Ever since oil spewed out of a well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and insensitivity poured out of a CEO, business leaders have learned what not to say in a crisis. Two years earlier, when the stock market hit rock bottom during the financial crisis, communications were equally ineffective. The great investment sages calmed and inspired their traumatized customers with these words of compassion: “Stay the course.”
Against the backdrop of mistakes and stumbles, these success stories are all the more meaningful. Each example reflects a competent and compassionate leadership style that hits all the high notes of effective communication: direct and candid delivery, a thorough command of information, and a clear understanding of the audience’s state of mind. Although many of these communications were born during terrible circumstances, each leader managed to restore calm and give people a reason to believe.
Leading Through a Storm
In late October, Hurricane Sandy barreled into the east coast and two strikingly different leaders rose to the occasion. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a cool-headed command-and-control manager and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an emotional man-of-the-people faced daunting challenges with courage.
In New York City, decisiveness saved lives when the Metropolitan Transit Authority shut down all subway, bus, and railroad lines almost 24 hours before the storm hit. Closing the city’s main arteries was worth a thousand speeches telling people to stay home.
During a crisis, transparency and candor build confidence. Mayor Bloomberg’s direct style and frequent press conferences kept people informed and secure in his command of the situation. Additionally, his team consistently accompanied him behind the podium, signifying the extensive teamwork involved in the city’s crisis management.
In New Jersey, the morning after devastation deeply affected Governor Christie as he demonstrated another tenet of crisis communication: show people that you care. The Governor shared emotional stories of growing up on the Jersey Shore and embraced grief-stricken homeowners, which conveyed character while eliciting support for his badly wounded state.
Both leaders vigorously employed social media channels to reach a diverse audience. When New Yorkers asked if city water were safe to drink, Mayor Bloomberg didn’t wait for the next press conference, he answered them instantly on Twitter. In addition to Twitter, these modern day leaders updated Facebook pages, sent text messages, and distributed press conferences online.
The one memorable stumble was Mayor Bloomberg’s insistence on holding the city’s annual marathon. In the recovery phase of a crisis, people want their leaders to convey compassion and empathy. Across the Hudson River, these were the very traits Governor Christie displayed, and he won the hearts and minds of voters across the country as a result.
Clinton Strikes Again
The scene was the Democratic National Convention, two months before Election Day. Across the country, dollars and patience had been stretched too far for too long and Romney was moving in the polls. Then, the orator of our generation took the stage.
President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No president—not me or any of my predecessors—could have repaired all the damage in just four years.
With that one line, former President Bill Clinton evoked the credibility of his personal experience, spoke authoritatively about the economy, and created a sense of empathy for The President. Instead of conveying a simple message of support, Clinton sought to change Americans’ perspectives about the last four years.
During his speech, Clinton cut to the core of the ideological divide and effectively connected with all voters when he echoed universal frustrations over bipartisan warfare. He championed rational thinking, cast a vision of hope for the future, and overwhelmed the audience with his remarkable command of policy, history, and the challenge of leadership.
Here’s the challenge he faces, and the challenge all of you who support him face. I did it, I know it, I’ve been there.
After building enormous credibility, Clinton implored the audience to judge the President’s actions through a very different lens.
“He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs.”
For a brief moment, Clinton rose above the laws of partisanship and represented a vision the country craved. It wasn’t his words that brought people to their feet; it was the promise of leadership, which is far more powerful than the cynicism of an empty chair.
Scandal at Penn State
On July 12, 2012 when Louis Freeh released his infamous report, the public had waited eight months since Jerry Sandusky’s indictment to learn the full story.
Exactly 11 days later, the National Collegiate and Athletic Association (NCAA) announced unprecedented sanctions against the university: Penn State was fined $60 million, banned from four seasons of postseason football and forced to vacate 111 victories during a 14-year span.
The NCAA’s swift and resolute response gave Penn State athletes and students a sense of closure and set a foundation for restoring trust and confidence in the university. Chair of the NCAA executive committee Ed Ray said that in the executive committee and the division 1 board, there was a
unanimous sense that we needed to act, and we needed to act quickly and effectively.
While some felt the sanctions were too lenient, NCAA president Mark Emmert explained their objective was to punish the institution without causing unnecessary harm to students. Actions always speak louder than words and they represent courage, which puts people at ease.
During the press conference Emmert said institutions have a responsibility to ensure that the values of honesty and integrity are not subverted by a winning-at-all-costs mentality. He said,
One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, or even too big to challenge.
On a final note, we lost two great communicators in 2012: Stephen Covey and Zig Ziglar. Although known for work in different fields, their communications lessons were impressively similar because they taught people how to listen. As Covey was fond of saying, we must first understand, and then be understood.