To listen click below.
Have you ever been in a major lose-lose situation? Where your options ranged from really bad to catastrophic? Early May, 1940, that is precisely where Mr. Churchill found himself as newly-selected Prime Minister in the UK.
Yes, he was Prime Minister. Essentially Churchill was selected to be the Bearer of Unacceptably Bad News in a country still recovering from World War I. One option was to cut a deal with Adolf Hitler, as the French did. In fact the Windsor family probably had already taken some steps down this path.
The other option was to engage in a war they couldn’t possibly win. Winning would take U.S. participation, and the U.S. was not about to get entangled in another European conflict.
If your industry has even been disrupted, you know a bit what this feels like. For example, leaders in healthcare are dealing with choices that may feel like Mr. Churchill’s situation back in the day. Healthcare providers are being asked to treat more people more effectively at a lower cost and hurry up about it.
Time for Crisis Communication:
Any time workers must be laid off, a division is closed, a product is recalled, it’s lose-lose.
Sometimes a needed confrontation can feel like a lose-lose if you are pretty sure the person who needs to be held accountable is going to resist.
And if you haven’t ever been asked to share the bad news, at some point that day will be here.
We tend to judge Churchill more harshly these days because of his words against women’s right to vote, racial issues and others. Judging past leaders through our contemporary binoculars is natural but it’s not really fair. People being criticized can hardly defend themselves from the grave and they lived in a world quite different from ours.
After all, for many years physicians recommended smoking to their patients. While in error, that doesn’t mean they were bad people.
Back to you and crisis communication.
The thing with crisis communication you can’t just “be you” in sharing your doubts and ambiguity.
Crisis means people are stressed, their brains are shut down and fear is driving all the buses.
BP CEO Tony Hayward tried to authentically share during the truly catastrophic 2010 oil spill. Mr Hayward referred to his true feelings saying:
We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.
Oops. It’s not about you. Definitely this not the right response for the head of the company responsible for the spill and of course Hayward was fired.
As Lane Kasselman (former Uber communications chief) from Greenbrier said in his talk at Dig South, you are never going to get a journalist to get a journalist to second-guess a juicy sound bite. Crisis is not the time to “play it by ear”. Minds are shut. (For more on this topic, here are Kasselman’s 9 Crisis Communication Rules – Greenbrier)
I think that we can learn from Mr. Churchill’s handling of the WW II crisis he found himself in during those few days in May. (Darkest Hour film illustrates the situation beautifully, with Gary Oldman in the title role.)
People in a Crisis:
People want the bad news to go away, even if it’s “merely” electricity lost to a storm. They certainly don’t care about any leader’s personal preferences or their inconveniences.
The person in charge needs to address the size and scope of the crisis. Getting everyone even more worked up is not good, yet neither is hiding the facts and even knowing what the facts are is not straightforward.
Winston Churchill was brilliant at summing up the challenges AND offering a response at the same time. As he famously said when taking office in 1940,
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
Why was this good communication for the context? It was:
clear (He repeats the word “victory” five times. Repetition is helpful for any key message.)
appealing to a deep desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves
First take the time to get clear on the best outcome for all parties. Acknowledge the challenge and paint a picture of where we’re going.
Sometimes it’s not a win-win, it’s actually a lose-lose, at least in the short term. Remind us of the greater good at stake.