By Tim Hayes [www.timhayesconsulting.com]
The whole family was deep into an all-day, top-to-bottom, whole-house cleaning binge this weekend, and I found myself in the kids’ upstairs bathroom preparing to scrub the bathtub when it happened.
A bee crawled in under a tiny gap between the window sill and an old screen that has never fit flush with the frame, flew straight at me, stung me in the hand, and flew out the exact same opening. It was like the little SOB had done reconnaissance, logged a flight plan, and made his escape a la Indiana Jones rolling to freedom under a rapidly closing stone wall.
Minutes later, sitting with ice on my throbbing hand, I thought, “You gotta hand it to him. That was a classic surprise attack. In the span of three seconds, he made it in, did his damage, and made it out again. But I’m still glad he’s probably dead by now, the little creep. Jeez, my hand hurts!”
There are quick actions in leadership communications that can either create or deflate crises, as well. Think of the David Letterman episode of a year ago, where Robert Halderman, a CBS News producer, planned to blackmail the late night host for millions because he knew of Letterman’s affairs with female members of his show’s staff – until Letterman made his surprise attack, that is.
One memorable evening, Letterman took to his Manhattan stage and instead of delivering his customary opening monologue, he proceeded to admit everything to his national audience. He spilled his own beans. He tore off the covers and came clean over the CBS airwaves. And he took all the steam out of his would-be blackmailer’s stride.
Plus, he turned the tables and gave New York prosecutors reason to apprehend Halderman, who was later convicted on extortion charges. After pleading guilty, Halderman left the courtroom and apologized to Letterman before beginning a six-month prison term, to be followed by four and a half years probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
This fellow thought he had a tiger by the tail, when instead he ran into an angry bee with a stinger that did its damage in one quick surprise attack – when Letterman admitted the truth in the open and on the air.
Conversely, examples abound of leaders refusing to act quickly to diffuse communications disasters, too. The BP spill and the Toyota uncontrolled acceleration problems are recent instances that come to mind. Then there’s Johnson & Johnson.
The iconic brand has been batted around by federal regulators over the past year because of recurring recalls of some of its most trusted children’s over-the-counter brands, like Tylenol, Motrin, Benadryl, and Zyrtec. Its production facility in Fort Washington, outside of Philadelphia, was hit with a highly critical and damaging inspection report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that caused the company to shut the factory down until 2011, when corrections are to be made and a follow-up confirmation inspection can be conducted.
The seemingly evasive nature of J&J’s communications on this issue is doubly troubling, given the company’s legendary response to the cyanide tampering of Tylenol in 1982, which remains today the gold standard of responsible, fully transparent, customer-centric communication during a crisis.
We have yet to see how much long-term damage to image and credibility the current J&J problem will generate. But a quick strike – where the company simply and completely explains what went wrong and what it’s doing to fix it – could have brought the crisis to a full stop.
Now, where’s that ice pack? Gosh, this hand still hurts.
Copyright 2010 Transverse Park Productions LLC