I have a story about a job that impacted my career forever.
It changed the way I do business and also how I approach digital marketing. The job taught me — the hard way! — to never assume things and, instead of passing judgement, go for the facts first.
It all started when I got a serious crisis on my hands:
I got an email about a company in a serious crisis from a person who knew the owner and acting CEO. I knew about the company since the crisis had been all over the news for a couple of days.
So, I called the CEO up. He seemed very confident and not at all startled by all the commotion around his company; however he did feel that he could use some help in managing the media storm. So a colleague and I jumped on a plane. I remember going through the newspapers, thinking that “this guy is toast”.
Truth to be told, I was feeling a bit uneasy about the whole thing. I help organisations communicate better for a living and that’s a good reason to get up in the morning …
… but would I be okay with helping the really evil guys to communicate better? In this case, people’s life had been at risk as a result of the actions taken by this CEO in a seemingly devious effort to save money and get richer.
I thought about all the defence attorneys of the world:
Everyone has the right to a solid legal defence, even the bad guys. And we’re all better off for it, because it safeguards our legal system and indirectly our democracy.
But for me, I’ve always been grateful that there are people out there prepared to do these jobs, because I wouldn’t want to. And then there I was, in a plane, on my way to do just that. Maybe not in the court of law, but in the court of public opinion.
It was at the same time exciting. Crisis communications is often terrible with devastated and crying people — and often decision-makers in serious denial. But it’s also thrilling, quick and emotionally powerful.
I met with the CEO and in my head I had the steps already laid out:
Step 1: Get the facts.
Step 2: Change the lead, change the story.
Step 3: Quickly take responsibility where responsibility’s due — even when difficult. Talk like a human and address other humans. Apologise not because you have to, but because you want to. Be sincere and never hide from the media.
Step 4: Then communicate the rest through taking actions to restore what trust can be salvaged.
Step 5: Then begin the long journey back to trust.
There. I knew what I had to do, and I was prepared to do it. So, first step — get the facts!
An Unexpected Turn of Events
As it turned out, the CEO wasn’t guilty. It was an employee who had broken the rules by making a mistake. Not for personal profit or gain, just a mistake. The employee in question had been a loyal employee for decades with only months left to retirement.
However, the news media had already gone two- or even three full circles, ripping the brand and the particularly the CEO to shreds. In the eyes of everyone reading a newspaper those days, the CEO was clearly guilty.
So for me and my colleague, it all seemed pretty clear:
Assign the blame where it belongs, fire the person who made the mistake to show that this isn’t tolerated and won’t happen again, adjust the routines and start restoring the reputation of the business. Boom!
But … the owner (and founder) didn’t agree with us. He simply didn’t want to hang his loyal employee out to dry. Especially with only a few months left to his retirement.
“The negative media would crush him and his family,” he said. “But I … I can take it.”
And so he did. He resigned from the company he once started and retired early. By doing so, he took the blame and the shame with him, allowing for a new generation to take over the business and start fresh.
What I learnt from this story has nothing to do whether the CEO made the right decision or not. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Only he knows.
But the truth sure didn’t prevail this time.
People did discuss this incident in the news media for quite some time afterwards. And everyone was sure that the owner was the bad guy. No-one thought twice whether or not there would be any criminal charges (never happened) or if they had the whole story (they didn’t).
You might imagine how crappy I felt on the plane on my way back a few days later. And going into this whole thing, I had been one of the haters, 100% sure that this man was evil. I felt both judgemental and stupid.
But, I did gain some extremely valuable insights from the experience:
So, what did I take away from this experience?
1. People are always going to assume things. This is why it’s so important to get involved in how stories are created.
2. You don’t have to be one of those people who jump to conclusions too quickly. Get the facts with an open mind.
3. Instead of passing judgement, seek to understand. You’ll find humanity even where you least expect it.