One thing Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton all have in common is that when it comes to managing a crisis, there is almost no one around them who can speak truth to power.
The most important crisis communications skill is the ability to tell the principal - candidate, CEO, athlete, entertainer - very directly what they need to do, but don’t want to hear.
The celebrity athlete’s problem, like Tiger or Lance Armstrong, is that, often, all the people on their team have 100% or too much of their income dependent only on one person. It’s nearly impossible for them to speak directly to the client. A mindset of loyalty over talent keeps new people from getting in and giving good advice when disaster strikes.
We saw it with Tiger’s response to his initial 2009 crisis and his crisis this week. Somehow, his team decided that pill popping would be viewed as a lesser offense than driving drunk. They are in the bubble, unable to access a fresh perspective, and Tiger may well be managing his own crisis by default.
Trump’s crises are so regular and plentiful that the best example may be next week. Hillary Clinton’s handling of the private email server scandal was a great example of a high-profile person not being pushed to do the right things for over a year.
After working with hundreds of candidates at all levels, I’ve learned that you must speak directly to the candidate as often as possible or most campaigns won’t win. This has been understood and come naturally to most major political campaigns; that is until 2016. Trump and Hillary bucked that trend.
It seems no one around Donald Trump pushes him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. This has become his kryptonite as he tries to put out fires of his own making or not. Hillary Clinton did not embrace reflection and dissention. This is in sharp contrast to how Bill Clinton, the ultimate political crisis survivor, operated.
The political pollster Pat Caddell once said that a politician or CEO’s ability to listen to good advice is “inversely proportional to how well they think they are doing.”
Good crisis prevention involves both imagining how things could go terribly wrong and trying to figure out how to keep positive momentum going.
Often the PR team you’re working with when things are going well is not the best crisis management communications team. They are used to dealing with all positive interactions with the top leadership.
So, if you are part of a team facing a crisis, or about to face a crisis, ask yourself: “Who can speak directly to the top dogs and not fear for their job or livelihood?”
If you are a CEO, candidate, or national personality, ask yourself: “Do I have anyone on my team who confidently gives me sound advice and doesn’t fear dissent?”
Looking back on their handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy wrote, “The fact that we were able to talk, debate, argue, disagree, and then debate some more was essential in choosing our ultimate course.”
The Israeli Military (IDF) has a formal office of “devil’s advocates” often called “The Tenth Man” tasked with writing memos and challenging the conventional wisdom of intelligence and military strategy (https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2017/05/21/how-israeli-intelligence-failures-led-to-a-devils-advocate-role.html). “The task of the Tenth Man is to explore alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios, and they can do so without fear of damage to their careers.”
Great investigative news media units have a “red team” with a charge to poke holes in stories (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-earle-mcleod/three-situations-that-cal_b_3974886.html ). It’s been recommended to big tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung to have a team to challenge the wisdom of some of their new products (https://techcrunch.com/2014/07/27/the-vp-of-devils-advocacy/ ). Even when we are right about something, we’re often only 95% right, and a counter viewpoint can help to sharpen the thinking.
Why do smart, strategically successful people do such dumb things? Often, it is because of a cognitive bias. A critical thinking blind spot hits a number of common cognitive biases: Confirmation Bias, Bandwagon Effect, Ingroup Bias and Optimism Bias (http://io9.gizmodo.com/5974468/the-most-common-cognitive-biases-that-prevent-you-from-being-rational).
Just image if in addition to all the war hawks, George W. Bush had a “red team” of “devil’s advocates” systematically arguing against an Iraq invasion.
A talented and straight-talking consultant, consigliere, friend or spouse is what every leader needs when facing a crisis. Find that person now. It’s even harder to find a “truth to power” person in the middle of a crisis.