James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA

Any organization, leadership or business decision that can involve conflict, confrontation, controversy and contention (the four ingredients of catastrophe) is by definition dangerous ground. All too often leadership planning and decision making tends to ignore, minimize, even discredit the power of these emotional circumstances. Think again.

Whenever any of the four ingredients of catastrophe begin to emerge, decision makers need to adopt a handful of crucial but achievable survival principles.

  1. Avoid the production of new critics, victims and enemies. These players, once created, tend to live forever, remember everything and actively or surreptitiously, lie in wait to make your life miserable again and again going forward, often for reasons you’ll fail to remember.
  2. Talk promptly. Failure to speak promptly on matters that can trigger any of the four ingredients of catastrophe, is a powerful failure that is unrecoverable. Whatever excuse an organization or its leaders use to forgive themselves for not speaking promptly is never credible, creates even more critics and victims which you may only learn about when they surface by surprise to disrupt something you want to accomplish. The most common criticisms of crisis response are the failure to speak (arrogance and hiding stuff) and the failure to act promptly (lack of empathy and callousness).
  3. When in doubt, do something. Do it now, ask it now, say it now, change it now, fix it now. All too often really smart people seem timid, hesitant and confused. The tendency to stall, supported by the false imperative to get something done correctly, even perfectly, the first time, rarely happens. Your reputation is on the line from the very beginning. Timidity, hesitation and confusion are powerful, and reputationally corrosive. Far better to get something done and said today, even if significant repair is required tomorrow, than to do and say nothing today in hopes that inspiration will strike before something worse happens tomorrow. Something worse is always waiting to happen in crisis.

My philosophy is always to try and make next week’s mistakes this week, because that means that next week will be a better week with different but perhaps more helpful mistakes. Turns out that speed beats smart every time.

  1. Remember the reality of a crisis:
    1. Bad news ripens badly every time.
    2. It’ll always be worse tomorrow before It gets better.
    3. The worst enemies, your toughest critics, the most aggressive reporter or social media commentator cannot bring you down. Your defeat or serious dislocation will be caused by you, someone you know, a friend, a well-meaning employee or colleague, a relative, retiree, but most of all by your refusal to speak clearly, quickly and candidly. In every crisis the worst problems are always self-inflicted.
    4. In crisis, 50% of your energy today and 25% of your resources will be consumed fixing yesterday’s mistakes.
    5. Every obvious shortcut ends in a cliff with a deep ravine below.
    6. Response shortcuts got you in the current ravine in the first place.
    7. You might be lucky for a while.
    8. Luck is limited and underrated.
  2. Apology is the atomic energy of Empathy

Apologies start bad things to stop happening. I believe apology is one of the most important leadership decisions. The power of apology is so great that some insurance companies, especially in healthcare, are requiring them as a primary victim management tool.

  1. In litigation, if you’re the defendant /perpetrator, start the settlement process as early as possible. (all of my clients are defendants)

Just a small fraction of cases civil or criminal, filed ever get to trial. Most are disposed of in other ways or settled. Unlike litigation, settlement talks are really much easier to get under way. Can change the whole tone of events.

Here are seven of the most self-inflicted destructive and deceptive industry (and leadership) behaviors that create victims, crises, critics and enemies.

  1. Working secretly to avoid public knowledge and disclosure. Management strategy: “Always disclose less than you have to, make them ask you.”
  2. Using non credible PR techniques. Management strategy: “Use Social Licensing, we authorize ourselves to act, and see if the community buys it.” (They won’t!)
  3. Targeting, embarrassing, and discrediting opponents. Management strategy: “They’re troublemakers, somebody has to show them.”
  4. Withholding crucial often adverse technical and scientific information. Management strategy: “Little impact, besides the less people know the better.”
  5. Under disclosing adverse science, health and safety effects and information. Management strategy: “They won’t know the difference.”
  6. Failure to be candid (instantly and continuously truthful) about every aspect of your proposals and projects. Management strategy: “Most of the details we talk about simply wouldn’t matter to anybody anyway, nobody cares.”
  7. Refusal to trust the very citizens, customers, officials and individuals whose permission you must successfully get, keep and reaffirm before you’ll be allowed to successfully propose concepts, projects or solve problems. Management strategy: “Don’t ever tell them you don’t trust them.”
  8. Bonus Boner: Never talk to your enemies and detractors. Management strategy: “If you talk to these people they get additional power and recognition they don’t deserve.”

Counteract these negatives with the ingredients of Integrity: candor, openness, truthfulness, responsiveness (to all questions), affirmative engagement (even with those you despise). Also review the Ingredients to Leadership.

If you are at fault, seek forgiveness quickly. The longer you wait the more it’s going to cost your reputation. The check you write today will be the smallest check you’ll ever have to write in these circumstances. Also review Seeking Forgiveness.