Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Crisis Response Leadership: Will Leaders and Companies Ever Learn From Their Mistakes?

By James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA 

          Among the most frequent questions I get when speaking to groups or talking to clients, and especially to victims and survivors, are:
  • “Why do companies and their leadership continue to make the very same mistakes time and time again?”
  • “Don’t they read the papers?”
  • “Don’t they watch the news?”
  • “Don’t they talk about how to avoid the problems they see their colleagues, peers and friends having?”
          It’s a question of ethical leadership.
          The simple and direct answer is, very rarely. Businesses don’t learn because the typical response to a crisis is focused more on forgetting than learning. The first inclination is to punish the innocent, next, to cover up the misdeeds of the powerful; and then purge the organization of anyone remotely associated with the problems, including the chief executive, sometimes the CFO and even the general counsel.
          These summary cultural executions effectively deny the organization the opportunity to learn how to detect, prevent and deter such circumstances from occurring again because the only people who can teach these things are the perpetrators who were responsible in the first place.  But they are gone, or muzzled by their attorneys.
          The Penn State circumstance is the most complete recent example of this flawed but continually accepted strategy.
  • Phase One: Denial, disbelief and Institutional Deafness: Ignoring the circumstances and allegations, questioning credibility and motives, and discrediting those making the allegations. 
  • At Penn State: Internally the early reports were clearly delayed, ignored, discouraged, and discredited for eleven years.

  • Phase Two: Victim confusion. The institution and the perpetrators claim that they are just as much the victim as those who they have been alleged to have assaulted, intimidated and otherwise harmed. The voice of doom speaks, “If this continues, the institution could be harmed.”
  • At Penn State: As the scandal became more real, institutional defensiveness kicked in all the way to DEFCON 5, the official feeling of being under attack and forced to respond.

  • Phase Three: The phony internal investigation strategy stage which prolongs the denials before finally determining either that the allegations are bogus or that, “It was an isolated incident”. In the process, the victims are further discredited; the challenging authorities are demeaned.
  • At Penn State: Victims, media, and any naysayers were actually set upon by students, faculty and community members. All the while, the chief known perpetrator, Mr. Sandusky, and others in the administration were at liberty to try to cover their criminal activities and abusive behaviors, including Mr. Paterno. Ultimately, Mr. Freeh was retained and produced a devastating outside, independent analysis and recommendations.

  • Phase Four: The head-fake shifting blame to everyone else but the folks in charge.
  • At Penn State: The perpetrators, even the police and the co-conspirators, protected each other until the forces of public pressure absolutely required that they be exposed and removed.  All this happened, despite a clear pathway of culpability from within the organization in athletics and moving up to the very top.

  • Phase Five: Failing to truly punish the guilty or subject them to corrective behaviors. Two extraordinary consequences occur:
    • First: the loss of knowledge of how these problems came about from those who have a better understanding of the entire organization than anyone, the perpetrators.
    • Second: an entire avenue of learning for the institution and subsequent cultural modification is removed.
  • At Penn State: Early on there was an extraordinary movement to begin forgetting the incident as quickly as possible. Even now, the University is on the public relations defensive to continue the process of eradicating these incidents from their memory through extensive PR efforts.

  • Phase Six: Punishing the innocent.  Along comes the first of a series of sanctions aimed at the institution, but hits the students instead, missing the perpetrators, the collaborators, and the facilitators.
  • At Penn State: They welcomed the sanctions largely because they themselves couldn’t figure out what to do that would be publicly and internally acceptable.

  • Phase Seven: Bury or hide all the remembrances to ensure forgetfulness. This approach, involving forced forgetfulness, denies the victim’s validation for their suffering and demeans and diminishes the beneficial impact of those who are able to stand up and bring comfort and justice to the afflicted.
  • At Penn State: They removed one statue of Mr. Paterno, but left another in place.

  • Phase Eight: Persecution of the innocent is piled on by outsiders.
  • At Penn State: The NCAA sanctions the school by taking away years of victories, punishing thousands of students no longer attending the University, including those who attended honorably while in school. The NCAA has, like so many intervening outsiders, provided a distraction rather than a solution.  The University of Minnesota has announced that it will not recruit athletic students from Penn State.
          What is learnable from this tragedy?
  1. Culture change requires that the University preserve, expose, disclose and continuously discuss these criminal behaviors rather than simply eradicating them from the life, even the history of the organization.
  2. The perpetrators and those found guilty should be required to make periodic appearances to subject themselves to public and survivor questioning to help others understand the sources, nature, and scope of damage to deter future, similar criminal behavior.
  3. Traditional, puffy public relations is the exact opposite of what’s needed and will encourage the cover up of previous, and perhaps current, negative administration activities. Public Relations signals an end to additional ongoing disclosures, and diminishes and demeans the important culture changing activities going on.
  4. The new compliance structure should continue investigating, be vigilant, and impose compliance. The facts, information and data should be disclosed continuously as discovered. This monitor must focus on present senior administrators of the institution. Their predecessor’s lack of leadership, complicit behavior that still goes largely undiscovered and unpunished. And, given half a chance, history demonstrates that the new interim administrators are weak and likely to follow or be pushed into similar repulsive behaviors.
  5. Culture change occurs through a continuous senior leadership based effort to remind, remember, rehearse, and revisit the circumstances that permitted the victimization of these children. The cultural change goals are to ensure that such events and circumstances are deterred, reported, investigated, prosecuted and prevented.
          How long does culture change take? Well, let’s see.  When will the victims stop being victims?

    The student body insults and punishments will continue, but now by former friends.

    This is the old psychology idea that spreading the pain and suffering out among a much larger base of individuals, helps all affected heal or help in the healing .The real effect is that the guilty feel innocent and the innocent feel even guiltier.  Believe it or not, there are many who would call this good, therapeutic practice. Ask a victim or their surviving relatives if that’s how they feel.

    We find this same delusional notion in other fields…  In Public Relations your gaff is covered up and reduced in intensity if you can gather a cluster of third parties around to you to protect you and distract others.  In industry the old axiom was, “Dilution is the solution to pollution.”

    There has to be a better way.  These patterns of willful ignorance, organized forgetfulness, organizational deafness, and the love of yesterday are what give management and leadership the opportunity to say nothing, learn nothing and do nothing.

This article was also published at CommPro.Biz on Sept. 5, 2012.
By James E. Lukaszewski

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Winning When Everyone is Mad at You: How Waging Peace and Reducing Contention Can Bring Success — Seven Strategies


Wherever there is conflict, confrontation and crisis, there is contention. In today’s Twitter, Blogger and bloviater dominated world, working to resolve important issues, questions and decisions often begins very contentiously and ends only after one side is beaten and leaves the field; there is a mutual withdrawal, or mostly commonly, one side wins and the other side stays angry.
Winning, it turns out is never about getting 51 percent of individuals or groups to concur or comply; it’s getting 51 percent of those who matter. This thinking leads to an axiom and a law.
Lukaszewski’s first axiom of winning in contentious situations: Almost every decision of any consequence is made despite serious, often powerful collateral contentiousness. The media can be mad, or support someone else, some of your neighbors can be irritated, even your employees can be against you, but stay the course, be constructive in your approach and you can win.
Lukaszewski’s law of success and survival: Neither the media, your severest critic, angry neighbors, irritated legislators, nor regulators can truly stop what you have set out to accomplish. The most significant damage is almost always caused by the intervention, timidity, or hesitation of an overoptimistic boss or Board, well-meaning friends, “supporters,” or relatives, and failure to address the issues raised by those who feel victimized by the process.
These seven principles are the components of a strategic approach for winning:
1. Wage peace every day: Reduce the production of critics, enemies and victims at every opportunity. Talk tough, act tough, or threaten and you will have war for sure. War produces casualties, victims, and new critics, all of whom will live long enough to destroy, delay, or stop your best efforts.
2. Reduce contention: Contention is the absence of agreement. Work for agreement, incrementally, every day. Stop causing contention.
3. Seek permission rather than entitlement: Getting permission depends upon gaining public agreement and consent. Avoid and resist anything, anyone, or any decision, that delays, denies, disables, or damages the permission process. Act like you’re entitled to a public decision and you’ll really be stopped cold.
4. Control testosterosis: Anger, irritation, frustration, and confrontation cloud judgment, damage relationships, cause misunderstandings, create critics, naysayers and rarely accomplish anything good. Stop taking contrary views and negative messages personally. The only one who is suffering from this is you. No one else cares. Remain calm and carry on.
5. Be Democratic: Recognize and leverage from the patterns of democracy, avoid political games and game players, all those people have their own agendas. They will dump you in a minute.
6. Work as directly as you can: Like most everything that matters in life, agreement is generally achieved, when the principals commit to sit down face-to-face and directly work out their differences. Engagement builds stakeholder support, and reduces the production of critics.
7. Communicate Intentionally: Success depends on simple, sensible, positive, declarative and constructive communication, common sense, direct, prompt action, empathy, transparency, and engagement. Explain to everyone as well as remind them of your communication and behavior intentions so they will know what to expect and how to behave in return.
Over the 30 years I’ve been helping clients get public permission, communities, critics, individuals and organized opposition have consistently grown more powerful in their ability to stop or significantly alter the plans of even the most worthy projects and powerful companies. With “social media” the power of individual opposers will continue to grow.
I’ve also learned that you can often achieve your objectives with people being upset, the media angry, your employees split, and in communities that may be more divided than unified.
Winning depends on altitude (keeping calm) and attitude:
1. Candor: Public trust depends on receiving information well ahead of their actual need for it. The most toxic strategy is to fail to answer every question, provide key information after it is truly needed, or work to disparage, demean, or discredit those who oppose or have concerns about the project, and go to the trouble of making them public.
2. Patience: Accomplishing your goals is going to take longer than ever imagined, even to achieve interim milestones.
3. Resources: Success will defy financial management. More money will be spent for things one never imagined would happen, or be requested or required.
4. Stomach Power: Set your stomach for all the lies, misunderstandings, deceptions, bad behaviors and misrepresentations created by angry, frightened, and unqualified people with real power, combined with a willing media, and the outrageous motives they will ascribe to you, with all of your explanations, good work and intentions just bouncing off.
5. Staying Power: Community decision making is slow, sometimes silly, even stupid, sloppy, expensive, confusing, and emotionally driven. Settle back and go with the flow. Kick up, kick out, and you’ll go nowhere pretty quickly.
6. Pragmatism: Winning means constantly waging peace and re-acquiring community consent daily. It means relentlessly doing the doable, knowing the knowable, getting the getable, and achieving the achievable.
If democracy is one thing, it is a process. Those who propose, if they can stay the course, can expect to achieve less than they had hoped, sometimes far less, but usually wind up with more than they need to successfully achieve their objectives, which are likely to change as the community has its say. If you believe that you are entitled to get what you are asking for, you are entitled only to disappointment.
Your goal is to help work preemptively, constructively, and productively to shorten the timelines and lower the barriers that are inevitable byproducts of public decision making. Wage peace and win earlier, if winning is possible at all.
— James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA
Also seen on DuetsBlog, Sept. 4, 2012
By James E. Lukaszewski

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