A Three-Headed Monster of Crisis Management Gone Awry – 10 Lessons LearnedBy Susie Adams
A crisis managed well can be career-making; handled poorly can be career-ending. I’ve been arm-chair quarterbacking three different crises. All three have been handled poorly, putting lives at risk and damaging careers and reputations.
Over the past year, two topics have been at the forefront of our thoughts: crisis management and crisis communications. It seems like every day there is a new crisis that needs to be addressed for our safety and wellbeing. Some have been handled well, and others poorly.
Over the past few weeks, there have been three crises that weren’t managed in the best way. So, what can we learn from these missteps? You will find 10 lessons in crisis management below.
Cleaning up the Charlotte’s Tent City
Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been a growing tent city on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina. If you listen to the organizations who serve the homeless, they will tell you that this city comprises of the existing Charlotte homeless population pushed out of shelters and church basements by the pandemic.
If you drive by it, it breaks your heart and takes your breath. Well-meaning citizens pull up and drop off supplies for the residents. Less tolerant citizens view it as a blight on our beautiful city. (As if making the tent city go away makes the problem go away.)
On Tuesday, February 19, Mecklenburg County announced that residents would have 72 hours to vacate the area, citing a burgeoning rat problem, but would be offered 90 days of temporary housing.
Law enforcement, city officials and the nonprofit community all noted that they were surprised at the sudden decision. By the end of the week, the finger-pointing was rampant, with the county manager complaining about the city manager, law enforcement complaining about the county manager. Mere hours away from when the tent city was to be shut down.
Without a doubt, the tent city is a problem and the rat infestation presents a health risk, but this could have been handled differently.
Crisis Management Lessons Learned in Charlotte
1 – When many people have to be involved in the solution, they need to be a part of the plan.
- Even if it slows you down (and it will), the time spent on the front end is much more efficient than cleaning up an uncoordinated mess and wounded relationships on the back end.
2 – Old sayings are old sayings because they are true –“When you point a finger, there are three fingers are pointing back at you.”
- If you are feeling defensive, before you lash out, ask yourself why. What could you/should you have done differently?
3 – Sometimes, the best course of action is to say, “We moved too quickly. We’re going to step back, work with all of the right organizations and develop our action plan.”
- You’ll get some criticism for an initial knee-jerk reaction, but you’ll get credit for bringing the right groups together to set things right.
God Bless Texas
The Lonestar state currently faces a humanitarian crisis of the worst kind, with millions of citizens without electricity and water in freezing conditions. The response from state and local leadership has been, with a few exceptions, abysmal.
Governor Greg Abbott appeared on a national news show and blamed the situation on renewable energy.
A local mayor (Colorado City, TX) posted on Facebook, “If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are waiting for someone to come rescue you because your lazy (sic) is direct result of your raising! Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish (sic).” He resigned the same day and deleted the post.
Former governor and Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that Texans would go longer without power to keep the federal government “out of their business.”
And junior senator, Ted Cruz, took a family trip to Cancun and returned the next day when it was clear that the optics were bad.
Crises are won when leaders rise above and put the good of others before their own self-interests. Four lessons are learned here.
Crisis Management Lessons Learned in Texas
1 – Address the problem and the human suffering first and do the “why did this happen” after people are safe.
- National media will ask this and you can address it at a high level, but the focus should be on the people and getting basic human services restored. You can announce a major review, but it is cold-hearted to point fingers and make political arguments before focusing on rectifying the problem. It is not the time to score partisan points.
2 – Tempers get short in a crisis.
- People are demanding and have, at times, unrealistic expectations. Vent to your spouse or significant other, stay off your email, and especially social media.
3 – Speak for yourself; don’t speak for me.
- Texas may be bigger and better and love to stand alone, but when people are freezing, they will take a hand or a generator from Washington, DC.
4 – Because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
- While Ted Cruz may not have had official responsibilities and his children probably did want to leave their cold home, the optics of an ironic trip to Mexico are worse than bad. Would it not have been a teachable moment, as well as a photo opportunity, for the family to distribute water at a Red Cross facility or to deliver blankets to a warming facility?
The higher you climb, the harder you fall.
This one hurts. During the early days of the pandemic, Andrew Cuomo was America’s governor. I wrote on this blog about his exceptional communications to his state, the country and the world.
Issues around how he handled nursing home deaths in the state are threatening his reputation and his governorship.
Even when everything else was going well in the states’ pandemic response, there were questions about how he had handled nursing homes. You could tell he didn’t like those questions. As it turns out, that was a tell.
Even fanboy articles talked about Cuomo’s reputation for being difficult and controlling. But his heavy-handed style was applauded as being right for the moment. He wasn’t afraid to take charge, to challenge, to mandate how things would be done.
And then, when the numbers in New York dipped, he took a victory lap. He wrote a book about how he had handled the crisis while the country was still in full-blown pandemic mode and as the numbers in his state began to move back up.
And the questions about the nursing homes continued. The New York Attorney General is investigating. Reports about a chief staffer’s comments in a conference call with Democrats are leaked. The Governor acknowledges misreporting of almost half of nursing home deaths in a defensive press conference.
A Democratic state senator who has been asking questions for months reports on a 10-minute bullying session from the Governor. And others, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, corroborate that those kinds of bullying sessions are the norm, not the exception.
This may not end well for Cuomo. And there are lessons learned.
Crisis Management Lessons Learned in New York
1 – The cover-up is worse than the crime.
- Over 8000 nursing home deaths is horrific. Over 15,000 nursing home deaths is even more horrific. But if the misreporting had been acknowledged and addressed early, it would have been easier to address. If mistakes were made, it is better to acknowledge them and own up to them. Rather than to be forced into admitting it. Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace because of a cover-up. Martha Stewart went to jail because of a cover-up. These words are hard to say, but they are worth saying, “I made a mistake. I’m sorry.”
2 – The crisis isn’t over until it is over.
- Writing a book about your success when the national crisis is at its apex isn’t just unseemly; it presumes we know how the story ends when we don’t. It reminds me of a football player celebrating before he crosses the goal line only to drop the ball.
3 – People remember how you treat them.
- It’s as simple as that.
Some Closing Thoughts
The crises in Charlotte, Texas, and New York were each managed poorly. There are always lessons and growth to be found in failure, but when people’s lives are on the line, failure isn’t an option. We hope that these government officials embrace the criticism they are facing, learn from their mistakes, and ensure that their future crisis management plans are for the betterment of their constituents and not their own self-interest.