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Learning to Take a Punch and Move On

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By Evangelos Razis (SFS’17)

SEEing Value in Crisis Panel, hosted by the Global Social Enterprise Initiative at Georgetown University’s at McDonough School of Business

A crisis can test the mettle of a leader and an organization. It can be a breaking point, but if handled well, a crisis can be overcome and an organization can move on with a renewed emphasis on its mission. On November 12, 2015 the Global Social Enterprise Initiative brought together three experts, moderated by professor Bill Novelli, to discuss what it takes it survive a crisis and how to find Social, Economic and Environmental, (SEE) Value in the process.

In boxing, a “glass jaw” refers to a fighter who can’t take a punch, as described by crisis management veteran Eric Dezenhall, who named his latest book, Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal. For Dezenhall, today’s digital landscape is driven by attacks, criticisms and negativity. Once a controversy has gone viral, organizations and their leaders can quickly find themselves in what he calls a “fiasco vortex,” where their actions can backfire or prove ineffective.

Liz Sidoti, Head of Corporate Communications for energy company BP, emphasized the importance of responding to a crisis systematically. According to Sidoti, firms should first identify their objectives and their worst case scenarios. Only then should an organization craft its response strategy and tactics. Reflecting on her previous experience as a journalist, she spoke of the need to balance a narrative grounded in facts with a human appeal to your audience. “Facts alone aren’t enough anymore,” Sidoti stated.

Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, former Director of Coverage Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, dealt with the flawed rollout of the Healthcare.Gov exchanges for the Affordable Care Act. Emotions run high in a crisis and people are unsure how to react. Brooks-LaSure said; “the people who were the most effective were the ones who had faced crises before and had perspective.” Managing a crisis requires someone who can bring internal and external stakeholders to the table, delineate priorities, and then create and hold to an agreement on moving forward.

Brooks-LaSure’s comments were taken up by the other panelists. Dezenhall made clear that a crisis manager, while essential, is not a substitute for a leader who could solve an organization’s underlying problems. He also pushed back against the well-known adage that a crisis was an “opportunity” for leaders. In his experience, most crises are survivable for organizations, but not necessarily for the CEOs and others at the helm.

Sidoti added that a leader must have a deep understanding of the institution’s values and be willing to acknowledge mistakes once the crisis has passed. She noted that the self-reflection continues at BP even five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. She said the company continues to learn, grow and change because of it and has become a safer, stronger and better BP.

Responding to audience questions, Dezenhall said that the abilities of a crisis manager have their limits and that they must pursue realistic outcomes.

Sidoti, Dezenhall and Brooks-Lasure ended with a wry look at apologies from organizations in crisis, using Dezenhall’s three types: transactional, Judeo-Christian and marital. A transactional apology is one in which an offer is made (sorry; here’s four million dollars), a Judeo-Christian apology involves atonement and suffering (not many fall into this category) and a marital apology is, “not sure what I did, but sorry, honey, let’s move on.”

Related Link(s):

SEEing Value in Crisis Photo Gallery