Monday, August 30, 2010

Kenneth Feinberg Must Be a Hero, Everybody’s Mad at Him (Except the New York Times)

Let’s hope BP’s new victim compensation fund may be the standard for helping people in emergencies.

Plaintiff’s attorneys, state attorneys general, and attorneys in general are all whining because the new $20 billion victim’s compensation fund established by BP and independently supervised by Mr. Feinberg is saying, victims come first, no attorneys need apply.

What a concept! Could this be a model approach, actually compensating victims with 100 cents on the dollar, and avoiding the delays, phony posturing and bloviating of attorneys, and the political puffery of attorneys general preying on victim fears and vulnerability?

Is it possible that the BP recovery fund, operating on the principle of taking the word of victims first, then compensating, and then maybe going after those who are frauds, is a whole new mindset for those who cause serious injury, fear, and disasters. The perpetrators can immediately propose this approach, faking out the greedy bunch that always get the first dollar instead of the victims.

Legitimate litigation is essential, but, we see so little of it. Instead we see fabricated complaints promiscuously filed just to see how far a court will let it go. The evidence?

Today, the chances of a lawsuit filed actually getting to trial is around one in 100, this ratio holds true in both civil and criminal cases. (I haven’t seen data on class actions.) The reason for the surprising ratio is that some cases settle on the first day of trial, while others are thrown out, abandoned, settled, mediated, or arbitrated, all before trial.

Would such a BP-like process facilitate scams and fraud? Probably, but what else is new?

Large and small federal, state, and local programs, and private grants as well as private programs all have fraud and waste. Heaven knows, in most corporate programs of any scale there is waste to be sure, and people taking stuff home at night, or worse. But these diverted resources are generally very small percentages, with the bulk of the available or allocated dollars going to the intended mission. The cost is far, far less than letting litigators direct resource distribution and recovery, which is an inherent conflict of interest.

The BP settlement fund approach is massive, administered by a highly credible, independent individual, with very little bureaucracy, and focused on paying out the money. Almost every other beneficial program, whether managed by religious organizations, major foundations or philanthropic organizations, or the United States government is more focused on preventing abuse; attacking the credentials of those seeking funding as suspect; and protecting fund money rather than paying it out. Check it out at your favorite charity, college, church, synagogue, United Way, or other major charitable funding sources.

I serve on a college alumni association board that gives out $1,000 grants to mostly urban undergraduate students for a wide range of study projects and needs. When I first saw the program described, the student had to fill out three pages of forms, answer about 30 questions, and do a 1,000-word essay. For a thousand bucks? C’mon. My first question was, “Is the purpose of this grant program to create a structure within the college to give power to 12 people (The Grant Board) who can lord it over some poor, or rich, student whose goal in life is just to get a college degree at the earliest opportunity; or to make these applicants/supplicants feel ashamed or stupid, while the Board keeps the money anyway?” My second question was, “What is the measure of your success: the number of grant applications you turn down, or the speed with which you put all the money to work in student hands?” Yes, some is wasted. Yes, some is used stupidly. Yes, with more scrutiny, we might be able to achieve slightly higher quality goals, dollar for dollar. But, so what?

The form is now one page, seven questions, a couple references, and a 100-word concept description. We give the money pretty fast, until it runs out, rather than put applications and the applicants through several rounds of humiliating elimination.

Whether the amount available to help victims or applicants is $20 billion or $20,000, the goal should always be to get the money out there and see what it can accomplish, rather than to establish litigation-prone bureaucracies and barriers that are merely alter the egos of those selected to withhold help and lord it over people in need or in distress.

Thumbs up, Mr. Feinberg. Thumbs down to just about everyone else.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Crisis Communication & Command Responsibility

I just sat through a meeting where the folks running the place spent much of their After Action Analysis time whining and moaning about the lousy media coverage of their latest disaster.

These are good people, it’s an excellent company. I honestly believe that those in charge intellectually understand how important communication is when bad things happen. The problem is that their emotions got in the way of making communication operational until it was too late.

Crisis Management Commandment #1: Communication becomes an operating function during crisis, often the dominant operational function. Start earlier.

Corollary #1: Even the best response poorly communicated is a poor response, in reality, historically, even metaphorically.

Corollary #2: Upon analysis, communication will always be a problem in crisis. Interoperability will always be a serious issue in crisis. Reaction speeds and focus will always be controversial. Can we move on? Can we look deeper for things that can be meaningfully changed to improve readiness?

All of this leads me to yet another set of lessons for those on the front lines when bad things happen:
  1. Be prepared to talk. If you don’t or can’t, someone else will gladly make something up, which you’ll have to respond to and own.
  2. Be prepared to correct the record. If you don’t, later analysis will make you out to be a liar, even if all you were doing was issuing updated information (remember a thousand barrels of oil a day?).
  3. Get ready for the citizen journalist. They will find you and make comments without asking you, and they will be believed far more than you will.
  4. Be Web ready, everyone else is—victims, activists, irritated neighbors, bloviators, bellyachers, and backbench grippers. The Web is four times more credible than newspapers, three times more credible than radio, and two times more credible than television.
  5. If it’s coordinated response you seek, then plan for it, fund it, commit to it, and practice it. Otherwise, stop bellyaching when the press, bloggers, and critics point out your shortcomings.
  6. Remember the YoYo response factor is always at work—You’re on Your own until help or more information arrives. Even then, you’re likely to be on your own throughout the balance of the crisis. Those who invite others in to help, often experience far more complications, confusion, and confrontation. If your preparations depend on others to save you, you’ll be disappointed every time.
  7. To be a strategic partner in crisis, every communicator will need to know more than communications tactics. Since most of the people who run things in this world think they’re terrific communicators, you’d better have some really useful suggestions on other topics that involve operational response.

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