How Not to Handle a Crisis: What Every Candidate Needs to Learn About Crisis Management

I’m very worried that by his not really understanding what crisis management is, Barack Obama’s candidacy may have suffered a fatal blow. I’m especially worried because I think he’s the right person for these dreadful times.

I don’t think that the Reverend Wright brouhaha is going to go away easily. It certainly was not helped by Senator Obama’s gaffe after an otherwise incredible speech on race when he called his grandmother a “typical white person.”

I think that Senator Obama needs to make another speech as soon as possible. It is simply not believable that for 20 years, he did not know of Reverend Wright’s incendiary remarks. We no longer allow any CEO of a major corporation to get off the hook by saying he didn’t know what was going on. The job of a CEO is to know. If he or she didn’t know, then they have to step up and accept blame for not having known.

What worries me most is that Senator Obama may have unwittingly broken one of the most fundamental rules of crisis management: everyone can break or ignore two of the critical lessons that crises have to teach, but you can’t break or ignore more than three of them. I’ve never seen anyone survive without doing major penance by ignoring more than two of the cardinal lessons of crisis management. In the trade, it’s called “major damage control.”

By now, we would have thought that everyone in the public eye would have learned the key essentials of crisis management. Apparently not.

One of the first lessons, or rules, is that when it comes to crises, you do not own the clock. Stronger still, ordinary space and time don’t apply. It doesn’t matter whether something happened yesterday or 20 years ago. It doesn’t even matter whether someone was physically present or not when a potential crisis or a salacious event occurred. All that matters is that one can be tied to a crisis—real or not—in any way.

Best of all is an inflammatory video showing someone with whom one has important ties doing and saying something reprehensible. It doesn’t even matter whether or not what one actually said and did is reprehensible, as long as it can be interpreted as such.

Even better is a montage of videos showing other members of one’s family, key associates, etc. doing and saying other ill-advised and ill-timed comments. The various parts that make up the montage don’t even have to have occurred in the same time and place. They don’t even have to feature the same persons. Thus, Barack’s wife Michele saying that “for the first time she has reason to be proud of her country” is part of Reverend Wright trashing the country.

Context doesn’t matter as well. All that counts is the visual appearance of wrongdoing. Everything can and will be taken out of context. The only context that one can count on is “the context of no context.”

A second rule is that in a society that now lives and dies by various manifestations of YouTube, we are what we are edited to be, not what we actually are. Reality doesn’t count any more, if it ever did. What matters is what we want “reality” to be, i.e., how good we make “unreality” look.

A third rule is that once one is cast as a villain, it is very difficult—if not virtually impossible—to work one’s way out of being perceived as a villain. Furthermore, to imply in any way that one is the victim of a wrongful interpretation only makes things worse.

A fourth rule is that the only thing that can displace a video of a crisis is another video that is equally bad or worse. Given that the public’s attention span is essentially zero and our incessant need for new video highs to divert us from the harsh demands of reality is insatiable, all one can hope for is that some new God-awful crisis will come along to anesthetize us.

Senator Obama has demonstrated repeatedly that he is up to the challenge of meeting crises head on. In fact, he is his own best damage control. In short, he needs to speak more candidly about why he didn’t hear Reverend Wright words. Unless he does this, I don’t think he’ll survive.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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