The Messenger: Friend or Foe in a Crisis? Why Executives Who Should Know Better, Get It Wrong

The media make a tempting target for those in crisis.

When gaffe-prone Pennsylvania Governor Rendell found himself in the middle of a firestorm of his own making, his immediate response was to blame the media.

Rendell claimed he’d been taken “out of context” after telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board many white voters in Pennsylvania were “not ready to vote” for an African American for president. The Associated Press then picked up the story, giving it national attention. Constituents were angry at Rendell for portraying them as small-minded bigots,while those in Hillary Clinton’s camp felt Rendell had further stoked the simmering race issue. (Rendell was an early Clinton supporter before backing Obama).

Instead of issuing a forthright apology, Rendell gave one exasperated interview after another, blaming the media for essentially repeating his words. His spokesperson added fuel by saying Rendell was “just being realistic.” (Obama carried Pennsylvania handily, with women voters giving Obama a whopping 18% margin).

Now consider the case of another chief executive in trouble, former Governor Rob Blagojevich. Blagojevich launched a national tour, hoping a media appeal would save him from impeachment on charges of abuse of power. While media outlets from the Today Show to MSNBC were more than happy to accommodate the flamboyant politician with air time, the results only worsened public perceptions. The media tour finally culminating in David Lettermen telling the hapless pol to his audience’s delight: “You know, the more you repeated your innocence, the more I said to myself, ‘oh this guy is guilty.’”

Both Rendell and Blagojevich made a classic mistake in trying to use the media for their own ends. The media is neither friend nor foe—and cannot be a reliable foil or life preserver for those in crisis. Both politicians would have benefited from following the first rule of crisis communications, and one that can be followed regardless of one’s standing in the media: When in a hole, stop digging. To that I’d add: and don’t expect the media to do anything but keep an eye on which way you shovel.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.


Crisis Communications Done Right: How Jet Blue will weather the storm

Think hard. When was the last time you remember the chief executive officer an American company admitting publicly and repeatedly to getting it wrong? “Humiliated and mortified” is how Jet Blue’s founder and chief executive described his reaction to the NY Times. “Painful to watch” David Neeleman admitted on the Today Show. “Sorry and embarrassed” was how the full page ads of apology in New York, Boston and DC put it.

The discount airline, a favorite of parents and fidgety flyers everywhere for its individualized TV monitors, comfortable seats and customer-friendly staff, is in the throes of the worst crisis in its 8 year history. An ice storm forced the cancellation of more than one-thousand flights in under a week, leaving an endless stream of angry passengers in its wake. In one case, passengers were held inside planes at NY’s Kennedy airport for over 10 hours.

In hindsight, the same gritty determination to avoid cancellation of flights seemed little more than short-sighted mismanagement to the casual observer. “Weakness in the system” hardly seemed to describe the disruption caused by a not particularly unusual winter ice storm.

And yet, there was Jet Blue’s Neeleman, letting the pain and embarrassment of his company’s failure show in a public way, and promising earnestly to do better. His brief mea culpa tour couldn’t have been easy, but it was exactly the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, because Jet Blue’s headquarters were close by, extra airline personnel were quickly brought to JFK airport to help. It turned out they could do little but serve as a target for passenger frustration, but like their CEO, Jet Blue’s workers didn’t shirk from that unpleasant duty.

Contrast that with United Airline’s reaction to its cancelled flights the same week. No statements of wrong-doing or even a bother with full explanations. No vouchers, refunds, apologies or promises to get it right. The only move United was quick about was in announcing it would honor all those missed Jet Blue reservations.

Jet Blue’s crisis response won’t satisfy everyone, particularly those travelers who were most inconvenienced. It does however serve an important purpose in allowing the airline to turn the focus from the mistakes to their attempts to rectify those mistakes.

Jet Blue has to be careful, of course, that no more damage be done to their already tarnished reputation as the most customer-friendly airline. They will have to show a stronger airline emerging: customers will have to get those refunds and vouchers, flights really will have to be redirected, and communications improved. But Needham’s performance I’d predict will now become a case study in crisis communications done right. The top three lessons his performance teaches:

  • 1. NEVER UNDERESTMATE THE POWER OF AN APOLOGY Anyone watching or reading could have no doubt this was a man personally invested in his company’s reputation. Neeleman didn’t shirk from tough questions. He didn’t send someone out to speak for him. He didn’t make excuses and he refused to lay blame elsewhere. True, Jet Blue’s website was hardly forthright, burying the news deep inside. Nonetheless, customers, potential customers, employees and investors got a very public and refreshing look at how a real leader behaves under pressure. That’s the kind of performance that breeds loyalty from all stakeholders.
  • 2. ACT NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR ‘PIECES’ I’m betting Neeleman heard strong advice to say nothing publicly, at least not before a whole lot of highly important people were consulted and then consulted again. Any admission of culpability the conventional wisdom says will only wind up costing you more. Not only did Neeleman speak out, he did so quickly and, I’d submit, courageously. (How many chief executives these days agree to unscripted interviews with national reporters during a time of crisis?)
  • 3. DEFINE THE FIX JetBlue’s Bill of Rights for passengers may have been chiefly designed to dissuade lawmakers from imposing more regulations on the industry, but that doesn’t negate its impact. It is still a strong statement of the company’s intent to do right.

Jet Blue’s crisis of confidence isn’t over by any means, but this is one corporation intent on showing it deserves another chance.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.

Media & Crisis Communications – The role of the CEO

You’ve drilled. You’ve done your homework.

Your communications and senior management team have a well-formulated crisis plan. Everyone knows their roles and is prepared to take the right steps toward containing and getting ahead of the crisis.

When the real crisis hits however, too many companies are stymied by indecision and second-guessing. Too many CEO’s won’t trust that carefully crafted plan to steer the organization forward. What’s behind all the additional road-blocks and inaction that adds precious hours, days and even weeks to your response time?

It may be that your crisis plan is missing a key ingredient: an on-going and clearly defined role for your CEO.

Don’t underestimate the amount of pressure a real crisis will bring to bear on the head of the team. The real role of the CEO, beyond making sure those in authority have what they need to make quick and meaningful decisions and being a primary voice in calming key stakeholders, will be to make sure everyone knows of and continues on the right road toward your carefully planned recovery.

Internal audiences, in particular, feel they have the right to know what’s going on: the bad as well as the good. They’re right. And no one is better suited than the CEO to making sure those lines of communication are and remain open through a crisis.

So what can you do to make sure your CEO is in the right role during a time of crisis? Here are five step checklist to make sure your CEO stays on track to play a central communications role:

    Your CEO’s key role must not be limited to operational decisions in time of crisis. Make sure your CEO doesn’t become bogged down in the detail of operational functions, forcing him or her to delegate communication to others. Institute a formal process for CEO communication with both internal and external key audiences. Make it a priority and, as soon as possible, make your CEO a source for information with those key stakeholders.
    Yes, you’ll want to make sure there’s a limited number of spokespeople at a time of crisis, but there’s no need for your CEO or your PIO (public information officer) to be the only source of information. He or she cannot and will not be on the job 24/7, so make sure there are alternatives and that there’s a mechanism for keeping messages well coordinated.
    No one is better positioned to frame the crisis and its response than your CEO for external, but even more importantly, internal audiences. Those audiences need to know that the crisis is fully recognized and they must hear how the company’s core values align with your crisis response. Make sure your own employees are on board and understanding what is taking place and why.
    Temporary websites, hotlines and media outreach are proven methods of keeping the media and the public informed during a crisis. Make sure your CEO messages can be heard and read through all sources. Put your CEO in the forefront of response, and position your company as the go-to resource for the crisis as early as possible.
    Fight the very natural inclination to tighten the circle and issue pronouncements from the top without interaction and input. Answer the need for those impacted by the crisis, both internally and externally, to have a voice in the outcome of your next moves and to know they’re listened to. Allow some kind of on-line or in person feedback mechanism to help make sure your CEO doesn’t become isolated from those most immediately impacted.

Aileen Pincus is a former reporter,U.S. Senate executive staffer, and public relations executive, who now provides crisis and media training, as well as presentation and speech training, as president of her own communications firm in Maryland. She can be reached or at (301) 938-6000.