Crises place unique pressures on leadership and management because, by definition, their courses are unpredictable. Yet, many crises have been well studied and a list of core communication principles has been established.
Of course, we should expect mistakes to be made. Too few scenarios are contemplated and too little rehearsal is conducted. And we will continue to see examples of absent, late or tone-deaf responses because of miscalculation, flawed judgment or bad advice.
So, it’s a little difficult to understand what motivated Binghamton University president Harvey G. Stenger to say the tragic murders of two students were “definitely the hardest thing that I’ve been through since I’ve been here.” Could The New York Times have taken him out of context? Was he misquoted? I like to give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible but this does not seem like one of those cases.
This self-centered comment was reminiscent of former BP chief Tony Hayward infamous “I want my life back” statement during the throws of the Deep Water Horizon oil well disaster. The public was astounded and appalled by the lack of empathy.
There were other “Crisis 101” failures at Binghamton, including delays in sending out information and updates. And after one of the murder suspects was arrested, President Stenger was quoted in the Times saying, “You kind of learn on the fly on these things.” This might have been another true statement but not a wise one. He should have stuck with the second half of the statement when he added, “We want to make sure that if anything could have been done better, especially in the communication with our community, that we learn from that.”
In all the crisis manuals and case studies I’ve seen, this gets the least – if any – attention: Know the difference between openness and honesty. You should be honest always but the degree of openness is variable (based on confidentiality, security interests, etc.). Sure, crises are hard on leaders and there is a certain “seat of the pants” aspect to managing them. But keep those thoughts to yourself. Leaders must find a ways to show their concern, their compassion and their control of the response effort without seeking sympathy.
Crisis leaders create problems when they place themselves at the center of the response instead of those affected. They might honestly express their feelings but there are times when such openness is counterproductive.
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