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Why Our Judgement May Fail Us in a Crisis

...And what communicators can do about it. is provided by CommPRO Global, Inc. (CommPRO) to give visitors the opportunity to read about events and share opinions for those interested in the integrated communications business sectors. is provided by CommPRO Global, Inc. (CommPRO) to give visitors the opportunity to read about events and share opinions for those interested in the integrated communications business sectors.

In my most recent CommPRO article, I shared three “simple” crisis communications rules to live by:

1) Identify/acknowledge the problem,
2) fix it, and
3) learn from the experience to ensure it never happens again.

I cited PwC’s handling of OscarGate as an example of a company that successfully followed the playbook.

As has been gone over in gory detail, in the first critical hours of its recent crisis, United Airlines (UAL) didn’t. Rather than acknowledge its fault – the airline initially blamed the passenger. That was never going to be a good strategy.

You don’t get to be CEO or an advisor to senior management without being very smart and savvy. But clearly, in their initial response, United’s judgment failed them. They are not the first nor will they be the last corporation to find themselves in this situation.

There are many reasons why this happens. And, there are steps that can be taken to reduce this risk.

It’s easy to judge others and Monday morning quarterback what a company should have done. It’s much harder to live a crisis. It’s hard to have to respond to hostile media and watch as your carefully cultivated brand image goes up in flames, along with your career if you get it wrong.

If the pressure of a crisis were not enough, corporate ego and hierarchies can also blind companies and communicators from responding in ways that for most independent observers would seem rational and logical. In a corporate bubble an “us” and “them” mentality often takes root. We are a great company that is simply being treated unfairly, is a simple, but dangerous, refrain.

When this happens, especially when you are in a crisis, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. When we want something enough – let’s say to be to be seen as the good guys – something social scientists call the “scarcity principle” can kick in.

The idea is when we are so focused on what we want or need, we lose perspective and may as a result do things that are not in our best interests. There’s a great podcast on this by NPR Hidden Brain’s Shankar Vedantam.

Managing effectively through a crisis clearly takes more than simply maintaining a level head and perspective. Crises become crises because there’s an emotional context. The more audiences can relate to a situation – “it could have been me being hauled off that plane” – the greater the engagement, the stronger the response.

Judgement requires emotional intelligence – the ability to recognize why a story may be resonating with audiences and the ability to anticipate where it may go. With the Sword of Damacles hanging over communicators and the CEO, the challenge of using both the analytical and emotional halves of the brain is doubly hard.

Let’s add speed to this volatile mix. In a digital communications world speed is essential. At one point, the video of the United passenger being dragged off the plane was being watched by 20 million people an hour.

Why does this matter?

It’s not because we need to make excuses when companies get it wrong. The job, however hard, for corporate communicators and CEOs is to make the right decisions. To get the best outcomes, companies, corporate communications professionals and the agencies that serve them need to fully understand the context and dynamics in which decisions are made.

It’s important to recognize that judgement cannot be taken for granted, no matter how strong the individual leader in the cauldron of a crisis. The more that’s at stake, the greater the imperative to seek outside perspective.

While no two crises are alike, there are a few steps companies can take that may go a long way to ensuring that good judgment prevails over bad, and that make it more likely that Chief Communications Officers (CCOs) and CEOs are recognized for their leadership when it counts most.

Most important are:

1. CCOs and CEOs discussing the lessons and takeaways from recent crises
2. Building a culture of open, honest and direct communications between the CCO and CEO, and within the communications team, that encourages the surfacing of different perspectives
3. Engaging go-to consultants, counselors or confidents with different backgrounds to provide outside perspective

Most companies are likely to have already set up crisis call trees so leadership can be reached quickly, along with clear lines of delegated communications authority/holding statements if the CEO is not available. Making sure these are in place, along with monitoring/listening platforms to spot and track the evolution of crisis, are essential elements of any crisis plan.

Hubris, the failure to take on board different perspectives, or a culture in which communicators are yes men or women for the CEO, may not be an issue in the normal operation of a business, but can lead to corporate blindness in a crisis with potentially catastrophic reputational results.

Assigning blame for the handling of recent crises to a failure of leadership, as some have done, may be one way to look at this issue. But, the judgement required to manage through these issues is only partly about people. It’s also about systems, culture and fundamental changes in the way information is disseminated today.

In a digital world, where crises are amplified through social media, more than ever it’s important to align organizations, people and resources in advance of a crisis in ways that help companies and leaders manage through the events that will come to define their judgement.

About the Author: Simon Erskine Locke is Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM a communications-industry focused search tool that makes the process of finding PR and communications-related agencies more efficient. Search is free as is listing for qualified agencies. Watch our introductory video. With more than 4,600 U.S. and International agencies and professionals listed, CommunicationsMatch is a powerful resource for businesses seeking communications services providers with expertise in areas including: public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior Corporate Communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.

Stories like Charlie Munger’s inspire me. It shows why you must live life as an optimist.