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In Crisis Communications Perception Is Reality

Point One: The only thing that matters as much as a leader BEING in command of a dangerous situation is whether he or she APPEARS to others to be in command.

Point Two: The only thing that matters as much as what you MEAN to say is what other people THINK you meant when you said it.

These are tried-and-true lesson of crisis communications learned once again the hard way by the Obama Administration in the wake of the failed attempt by an alleged Nigerian terrorist to blow up an American jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.

Regarding Point One: The administration waited three days to have President Obama address the nation from his vacation in Hawaii. Before he spoke out on TV about his order to security agencies to re-examine the entire terror suspect watch-list process, weekend news reports had him “monitoring” the situation while he was played golf. By Sunday and into Monday morning reporters and commentators on several networks and in some major newspapers were openly questioning the president’s judgment on that score. Of course the President was on top of the situation. But sticking to your tee time for a round of golf is not the media image you want of your Communicator-In-Chief in the 24 hours following the potential loss of close to 300 lives in a domestic terror incident.

Regarding Point Two: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s appearance on a Sunday TV talk show was marked by one sound bite that could come back to haunt her: “The system worked.” Huh? The alleged terrorist got on the plane despite missed warnings to American security agencies that he was considered a potential threat, including a warning phone call to US authorities several weeks ago from the young man’s father. He carried explosives and an incendiary device through security in Amsterdam. He managed to light the device, but failed to cause an explosion apparently because of a detonator malfunction. And he was taken into custody when a fellow passenger tackled him, preventing him from trying again to cause the blast. The “system” worked? Shades of Alexander Haig.

Of course what the Secretary MEANT to say was that the post-incident response worked, and the nation’s security operations remained intact and on alert. She was trying to reassure the American public. But that’s not what the sound bite conveyed. If anything, it made government leadership appear to be disconnected from the reality of a near-miss caused, in part, by the failure of security agencies to spot the threat in advance.

In times of crisis perception IS reality. At CommCore Consulting Group we counsel our clients that how leaders appear and what they say is as important as what they know and what they are doing. What do you think of the President’s and Secretary Napolitano’s handling of their responses to this crisis?


Bob Frump

Oh, m’friend, let me count the ways you are wrong. We had folkies in office for eight years who appeared to have the situation under control all the time by scaring the bejeebers out of us and it simply eroded security and public trust. Better to wait and assess the situation, particularly when this was sort of a non-starter as a national crisis. Yeah, could been really bad. Wasn’t. As to the quote, not the best, for sure, but also out of context. And yeah, I know these days you have to assume the cable folks will misquote a nun to get a few more hundred viewers, but c’mon, news media gotta man up here too. No doubt there is something very wrong with our security system. But personally, prefer the thoughtful approach. You are of course right to say there should be a crisis com plan…but if the Tylenol didn’t kill anybody, you maybe pull the trigger a little slower, I’m just sayin;

Nick Peters, SVP, CommCore Consulting Group

In a perfect world, I agree, Bob. But it ain’t perfect, and with media splintered and sensational, it doesn’t take as much to second guess as it used to. The fact that Napolitano had to retract and clarify her statement the next day only shows how sensitive everyone is. And even a non-wacko, non-right wing media presence like the middle-of-the-road Candy Crowley on CNN openly questioned Obama’s slow response during an on-air interview with a CNN cnchor yesterday. Why even give them the opportunity to criticize? You can be measured in your response to a crisis situation, as you suggest. But respond quickly you must, and do so correctly. In today’s instant social media world, not responding quickly while everybody second guesses behind your back is as bad as a “no comment.”

Nick Peters, SVP, CommCore Consulting Group

Agreed, anonymous. But remember, what sticks in today’s media is the sound bite, not the context. One has to be more careful and measured when saying anything. Major news organizations such as CNN and the NYT have worked off the sound bite. It’s the world we live in.

Greg Barr

What scares me is the pronouncement by the President that a process re-examination is the cure. Maybe we also need a re-examination of the re-examination process (and so on). The process appears to be taking tips and dumping them into a database until you have about a half-million tips and an actual terrorist act occurs. I would think somebody would have wanted to re-examine the process when you got to 50,000 names! I’d be curious to know how many people actually touch this “process” and get an activity-based costing estimate of what they do and what it is costing us. That would be a re-examination. As it is we will probably never know what the re-examination consisted of.
This important process is clearly flawed, the appropriate response from someone at the C-level is “I’m going to see that it is fixed now.”

Bob Frump

I don’t disagree with that post on what the policy should be. I have long thought that the anti-terrorist domestic effort re airports seeks to find a needle in a haystack by adding as much hay as it possibly can. I don’t mind the waits at the airport, but my experience has been thus: each time I bring my CPAP sleep apnea device through security is checked for a bomb…each and every time. They’ve seized in the past six years one tube of tootpaste, one shampoo bottle and a pen knife I forgot and, oh, yeah, two toe nail clippers. They let pass this stuff I inadvertently brought on and got through without intention: police-grade mace, one six-inch knife and several rounds of live ammo left over in the seam of luggage from a hunting trip. What is the point? You can’t fix stupid so why maintain it?

Bob Frump

I agree Greg. Current system is just stupid. It’s an attempt to find a needle in a haystack by adding lots more hay. I’m a 62-year-old guy with FBI security clearance and a sleep apnea condition. Each time I travel, they test my cpap machine for explosives. I don;t mind it. It’s just dumb. They have seized one tube of toothpaste, some shampoo, a small pen knife I forgot about, and two nail clippers. Inadverdently, unintentionally, I got through security, much to my chagrin police-grade mace, live ammo left behind in carry on luggage from a hunting trip, and a pretty sizeable knife. Again, not complaining about the delay or seizures even, just the stupidity. Somewhere, someone has logged in metrics that show they’ve tested cpap machines 35 times in the last five years. Sleep well America. We better fix stupid.

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