry and possibly devastating results. I know I am learning from this to include key departures on almost any list of risks to evaluate and prioritize. One of the greatest benefits of risk analysis and prioritization is to say: if this thing could kill us, what are we doing today to make sure it doesn’t happen. Good crisis preparation results in best crisis prevention.

So, have a look right now. Do you have superstars in your organization? The key question is–where do the essential relationships lie? For PIMCO, it was clear they were with Mr. Gross–and that meant the entire organization was very vulnerable. Steps can be taken right now to 1) make sure the superstars stay 2) spread the key relationships around other leaders 3) if a superstar is getting antsy, don’t wait until he/she jumps ship to try to rescue the relationships. Attack their antsyness, or prepare your customers right now for their potential departure.