Crisis Prep Fails When Leaders Won’t Change

I’ve often noted that the biggest obstacle to effective crisis management is denial:  company managers refuse to believe there is a risk that needs attention.   

‘We don’t need a crisis plan. We can handle it.’ Or, ‘That will never happen to this company.’

Another obstacle can be even tougher, though: what to do when management refuses to acknowledge or fix a problem. This happens when a company makes a mistake but refuses to admit it or apologize.

CEO Chip Wilson did this in response to complaints about Lululemon yoga pants. He implied customers were at fault. It took two fatal 737 Max crashes and a lot of pressure before Boeing acknowledged something was amiss. The CEO lost his job, Boeing lost billions and enterprise value may never recover.

This happens when a company takes a public stance that it ignores internally.  Amazon quickly touted #BLM last year.  But it failed to change how it treats workers, had no Black members in Jeff Bezos’ inner circle and urged shareholders to vote against wage equity.

This disconnect can present an ethical dilemma for communicators. How can one issue a public statement that you know does not align with company values or practices? Or the truth?

Is there a persuasive argument to convince leadership to change?

The answer: It depends.

Is the company publicly traded? Shareholders are driving significant change. They’re presenting proposals to boards and, in some cases, (ExxonMobil) rallying enough support to install directors who will champion change.

Is the flawed culture so deeply embedded that it takes an existential crisis for change to occur?  We’ve seen this in organizations where leaders are long-term employees deeply entrenched in their sense of entitlement, beliefs and practices. It’s a kind of tunnel vision. They can’t see what’s in front of them.

In one case we worked on, the board was more interested in protecting its ‘good ol’ boy’ president (accused of sexual impropriety) than in the organization’s reputation. It took outside consultants to urge removing the president. Eventually, the board did, reluctantly.

If the top communicator is higher on the org chart, he/she may be better positioned to argue for change. On the other hand, it can be a huge risk. Just ask the former head of marketing for Papa John’s, who was fired after he suggested removing CEO/founder ‘Papa’ John Schnatter from advertising after Schnatter blamed the NFL for poor pizza sales.

No one wants to get fired. But you will sleep better if you stick to your personal and professional ethics, even if it means finding a new place to work.

–Deb Hileman

Deb Hileman, SCMP, is president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management.