Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The power of "I'm Sorry"

Just a note.  Sorry about the delay for the Duncan videos.  I have some more ready, but I wanted to adress something else today before adding more snippets.  Please be patient.

So, by now you've all seen, or heard, the admission from baseball slugger, Mark McGwire, that he did indeed use steroids during is career.  Now, all the records, the achievements, the accolades, they're being questioned, just as we now question Clemens and Sosa, and several others involved in the scandal over the past decade in America's Pasttime.

After the announcement on Monday, I had many discussions with friends and even family about my reaction to the news that McGwire was a steroid user.  I have to say that while I was disappointed, I wasn't surprised.  But this isn't an entry about my take on the situation, it's really an entry on how to handle a crisis.

Every organization goes through a crisis at some point.  Whether it's a large corporation, or a small non-profit, every manager, CEO, director or owner will be faced with a crisis of some size at some point.  The question isn't if, but when will it happen.  The bigger question is, are you prepared?

I've covered some basic crisis pr in previous entries, but I thought the McGwire situation would be a great opportunity to delve a little deeper into how to handle such situations and how to turn a crisis into a positive.

Let's start with McGwire.  I think it's safe to say that many believed he used steroids.  There were also many who believed, or at least hoped, that he hadn't.  In 2005, McGwire sat before Congress and didn't confess.  We now know that he had admitted a day earlier, but wouldn't do so before congress publicly because he wasn't guaranteed immunity.  So he testified, and then went on about his life, as questions continued to swirl around him and others involved in the steroid scandal. 

Now he's come forward and the fallout will continue long after we crown next season's baseball champion.  I have to wonder; could this all have been avoided?  What if he had simply confessed when all the steroid hulabaloo began?  Certainly his records would still be tained in many people's eyes.  But would we even spend much time thinking about McGwire?  Would he eventually have been voted into the Hall of Fame based on his numbers as well as his honesty?  Perhaps. 

As a friend said to me last night.  Who is talkinga bout Petit, or Palmiero?  Two guys who admitted early on that they took steroids.  They admitted their mistake, apologized and moved on.  We dont' spend a lot of time focusing on those guys because, well, there's no story there.

How about former President Clinton?  Many of my Republican friends, as well as my Democrat friends say the issue wasn't really whether he had sex with an intern, but the fact that he lied about it to Congress.  I liked Clinton, voted for him twice, and we can debate all we want to about the legitimacy of the proceedings at the time, but the fact still stands that he skirted the issues and eventually lied. 

Bad move.  One wonders what might have happened if he had just said, "yes, I had sex with an intern."  End of story.  People could question his integrity, his decision-making skills, is choice in women, but they wouldn't be able to catch him in a lie, which is often worse than the actual indescretion itself. 

Now let's take a look at another political figure that didn't lie when called on the table for crimes and misdemeanors; Ollie North.  You remember him, right?  The general caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan years?  Say what you want about him, he didn't lie.  Or if he did, no one could prove it anyway.  He sat in front of Congress and laid out what happened, his role in the process and took his lumps.  Some may call him a fall guy for the administration, but regardless, he didn't try to hide, or duck the media or Congress.  He stood up, spoke his peace, apologized and moved on.

We don't spend a lot of time thinking about him nowadays.  And that's because there's no story there.  No more dirt to be dug up, no more scandals to expose, no more skeletons in the closet.

Are you starting to see a pattern here?  A friend of mine, Patricia Demchak-Billinger, who handles communications for the Denver Red Cross, summed it up when she asked if it's better to tell the truth and have one story and be done with it, or to duck the issue and have many stories hounding you.  I'm paraphrasing, but the sentiment is accurate.

Not all crisis situations are major incidents:

I know, some of you are sitting there saying, "But Chris, I'll never be called before Congress, I never used steroids, or broke major Constitutional crimes, how does this apply to me?"  The answer is, not all crisis situations are major incidents.  Certainly your office or business could be subject to something tragic, such as a shooting or suicide or explosion or fire, and hopefully you'll never have to deal with any of that.

But what about the smaller crisises you face nearly every day.  I'm talking about problems with dissatisfied customers, or questions from donors or even false accusations from disgruntled employees or sharholders.  These can, and do, happen frequently.

Here's an example, I posted it in an earlier entry, but it merits revisiting.  A Sears driver, delivering a refridgerator runs over a families small dog.  The dog owners are upset, but they're not looking for financial compensation, simply an apology from the store manager and driver.  For some reason the store manager not only refused to apologize, but blamed the family for the incident.  Certainly you can, in hindsight say the family should have kept the dog inside and out of the way of the large moving truck.  But that's not the point.  A simple apology was warranted but not forthcoming. 

The family was so upset, they put up a website called, www.Searskilledmydog.com.  Take a second, go to Google and type in, Sears killed my dog.  Do it, I'll wait.  Okay, back?  Surprised to see how many listings you found?  You shouldn't be.  The site received millions of hits.  Suddenly, millions of Americans were aware of the incident and Sears was getting a very black eye over something that could have, and should have, been handled in a much classier manner. 

Once Sears upper management heard about the situation, they moved promptly and took care of the problem, quickly. 

There are horror stories all over the net about companies making a mistake or an employee treating a customer poorly and suddenly it's being talked about in chatrooms and blogs and other social media sites.  It today's world, something seemingly small can snowball into a major crisis for a company.

How about the Dominoe's Pizza video showing some employees doing some disgusting things to the food about to be delivered.  Certainly this isn't a "small" issue, but it's a video that went viral and millions of Americans will probably no longer dial dominoe's for their late-night pizza call. 

Ask yourself, do you know everything your employees do when you're not there?  Are you aware of how your employees or staff treat customers or other shareholders when you're away?  What if they do or say something that reflects negatively on you or your organization?  It only takes a minute for someone to post a blog or video.  It could ruin everything you've worked so hard to build, in a blink of an eye.

Companies like Dominoe's or Frontier Airlines or The Westin Hotel Chain or Sears can absorb the kind of business loss (even if only temporary) that a crisis can inflict.  Can your small business handle the impact of losing customers based on a crisis?  Can your non-profit rebound if suddenly donors question whether they want to donate time or money based on a crisis?

Most likely, the answer is no.  So what do you do?  How can you make sure that a crisis won't destroy your organization?

Be Prepared:

Let's face it, your organization is going to face a crisis at some point.  It might not be on the magnitude of lying before Congress, but for small businesses and non-profits, even a small crisis can inflict major damage to future success.

The answer is to be prepared for any crisis situation.  Have an infrastructure in place to quickly disseminate information and communicate with customers, donors, shareholders, and even employees in case of a crisis.  Just a side note, often small businesses and non-profits forget to communicate to staff or employees during a crisis.  This is a mistake.  Employees and staff carry the banner for your organization not only when they're working, but also when they're off the clock.  If they are confused or in the dark about an incident, they'll make assumptions, fill in the gaps with information that might not always be accurate.  During a crisis, friends and family will ask them what's going on and they'll explain to the best of their ability, whether they have all the information or not.  Then, like a game of telephone, that information will be passed on from one person to another, often with facts being skewed or wrong and it spins out of control.  Take care of your employees and staff, let them know what's happening so if they are asked, they can tell the real story, not a wrong one.

Okay, so you have a communications infrastructure in place, a way to respond to a crisis, quickly and effectively.  You have to make sure that your message remains focused and strong, even during a crisis.  Stay true to your roots, so to speak when dealing with a crisis.  Too often, companies and organizations suddenly want to become something they aren't when a crisis happens.  Again, mistake.  Your best asset during a crisis is the stability and message that you have built up.  Lean on that base to help see you through.

What to Do:

Here is what you need to do when a crisis comes your way.  These rules hold true whether you run a non-profit, a small business or a major corporation.  These rules are tried and true.  They work, commit them to memory and use them when putting together any kind of crisis communications plan.

1.  Admit -  Don't duck the issue, don't hide and don't try to blame others.  Admit if you made a mistake.

2.  Apologize - If your organization messed up apologize.  Americans have a great capacity to forgive.  What they don't like is when you lie to them or won't fess up to your mistakes.  A simple apology goes a LONG way towards mending fences with upset customers or shareholders.

3.  Move Forward -  Fix the problem.  If it's a problem with employees, make sure you communicate a plan to make sure you have better customer service training, or hiring practices.  If it's a product issue, let the customer know what you're doing to make sure the product works correctly.  This allows you to move away from what happened and let people know what you will do looking forward to make sure it never happens again.  Don't make promises, but DO let people see you actively working to fix the problem and let them know that, no matter what happens in the future, they still come first.

Sears, Dominoe's, Westin Hotels, all earned high praise for how they handled their particular pr crisis situations.  Remember, stories like these don't just end up in front of customers, they also end up in front of potential customers and shareholders.  These people are sitting there making decisions based on not just what happened, but on how the company responds. 

In other words, a crisis situation is also a great time to reach out to new potential customers and let them see how you handle adversity.  It's a time to get the word out that you are, indeed, a quality organization that they want to do business with or donate money to. 

A crisis doesn't have to destroy you.  It can actually help you in the long run if you respond correctly, take an honest look at the problem, and fix it.  By doing so, you will become a stronger organization for it.  And people will notice.  They'll hear your apology and often times give you the benefit of the doubt.  These people will also be watching to see how you follow up.  If you truly follow through with your fixes, customers will come back and new ones will suddenly appear. 

Here's another tip.  The same outlets and venues in traditional and social media that were used to hammer you, can also be used to help you.  Find out where you're being mentioned and talked about and hit those same sites and social media outlets to make your apology, to outline the fixes and to move forward. 

This shouldn't be handled by an employee or assistant.  For the apology to be sincere and accepted, it has to come from the top, period.  People will only accept the apology if it comes from the person in charge, if it comes without excuses or blam, and if it comes with a solution. 

Do this and you can overcome almost anything.  Don't follow these procedures and you could find yourself without an organization as fast as it takes for a video to go viral.  And in case you haven't noticed, that's pretty damn fast.

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