Crisis Management — Sago, Cheney, NASA

Date February 16, 2006

It’s been almost a week since I’ve posted anything. Largely, that’s because I seem to have got concurrent upticks in activity both at home and at work. Julie took Alana to Dallas last weekend, so I had both boys starting mid-afternoon on Friday through early evening on Sunday. At work, I have had even more meetings than usual — from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Wednesday, I’ve had 3 hours of unbooked time. That includes being booked over lunch for meetings. That’s put me into doing a lot of surreptitious work on my laptop during lulls in slow meetings (which isn’t to say that these have been worthless meetings — most of them have required pretty active participation, but there are a few weekly meetings that are mostly guest presenters providing updates on various projects/initiatives, and I can half-listen to those).

As the Cheney/Whittington incident continues to play out, I’ve seen some parallels with a recent presentation I attended at work regarding crisis management. National Instruments has a top-notch PR/Corporate Communications department — regularly winning awards, and regularly getting out in front of both positive and not-so-positive issues. The manager of that group led a lunchtime presentation regarding crisis management, during which a couple of members of her team walked through a case study of the Sago Mine tragedy in West Virgina. Their analysis focussed on how ill-prepared ICG was when it came to crisis management. They pointed out that this was odd, considering that coal mining is widely recognized as one of the most riskiest professions, so a conglomerate that owns so many mines would, presumably, know that it was only a matter of time before they faced a major accident. ICG’s numerous missteps on the public communication front have been widely analyzed and criticized. Unfortunately, their initial egregious errors in judgment put them in an unwinnable situation in the eyes of the public — when they did finally pause and say, “Let’s not communicate preliminary information,” they had already allowed erroneous information to be communicated.

National Instruments has a formal crisis management plan. This plan includes playing out some fairly grim scenarios — the grimmer and more complicated, the better, for preparedness purposes — and how we would react. Just by developing these scenarios, the crisis management team has put the company in a better position to respond. Crisis management is an on-going process. The team continues to add scenarios as the company’s business changes (for instance, when we acquire a company or open a major facility in another country), and, at the same time, continues to identify gaps in the responses to the scenarios already created. The idea is not to have a scenario for every eventuality. Rather, the idea is to have a documented scenario and a documented (and, in some cases, rehearsed) set of response actions for a wide range of worst-case, messy scenarios. Then, when a crisis does occur, it’s likely to be an “easier” version of one or more scenarios already worked out.

Sago clearly laid an egg on this front. NASA, on the other hand, was a model of well-done crisis management with the Columbia accident. Very quick, very open, very sincere communication to the public within a couple of hours of the disaster.

All that brings me to Cheney and the administration’s response to the Whittington accident. On the one hand, there was a delay in getting the word out, and that delay was almost definitely longer than it needed to be. On the other hand, though, things could have been much worse if an initial, quick report was that Whittington’s injuries were “superficial.” Based on the examples above, though, the best response would have been a very quick communication of what was known — that Cheney accidentally shot Harry Whittington, and that his condition was not yet known. AND, having a Cheney spokesperson immediately accessible to the media and willing to answer questions — even if a lot of those answers were, “We simply do not know, but we will let you know as soon as we know anything.” And, setting up where that spokesperson would be going forward to answer additional questions and provide additional information. It didn’t need to be the White House, by any means. As a matter of fact, running that communication out of Corpus Christi probably would have made more sense. But…that’s not how they responded. And now it has blown up on them a bit. And now it’s backtracking time and time to blame the media for being upset about the initial handling of the media. Overall, I don’t think a case study on this crisis response would get a thumbs-up.

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