Today is our 40th wedding anniversary, so naturally it leads to me to think about what love, marriage and life together has to do with crisis communication. A lot I think. And not just because there are plenty of crises in any marriage and communication or the lack of it is often the major cause of such crises.
Though some dispute the statistics, about half of marriages don’t survive–which makes 40 years very much worth celebrating. I’m going to suggest that the primary reasons why some do are very applicable to crisis communication, and for that matter any relationship.
Crisis communication, despite what too many think, is primarily about relationships. The all-important relationships between your company and organization and its most important stakeholders. Trust and respect are key elements of that relationship. What customer will stick with a company, what investor will maintain investment, what donor will contribute, what employee will eagerly produce without those two critical ingredients. Crises are crises mostly because they threaten the trust and respect that the important relationships hold in the leaders and the organization. That’s why whether or not an organization survives a crisis is primarily based how key stakeholders view the character of the leaders–are they worthy of continued trust and respect?
So what creates and maintains trust and respect? I’m going to suggest two things that also result in long, healthy marriages: love and commitment.
Let’s start with commitment. When you enter a marriage, particularly at a young age (we married when we were both 21) you have no idea what the future holds. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Or, in the thoughts of so many, until we grow apart, until we no longer share similar passions, until one or both of us get ugly, until we find our “soul mate.” There are so many reasons to question our promise of commitment–what were we thinking?! But, given the many challenges to a lifetime of togetherness commitment is essential. I’m grateful to our strong faith background and our absolute belief that we are held accountable to our Maker for the promise we made and to the sacred nature of this relationship–because that is a bedrock for us of that commitment.
There is no such absolute, unchangeable, unbreakable bond in a business relationship. But, commitment still matters. Every customer, every supplier, every employer, everyone who enters into a relationship with you, your company, your organization has a question not far below the surface: how committed are they to me? Will they stick by me when the going gets tough? Am I just a dime a dozen as it seems so many believe? Am I as a customer interchangeable with a million others? If that is what those in a high-value relationship to your organization believe, loyalty will be limited and the damage from any crisis will likely be permanent and lasting. There are so many ways to demonstrate commitment in a crisis (as well as in day to day operations); in fact, crises provide some of the best opportunities to demonstrate commitment. In the midst of a crisis, leaders of the organization should continually ask themselves: “Is this action I am taking or the message I am sending going to be understood as rock solid commitment to those important to us?”
The second critical element of trust and respect is love. I am a very fortunate man. My wife is not only stunningly beautiful–even more so with the grace only years of living and loving can give, she is also intelligent, incredibly gracious and friendly, and a lover of all things beautiful. (In other words, so unlike me in so many ways!) Despite my great fortune–and great wisdom–in choosing whom to marry, there are times when love is more than just the outpouring of a hormone-charged heart or a grateful soul. There are times when love means sacrifice–self sacrifice. One of the greatest, and most difficult teachings of my faith is that the Leader of our movement sacrificed himself for his followers and we are charged to do no less as marriage is taught as a model of the relationship between our Leader and his followers. Dying to self is a message at most faith-based marriages, but one that seems lost today on most in the audience and far too often among those saying their vows as well. Understandably–our very lives and culture rebel against the idea that I should give up what is important to me to the sake of someone else, even if that someone else is as close to me as my heart.
But let me give you an example of what I mean about self-sacrificing love in crisis communication. Ask almost anyone for the best stories of crisis management and the Tylenol crisis of 1982 with Johnson and Johnson will certainly be near the top of the list. Despite the fact that the seven people who died were victims of an unknown person who contaminated Tylenol capsules after they left the factory, Johnson and Johnson halted production, recalled all 31 million bottles of Tylenol in distribution (valued at $100 million) and advertised nationally to prevent anyone from consuming any acetaminophen until they were assured of safety. In other words, Tylenol took very aggressive action, at incredible cost to themselves, to protect the public despite having no part in the cause of the deaths themselves.
What is seldom discussed is how this very commendable reaction by Johnson and Johnson came about. According to a study of crisis communication out of Oxford in the early 1990s, prior to 1982 Tylenol was contaminated but by a worker in a Johnson and Johnson factory. While I do not believe there were deaths involved, it became clear that the company was ill-prepared to deal with such an eventuality, so they put in place a detailed recall and public communication plan to deal with a factory contamination crisis. This was the plan they implemented in 1982 when the contamination was not their fault. They behaved in their actions as if it was their fault, assuming all the costs, all the liability, all the “blame” when in 1982 they were indeed the victims as well. The result was an exceptionally high level of trust and respect because the public and media saw in their actions self-sacrificing love. They knew it was costing the company a ton of money, but the company acted as if the money didn’t really matter when people’s lives and safety were at stake.
I don’t want to take anything away from Johnson and Johnson’s actions or motives by suggesting they benefited from a plan that made them look really good. Because they key point is that is what the public–that is what we–want from any company who values us. We want them to show that they are willing to do just about anything for our sakes. Those are the people we trust.
Crises are the opportunity to show true character and there can hardly be better definition of true character than someone willing to give up really big things for the sake of another. In fact, it is basically how we know what love is. That’s the part of love that Hollywood tends to miss and is far too lacking in our daily lives and marriages. I admit, it is far too lacking in my own relationship with my long-suffering wife. But I also know that the solution to any issues in our relationship is not “fixing her” or looking elsewhere, but looking to where I need to go to release and let go so that I can love better and more completely.
Perhaps you think this is “too soft,” too “airy fairy” for real crisis management. After all, a businesses primary responsibility is to stay in business–and that sometimes means making decisions against those who expect different from us. True enough, that there are often conflicting demands and necessary compromises. But, whenever the leaders forget that trust and respect among key relationships are the primary issues at stake, and they forget that commitment to those people and self-sacrificing love are required to build and maintain that trust and respect, then you can see the ugly results of crises gone bad. Such leaders are among those likely to be casualties of the event, and the future of the organization depends on those responsible recognizing that early and replacing such leaders.
With that, I’m off to celebrate!