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Jacinda Ardern Image

Jacinda Ardern: Political Leader with a Strong Compass

Jacinda Ardern, it appears, has set the gold standard for how political leaders should respond in a crisis. The praise for her handling of the aftermath of the massacre in Christchurch is coming from all directions. Perhaps most unusually, her picture has been beamed onto Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, accompanied by a special tweet of thanks from Dubai’s Prime Minister, HH Sheikh Mohammed. In New Zealand, almost 20,000 people have signed a petition calling for her to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Jacinda Ardern

Here are a few links to illustrate the extremely positive coverage of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, since the Mosque attacks on March 15th.

The New Yorker – Headline: The roots of Jacinda Ardern’s extraordinary leadership after Christchurch.
The Daily Mail – Headline: World’s tallest building lit up with an image of Jacinda Ardern as Sheik Mohammed thanks New Zealand’s Prime Minister for her empathy and support.
Indy100 – Headline: The world is calling for Jacinda Ardern to get the Nobel Peace Prize, here are 7 reasons why she should.
Vogue – Headline: Why Jacinda Ardern is a leader for our times.

So, what did she get so right?

A Swift Response

Firstly, Ardern was swift in her response. She was tweeting and then speaking about the attack on the day it happened. By the following morning, she was in Christchurch. Click here for the timeline.

Above All Inclusive

Secondly, she was sure-footed in her support and sympathy for the Muslim community.

When she spoke ahead of the one-minute silence in Christchurch, she kept it short and quoted from the Koran. Her sentences were sparse and her language very direct. Nothing highbrow here. “New Zealand mourns with you. We are one.”

Ardern also wore the hijab. Human beings like symbolism. Whether it is a pink ribbon of breast cancer awareness or a silicon wrist band supporting a local charity. Choosing the headscarf, showed humility and respect. A gesture that has been copied by some New Zealanders.

Not Just Talk

Thirdly, she didn’t just speak, she acted. The day after the shooting she said “Our gun laws will change”. Within a week, the government announced legislation banning a range of semi-automatic weapons used in the Christchurch attack. [A stark contrast to the US refusal to reform gun-laws.] Ardern also not only visited Christchurch Muslims but also Muslims in Wellington.

And she promised financial support from the government, to bury the dead and help anyone injured. Here is the full speech but the key paragraphs are:

In an event such as this – murder or manslaughter – the family is eligible for a funeral grant of around $10,000. There are also one-off payments for the deceased’s partner, children and dependents, ongoing assistance provisions for things like childcare and of course compensation for the loss of income.

The Terrorism Word

Fourthly, Ardern did not hesitate to call this attack on Muslims ‘terrorism’. This was significant because there is a perception that a white man going nuts with an arsenal of guns is often described as a lone—wolf attack or instantly related to specific mental health issues; whilst a Muslim man doing the exact same thing will be branded a terrorist, before he has finished shooting. This concern is explored in this article from the Washington Post. Ardern was aware of this and chose to nail her colours to the mast and call the attack terrorism from the outset.

Challenge to Facebook

Finally, she has not flinched from challenging the world to do more to control social media – Facebook in particular. She said: “There are some things we need to confront collectively as leaders internationally…We cannot, for instance, allow some of the challenges we face with social media to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.” This will be a difficult one to follow up on, but she is already in discussions with Facebook.

What Can Others Learn From Jacinda?

Speed is Everything in a Crisis

It is so easy to hesitate and wait to assess the full extent of the crisis.  To be sure of the sequence of events or the nature of the damage. And, of course, an early reaction can be a wrong one. But a fast reaction looks authentic and uncompromising.

Embrace Emotion

Probably the smartest thing about Jacinda Ardern according to my ‘Media Coach’ analysis, is that she doesn’t shy away from emotion. As a young, female political leader you might expect her to be carefully unemotional. New Zealand’s young Prime Minister is prepared to show the world emotion. She lets her actions convince people that she is still rational and prepared to do what is necessary.

Use Simple Language

“We are one” is a very simple phrase but it did the job.

In a closely related incident, Emma Gonzalez the US activist and advocate for gun control gave a speech that went viral in February last year. She is a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. She explained in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, that she felt she needed to find a phrase that would be repeated by others. “I knew I would get my job done properly at that rally if I got people chanting something. And I thought ‘We call B.S.’ has four syllables, that’s good, I’ll use that’  A super smart young woman!

Most people struggle to come up with the right words and many would have rejected both ‘We are one’ and ‘We call B.S.’ for being too simplistic. But in both cases, people were repeating them almost as soon as they were uttered.

Don’t Dismiss Symbolism

We are a pack species and we want to belong to a pack or tribe. Wearing something is a simple and easy way to say ‘me too’. But someone has to catch the mood and start it. Wearing the Muslim-style headscarf did just that.

Action Followed Words

The banning of automatic weapons. The instant offer of money. There is a need for action to make sympathy and concern convincing. Whether it is money or changing something, it needs to come swiftly.

It will be fascinating to see to what extent others follow the Jacinda way in the months and years ahead.

Photo Tweeted by HH Sheikh Mohammed

getting out in front of the story

Getting Out in Front of the Story: Bezos Case Study

Getting out in front of the story’ is a phrase that comes up a lot in Crisis Communication Courses. It refers to coming clean about all the bad stuff in one go before anyone else releases it.

In my experience, it is extremely difficult to do.

Human nature is such that everyone balks at revealing negative information if they are not absolutely sure they have to.

Jeff Bezos Case Study

In the last week, Jeff Bezos (the world’s wealthiest man and the Chairman, Chief Executive and President of Amazon) has given us the most dramatic example I can remember of ‘getting out in front of the story’.

getting out in front of the story

Jeff Bezos

It is a complicated tale but at its heart the National Enquirer let Bezos know that it had compromising photos of him and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez – and told him they would publish.

 Political Motivation or Just a Good Story?

To prevent publication, the Enquirer wanted Bezos to stop or curb an investigation into an earlier leak of his private text messages. Also, to publicly state that he did not believe a story based on those texts (or sexts i.e. texts with sexual content) published in the Enquirer, was politically motivated.

Bezos has been married to wife MacKenzie for 25 years. The couple announced they were to divorce in January this year. Immediately after the announcement, the Enquirer published an expose of Bezos’ affair with the former TV presenter Sanchez, including the texts.

A crucial factor here is that Bezos, as well as his Amazon roles, is the owner of the Washington Post newspaper. The Post has been a long-time critic of President Trump, among many other things his relationship with Saudi Arabia. In particular, it has given a lot of coverage to the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – in which the Saudi regime is implicated. This criticism and coverage have annoyed the President.

getting out in front of the story

The National Enquirer is a supporter of President Trump

National Enquirer and its owner American Media (AMI) are supporters of President Trump. The group and AMI’s owner David Pecker are currently being investigated for their part in the election of Trump. They are also being investigated for various actions taken on behalf of the Saudi government. In other words, the group is under a lot of suspicion about using its power for political purposes and in ways that may be illegal.

We now know that Bezos believes the embarrassing stories about his love life and in particular, the threat to publish the photos, are all about silencing the Washington Post’s anti-Trump and some would say anti-Saudi stance. AMI denies this.

Here is a detailed account of all this in the Daily Mail.

Getting Out in Front of the Story

The point for us is that rather than giving in to the blackmail, Bezos published the emails that threatened him. He published them with his own commentary on a website called Medium.com– thus getting out in front of the story.

Rather than being the victim he is now suddenly the one in control. The price he has paid for this is letting the world know about the embarrassing photos and a lot of other private details about his extra-marital relationship. Like many before him (Prince Charles, Max Mosley, Jeremy Thorpe etc.) he knows these will affect his reputation for years to come. But he did the brave and difficult thing and published all the bad stuff but on his own terms.

As he says himself ‘If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can.’  In a particularly good line Bezos accuses the National Enquirer of ‘weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism.’

It is too early to say whether Bezos will be the eventual winner in all this. But for now, it has certainly turned the tables on those threatening him.

 Crisis Preparedness

The Media Coach and in particular myself and Catherine Cross regularly run Crisis Communication courses. Large organisations that have considered business recovery or crisis planning usually conclude that senior staff need some formal training so they are equipped to deal with the media in the face of a reputational crisis.   If you would like to talk to us about what we offer please do give us a call on 44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photo credits:
Jeff Bezos: Wikimedia Commons
National Enquirer: Flickr, credit Rusty Clark

Oxfam Crisis Goldring

Oxfam Crisis notes

Oxfam is in crisis. There must be a whole book of ‘lessons’ from the implosion of this once great British organisation. An implosion caused by a seven-year-old scandal exposed by The Times newspaper last Friday. It is ghastly to watch and a text book example of a ‘crisis’ where new damaging elements of the negative story continue to emerge every day.

Oxfam will be lucky to survive

I feel compelled to declare my personal opinion about this Oxfam crisis. As many know I have worked a lot with charities and agencies in the developing world. I am a huge fan of ‘development work’ in all its guises. If more people knew the great work that is done, the more they would support it.

But it seems all too common for individual incidents of bad behaviour or bad management to be blown out of all proportion in order to discredit all or any development work. There are swathes of society who, with little knowledge of the reality on the ground in developing countries, believe money should not be ‘wasted’ helping people ‘over there’. They are quick to take any example of mismanagement or misappropriation of funds to prove their preconception. The Daily Mail in particular plays to this agenda in ways that many find hugely distasteful. My sympathy is all with Oxfam although of course not with those accused of wrong doing.

Oxfam crisis analysis

That said let’s look at the lessons of this Oxfam crisis.

Public outrage gets ahead of the law. The press likes to bay for blood as soon as any act that would offend a Victorian prude, comes to light. (Always remember this is fake outrage. Few journalists are paragons of virtue in their private lives). The Oxfam country director in Haiti, 7 years ago, admitted to paying for sex. Just to help the headline writers, the party where this happened has been dubbed a ‘Caligula like orgy’ – by ‘sources’ that spoke to The Times. He agreed to step down but his employer, Oxfam, chose not to sack him and not to prevent him working in his profession in the future.

Bad media crises have a habit of having many chapters. If the thing journalists have got their teeth into initially in a crisis is not actually illegal they will often switch the focus to ‘transparency’. Transparency is really difficult when dealing with personnel, commercial and many other issues.

The take-way is that as soon as a crisis starts, someone in the affected organisation needs to be reminding decision-makers that at any moment the whole focus could switch to ‘transparency’. Organisations need to be prepared to be totally transparent or find rock-solid reasons why they cannot be. Transparency can be brutal. Here is an article in CEO Magazine about transparency in a crisis.

Oxfam crisis: what could be done

Anyway, the only way to stop a crisis like this once it gets going is:

  • Sack a whole load of people or have them resign. Be careful if you sack, they may sue as Sharon Shoesmith, the social worker in the Baby P case did. And she won. Story here. 
  • Make an abject public apology. Here is Oxfam’s from CEO Mark Goldring. 
  • Make vast amounts of detail available to journalists who will quickly get bored.
  • Have spokespeople trained and ready to handle the sort of aggressive questioning that we have seen on every serious news programme.
  • Hire someone like Alistair Campbell or a specialist crisis firm (or us) to do your messaging and reactive lines. These need to be much more than wishy-washy statements of good intent. You will need substance and a forensic like approach to possible questions.
Oxfam Crisis Mark Goldring

Mark Goldring CBE, Oxfam’s CEO, made a clear and complete apology.

If you are an organisation full of decent honest people who expect the rest of the world to be measured, decent and honest you have a huge handicap. You will not realise the potential for the crisis to get out of hand and you will not expect the media to go for the jugular. One problem is that sometimes the media does and sometimes it doesn’t. Any doomsayer might be wrong and might damage his or her career by saying ‘this could go ballistic’ when it then doesn’t.

For students of media training lets look at two of the many interviews on this subject.

In this Newsnight interview with Dame Barbara Stocking, the CEO of Oxfam at the time of the Haiti operation, the scandalous bits are all the ‘outraged’ questions from Emily Maitlis. The measured responses from Dame Barbara are barely newsworthy. It was a difficult interview but overall she did well. Personally, I would have liked her to offer a solid apology and be a bit more robust in defense of the decisions Oxfam took. But she was credible and had solid answers. Note this interview was a pre-record. Not a good idea. Dame Barbara should have done it live.

Our second example is a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on 12th February – one hour ten minutes in, that is 7.10am. (Remember this disappears after one month.) In this unimpresive interview with Michelle Russell, Head of Investigations at the Charity Commission, it is clear that she had only one simple message and not enough detail to sustain the interview. She appears to be taken aback that Matthew Price, the interviewer, is questioning the competence of the Charity Commissioners themselves. She struggles to cope with what for her was apparently unexpected aggression.

It is the season of sex scandals

It is the season of sex scandals. Post Harvey Weinstein, many things that might in the past have not seemed to be a scandal – potentially are now. I doubt any organisation has no skeletons in the cupboard and I expect most have no idea how they would cope if the spotlight turned on them.

The Orville imagines the rule of law administered by twitter

I cannot finish without recommending a recent episode of The Orville – a brilliant skit on Star Trek running on Fox. In Season 1 Episode 7 Majority Rule, the team visit a parallel planet to Earth, Sargus 4, where the law is administered by popular vote on a planet-wide twitter-like feed. Whilst it is hilarious it is also a bit too close to Earth 2018 for comfort. This is not unrelated to the Oxfam scandal.

 

crisis management

What not to do in a crisis? Follow Ryanair’s example of crisis management!

Crisis management is stressful but not usually difficult. When it comes to what not to do in a crisis, the airline industry has recently been a pretty rich source of case studies (read our view on United Airlines recent problems here). Ryanair’s handling of its recent mass plane cancellations provides yet another example of not following crisis management best practice.

crisis management

If it were any other company, the list of sins could be fatal to its reputation. But Ryanair has never sold itself on customer service (in fact CEO Michael O’Leary has often appeared to enjoy antagonising passengers and his critics) and its management seems to feel that the cheap ticket prices and the destinations it flies to means that most customers will just hold their noses and keep using it no matter what.

crisis management
But for companies that are not so lucky – and do fear the old adage that a reputation can take a lifetime to build and five minutes to lose – there are some simple rules of crisis management best practice to follow to avoid turning a drama into a crisis.

Crisis Management: Preparation, preparation, preparation

Ryanair initially blamed the cancellations on punctuality problems, saying less than 2% of their flights would be affected and that they would still hit their target of 90% of planes arriving on time. (Following the rule that it’s a good idea to use facts to put an issue into perspective.) But with that 2% translating into around 400,000 passengers affected, the storm of complaints on social media, TV, radio and in newspapers was entirely predictable. The company then changed their story and admitted the problem was caused by large numbers of their pilots booking holidays at the same time. Whatever the operational reasons, it seems hard to believe that Ryanair’s managers didn’t know the crisis was coming. And it seems equally unlikely that they suddenly woke up one morning and decided the solution was just to cancel around 50 flights a day and simply not fly large number of their passengers anywhere! The impression of mismanagement continued with a public falling out with the company’s pilots. 

Crisis management: best practice guidelines

So, a quick reminder of some (but by no means all!) crisis management best practice guidelines:

1. Plan ahead and prepare thoroughly – very few crises cannot be foreseen. The timing may not be known but most major issues can be identified and crisis plans developed to tackle them.

2. Agree procedures and make sure everyone in the company who needs to know them is familiar with them BEFORE a crisis hits.

3. Develop media statements and key messages (templates can be developed in advance that can quickly be modified for each situation) and have trained spokespeople ready to go as soon as possible. This preparation also includes identifying how you will have enough people to ensure websites don’t crash, Live Chat questions are answered and phones are answered. If this doesn’t happen, already stressed and angry customers will only be outraged even more.

4. Position your company as taking action to ‘fix’ the problem and make sure you get the tone right: people are more important than profits. While in certain crisis situation the lawyers won’t let companies actually say the word ‘sorry’, spokespeople can use language like, ‘deeply regret’ and ‘very concerned by’ etc.

5. Don’t view the media as the enemy – they can help you get messages across to all your target audiences!

All common-sense steps you would think but amazing how often companies and organisations don’t follow them.

 

If you would like to know how we can help to educate your top team on crisis management or prepare them for crisis interviews, just give us a call. All Media Coach courses are bespoke, we will work with you to make everything we teach directly relevant to your business.

 

Photos used under Wikimedia Creative Commons licence

Crisis Comms: how to say sorry

Crisis Comms: How to say sorry

Crisis Comms should include a basic tenet: know when to say sorry.

“Sorry seems to be the hardest word” sang Elton John back in 1976. And in the world of corporate relations, it would appear to be something company bosses still struggle to say, even when reacting to an obvious and recognised mistake.

Crisis Comms: a new ‘how not to’ case study

None more so than at United Airlines last week, after footage of a passenger being forcibly removed from one of their overbooked flights between Chicago and Kentucky went viral on social media. In the videos, the individual concerned, 69 year old doctor David Dao, was shown bleeding from his mouth after being dragged screaming from the aircraft.
 
There has been much speculation in the press about why United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz – the recipient of PR Week’s ‘communicator of the year’ award only last month – could have handled the situation in a way which has been termed ‘brand suicide’. The videos drew more than 200 million views in China alone, with internet users describing what happened as ‘barbaric’ and ‘horrific’, and with thousands of re-tweets for the Twitter meme ‘United Airlines: board as a doctor, leave as a patient.’
 
Crisis Comms: how to say sorry

Dr David Dao was bloodied as he was dragged off the United Airlines plane. This image and others went viral on twitter.

Crisis Comms: it’s never that simple

The truth is there are a couple of complicating factors here – although neither of them should have prevented Munoz following the three key rules around making public apologies as a business leader, which I will go on to outline below.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Dao was not removed by airline staff. That job was carried out by Chicago Aviation Security Officers – so there was understandable caution in the moments after the event about which organisation should apologise for what. We saw this confusion over who was responsible prevent a speedy apology in both the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case and the chaos around the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5. (Sorry, this is a link to an FT piece behind a paywall but many of our readers will have access to this.)

Secondly, Munoz has two audiences to address: not only the wider public but also his staff. That explains his comment about ‘following established procedures for dealing with situations like this one’ and his pledge to ‘emphatically stand behind all of you’ in a letter to them, which was later leaked to journalists.

Crisis Comms: apology rules

Nevertheless, there are rules about planned corporate apologies which should always be followed in such circumstances:

1)    Say ‘sorry’ and say it quickly
Saying you are ‘upset’ or expressing ‘regret’ (both words used by Munoz in his initial letter) is simply not good enough. Company bosses need to use the word ‘sorry’ – with ‘apology/apologies’ as a second-place alternative – a matter of hours (not days) after the event. Owning up to the problem quickly will limit the damage, which will inevitably follow. There is always pressure from lawyers not to use the ‘sorry’ word but from a PR point of view, it is essential.
 
2)    Empathise with those involved
The passenger concerned should have been the focus of the CEO’s empathy – rather than describing him as ‘disruptive and belligerent’ as in the letter to staff. No one should be mistreated in such a way, and Munoz should have made clear that he recognised this fact. But he should have also widened his focus to take in the distress caused to fellow passengers who had to witness the event. After all, many of the videos later posted on YouTube start with the warning ‘the following footage may be disturbing…’.
 
3)    Promise a fix for the future
Current and future passengers need to know that steps are being taken to prevent something like this ever happening again. Regardless of whose “fault” it was – the airline’s, the aviation security officers, or a mixture of both – they need to fly with the confidence it will not happen to them or their fellow passengers.
 
As events unfolded in the days after the story, the lyrics of Elton John’s hit from more than four decades ago seemed increasingly pertinent: ‘It’s a sad, sad situation. And it’s getting more and more absurd.’