Washington and Crisis, a Unique Relationship

By Michael Robinson

Crisis communications and Congressional hearings are inevitably intertwined, proving the adage that the most dangerous place to be in Washington is between a politician and a TV camera.

The recent testimony by Volkswagen Group of America President and CEO Michael Horn is a case in point. In addition to the inevitable picture of the witness raising his or her right hand to be sworn in — and yes, the committee does this on purpose — he initially hit the right notes before going flat.

The New York Daily News captured the scene perfectly: “While under oath, Horn admitted that the illegal software installed in the TDI-models produced between 2009 and 2015 were ‘for the express purpose of beating tests,’ as it was phrased by Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania. ‘It was installed for this purpose, yes,’ Horn said. This isn’t a surprise given the repeated apologies from Volkswagen higher-ups, including Horn, but it’s still nice to hear it stated so resoundingly.”

But then, under the sub-head, “Execs pass the buck,” the News continued: “Horn claimed Volkswagen’s top officials had nothing to do with the emissions tampering. ‘This was not a corporate decision,’ Horn said, instead placing the blame on ‘a couple of software engineers’ who he said installed the software.”

Unfortunately for VW, the company failed to observe some primary tenets of navigating a public affairs crisis: 1) You can’t defend the indefensible, and 2) The words “I am sorry” and “we apologize” are necessary prerequisites for any senior executive to utter before anything else he or she says will be heard.

Indeed, the reality is that companies and high profile individuals who are subject to the Beltway Kabuki Theater do not always have to come across as the wrongdoer. In fact, with advance planning, careful preparation, and the right communications strategy, organizations can pierce through the background noise and articulate their own narrative when faced with a high profile public affairs crisis situation. Specifically:

Engage in realistic and comprehensive scenario planning. The Pentagon calls it their “Red Team” — a vertically-integrated unit that forecasts the worst-case scenarios precisely so that the appropriate courses of action, leaders, and materials can be aligned ahead of time. Take the time to really imagine what could go wrong (not just an oil spill, but one that is from the undersea well that doesn’t stop, for example). And keep in mind that the larger the organization, the more important it is to engage in this practice at corporate headquarters, in operating divisions, and out in the field.

Deeply understand the organization. Know its business, culture, and stakeholders (internal and external) in order to create the right system so that the right information gets to the right people at the right time, and decisions can be made accordingly. Often, it is helpful to get outside assistance to bring a fresh eye to this analysis.

Get the tone of the messages right. Understanding that in the event of a major crisis, the notion that a multi-billion dollar company is the victim simply won’t fly. That is especially true when it comes to data breach and cybercrime. From Target’s 2013 breach to the revelation last year that the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) systems had been exploited, large organizations are expected to have the right safeguards in place.

Practice, drill, and rehearse. Disasters that are well-handled from the beginning are generally not those that attract media and Congressional interest. Knowing that, companies should commit to annual (or, even better, biannual) crisis exercises. Bring in outside facilitators and be ready to experience the time-compressed lifecycle driven by Twitter, Facebook, 24×7 cable coverage in 2016. Make flexibility part of this practice, understanding that what you know in Hour One on Day One, will be wrong (or, at least, out of date) by Day Two. And to be effective, force disagreements during these drills (CEO v. Chairman or General Counsel v. Marketing), so that they can be understood and resolved in advance.

Measure the tangibles outcomes as well as the intangibles. Ask as many questions as possible to evaluate your team’s readiness for the real thing. How did the company do in this simulation? Were decisions made quickly enough, with the right messages? Is the crisis team too big/too small/just right? Do members of the team know their roles and are the teams in the field equally prepared?

Once a Congressional hearing has been announced, or even if individual Members have taken to social media to raise the issue, companies often feel a sense of paralysis. But there is no need for that. In fact, companies do have resources at their disposal and they should use them. This includes:

Be proactive in telling your story. You know it best and nobody else is going to help you until you begin to come to your own defense.

Recruit and deploy supporting third parties who can provide business, economic, statistical, legal, and other critical analysis in your favor. And be sure they are honest about their relationship with you.

Embrace transparency. Too many companies in Washington have, over the years, funded Astroturf organizations (essentially, sock-puppet advocacy groups) to defend them. Be proud to tell your story.

Engage in social media and with new digital outlets. It’s coin of the realm in politics today, an instant opinion poll if you will. A December 2015 Pew Research Center study found that: “reporters for niche outlets, some of which offer highly specialized information services at premium subscription rates, now fill more seats in the U.S. Senate Press Gallery than do daily newspaper reporters. Also increasing in number are reporters for digital news publishers — some of which focus on niche subjects, others on a broad range of general interest topics. In 2009, fewer than three dozen journalists working for digital-native outlets were accredited to the Press Gallery. By 2014, that number had risen to more than 130 — roughly a four-fold increase.”

Not unlike business interruption insurance or D&O policies for board members, companies that make an investment today in planning for tomorrow will reap the benefits many times over.

The November elections, the August Summer Olympics, and one or two Congressional hearings are all events that can be calendared now. For the corporate executive who ends up under the klieg lights in that hearing room, so too should the preparation.
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Michael W. Robinson is Managing Director of ICR.