Interview with James Lukaszewski – America’s Crisis Guru®

James Lukaszewski

We are very excited to continue our public relations and crisis communications expert interview series with  James Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA.  Jim is widely known in PR circles (and beyond) as America’s Crisis Guru® and is a globally recognized master practitioner of the modern discipline of crisis communications, a field he helped pioneer and continues to shape.

Lukaszewwski was recently named among the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior for 2013 by Trust Across America. He is profiled in Living Legends of American Public Relations; listed in Corporate Legal Times as one of “28 Experts to Call When All Hell Breaks Loose”; and cited in PR Week as one of 22 “crunch-time counselors who should be on the speed dial in a crisis.”

Penn State University invited Lukaszewski to speak as one of three panelists on the topic of “Integrity in Times of Crisis” during its Bronstein Lecture in Ethics and Public Relations in February 2013. In April 2014, he was recognized by the Minnesota Chapter of Public Relations Society of America with the Donald G. Padilla Distinguished Practitioner Award for his role as a PR educator, ethicist, and ambassador.

Lukaszewski has spent four decades advising, coaching, and counseling the men and women who run very large corporations and organizations to get through and resolve extraordinary problems and critical high-profile circumstances. His broad-based experience ranges from media-initiated investigations to product recalls and plant closings, from criminal litigation to takeovers. He is frequently retained by senior management to directly intervene and manage the resolution of corporate problems and bad news. Almost half of his practice involves civil and criminal litigation. Lukaszewski is a teacher, thinker, coach, and trusted advisor with the ability to help executives look at problems from a variety of sensible, constructive, principled perspectives. He teaches clients how to take highly focused, ethically appropriate action. He has personally counseled, coached, and guided thousands of executives in organizations large and small from many cultures representing government; the military and defense industry; the agriculture, banking, computer, financial, food processing, health care, insurance, paper, real estate development, and telecommunications industries; trade and professional associations; and non-profit agencies.

You’ve been in the crisis response business for more than 40 years. Some call you America’s Crisis Guru. What do you believe, think, or advise that is different from what we hear from most crisis advisors?

Over the years I’ve developed three fundamental beliefs which guide my thinking and the advice I give. First, I believe that all questionable, inappropriate, unethical, unconscionable, immoral, predatory and victim-producing behaviors are intentional. An adult chooses to cross a line, and if it works once, the behavior continues, and expands.

I also believe that all ethical, moral, compassionate, decent, civil and lawful behaviors are also intentional. There is always a clear choice and it is always up to the individual, often the leader to choose the course, or through silence, to signal other less ethical behaviors.

Third, I also believe that behaviors that vilify, damage, demean, dismiss, diminish, humiliate, insult, disrespect and disparage that exceed the boundaries of decency, civility and integrity are, per se unethical.

The two most powerful forces in resolving crisis situations, preserving, protecting and defending reputation are apology, which I define as the atomic energy of empathy. Apology tends to stop bad things from starting and starting bad things to stop. And empathy which I define as positive, constructive actions and deeds that demonstrate decency, civility and integrity while speaking louder than words possibly can. Deeds rather than words.

How do you define a crisis?

The crisis definition I settled on years ago and remains powerfully useful and focused: a people stopping, product stopping, show-stopping, reputation redefining trust-busting event that creates victims and/or explosive visibility.

The most powerful word in this definition is the word victims. In my experience, you can blow things up, burn things down and destroy a lot of property, but if you fail to create victims, it’s just a bad day for someone’s budget, rather than a crisis. The point of this definition is to stay focused on the real impact of the crisis: victims. It is about whether or not the boss gets to keep his/her job and responding to victims’ needs is paramount.

Always start from a management perspective. My fundamental philosophy about advising in every circumstance, but especially in crisis is that all problems, questions, comments, adversity, and crises are management problems before they are any other kind of problem. One of the biggest mistakes we make in communications is that we tend to make so many problems into crises. It may well turn out that way, but the main lesson is you need to start from a management perspective recognizing that communications is a crucial facet of responding, but there are so many of us that constantly relearn, that management rarely starts with communication, they start someplace else and often wind up never getting ready in time for an effective early response. This is the most crucial and irretrievable error management makes.

The error so many communicators make is to call problems crises. Few problems ever are or will become crises. But every crisis, by definition, is a serious problem.

Every genuine crisis threatens the job security of the person in charge, almost never PR advisors and other staff functions. But usually, the boss’ discussions at the supper table at home are quite different from what’s talked about in the office. With all this stress and pressure, bosses have trouble hearing us because we so often talk about what they could care less about.

Recognize this part of leadership and be prepared to ask some questions about it. Yes, you can be fired for this, but generally not. If you can’t help manage this part of leadership in crisis, what good are you, really?

Keep it simple, keep it direct, make it about victims, and management leadership.

Frankly, if all you have is advice on communications, you will not be called very often. Crises and victim creation are huge embarrassments for those in charge. They’re dealing with all of that personal stuff while you’re talking about op eds, tweets and other stuff. Leaders are frightened.

Let’s face it, all leaders and managers think they’re great communicators. In many ways, it’s actually quite true. Whenever I’m speaking to groups of colleagues, I always ask the question of the group, “Please raise your hand if you work for a boss who thinks they’re a bad communicator.” Gets a big laugh, if there are more than a hundred people at least one hand goes up, more laughter.

But the lesson to remember is if communication is all you’ve got, your boss is already calling on others long before they talk to you: their mothers, members of their cohort, PR people they’ve known in their past, lots of others.

And when you do get there, they are not learning from what you talk about, they’re actually mentally debating with you as to whether they could have thought of something more important and better than you can. Every boss at whatever level thinks they’re great communicators. That’s tough competition no matter how good you are. Even tougher than attorneys.

You talk frequently about the realities of crisis situations, what are those you talk about the most?

I refer to these as crisis truisms, meaning just that. These things are working from the moment a crisis begins.

  • Bad news always ripens badly, these situations will get worse, sometimes a lot worse before resolution becomes apparent.
  • Every moment of indecision creates unseen but avoidable collateral damage that will hurt you sooner rather than later.
  • There’s no such thing as 20/20 hindsight because there’s no such thing as 20/20 foresight.
  • Silence is the most toxic, reputation-damaging strategy. It’s unexplainable, unbelievable, and unrecoverable because silence creates permanent suspicion, and management is generally considered untruthful.
  • Critics and victims accumulate.
  • There will always be bellyachers, bloviators, gripers, second-guessers and backbench complainers, many coming from our own profession.
  • Once a critic, enemy, or victim, always a critic, enemy, or victim.
  • Speed beats smart every time. Doing something now is always more beneficial than doing something better later. The longer you wait, the more likely you will be facing these old questions rather than explaining what you’re actually doing. “What did you know and when did you know it?” “So much for holding off and waiting for the smart solutions.” Nobody will care.

What qualifies as a victim in your strategy?

There are three kinds of victims: people, animals, and living systems (a lake, a forest, the atmosphere, someone’s backyard). The victim dimension rarely seems to concern crisis managers or communicators early enough when it should be the primary concern that drives response.

What is your response strategy, from the start?

I call it the grand strategy.  Here it is in summary and then with explanations.

  • Stop the production of victims
  • Manage the victim dimension
  • Communicate internally intensively
  • Notify those indirectly affected
  • Manage the new media, legacy media, bloggers, guessers, bellyachers, people smarter than you

Step 1: Stop the production of victims. Until you do the situation simply gets worse and worse.

Step 2: Prepare to manage the victim dimension. Leaving victim management to the victims themselves, which often happens, or to outsiders leaves you open for immediate and extraordinary criticism, often viewed as an irritating distraction by those to blame. Keep in mind that the greatest threat to a company’s reputation is how victims are treated and cared for. Victims are the permanent keepers of a company’s reputation and credibility. The longer you wait, the harsher you will be dealt with.

Step 3: Communicate internally immediately. Yes, there may be a great deal of external media attention that needs to be dealt with, but what we know about crisis reporting is that most of it is completely predictable. If your planning for crisis response is scenario-based, a part of that preparation is anticipating what various public responses are going to be. One of the major holes in the response strategy is failing to keep the people most important to you and to your reputation up to speed: those who work for you, those who collaborate with you, those who share your vision, those who perhaps provide components for the things you produce.

The reality of the environment of crisis communication is that failure to communicate with key internal audiences authorizes them to communicate on their own. In a crisis we know so little for so long yet we are expected to speak immediately. Communicating promptly, briefly and frequently, internally keeps your base audiences more relaxed and, frankly, less likely to make things up. Remember once somebody makes something up and it gets currency, you own it whether you want to or not.

Step 4: Notify the indirectly affected people. These are partners, collaborators, vendors, anyone who has a problem potentially because you have a problem. The rationale is the same These brief communications that are also available publicly tend to settle people down and solve the biggest problem of all in reputation management during a crisis, communication that is more contemporary with events and responses is more credible.

Remember, your response can be perfect technically, operationally, in many respects, but if you bungle the communications part from the beginning, this is how your response will be remembered and rereported, sometimes for many years into the future.

Step 5: Deal with and manage the self-appointed, self-anointed. This is the new media, the old media, the bloviators, the bellyachers, the bloggers, those who appoint themselves, which includes the news media, to cover your story and talk about it, interpret it and find ways to criticize.

In a crisis, you must manage your own destiny. You need to relentlessly correct, comment on, and clarify errors in reporting, even in blogging and bellyaching. Reporters usually never look back at their own errors, and when they do look back they will reexplore the errors they reported earlier, and find new ones to criticize.

It’s your destiny, if you fail to manage it, more than likely, someone you would prefer not to, will.

What if you don’t know that much about what’s going on in the early going?

We never know what’s going on in a serious way at the very beginning, unless we trigger the negative event ourselves. That’s why it’s a crisis. The reason for my strategic approach is so that we have something to talk about from the beginning: Our strategy and the things we are doing that are concrete and specific to move the process forward. Every one of these steps actually begins to reduce the interest and the inflammability of a crisis situation because we are dealing with the most important aspects of a problem, knowing very little. We are ready for the worst.

The metaphor I like comes from military medicine, the concept of the golden hour. After World War II, U.S. military medicine focused on additional preparations to reduce the loss of life in combat. They determined that the greatest loss of life actually came from the wounded bleeding to death on the way to treatment in the back of a bouncing jeep or ambulance. About that same time a company in Connecticut invented a machine called a helicopter and they actually gave a number of the machines to the military service and said, “Figure out how to use this so we can sell you more.” The army military medicine structure looked at the helicopter as an extraordinary blessing. If you remove the gun turrets from the skids and put litters on those skids, you can transport patients extremely quickly and safely from the battlefield.

When the Korean war broke out, the army medical corps made one additional change and that was they created the concept of the mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) everyone knows what those are. But the helicopter transport concept and putting a MASH at the battle line made them really powerful life-saving approaches. By the end of the Korean war, no matter how badly you were wounded, if you arrived alive at a MASH, the odds were you would leave the MASH alive.

Your reputation is in the same circumstance moving to the crisis response process with about the same timeline.

What are the management behavior patterns that perpetuate trouble during crisis response?

I call it profiles in failure. Sometimes the only way to help leaders avoid embarrassment, humiliating visibility, enormous litigation, and just plain stupidity is to illustrate dramatically the pattern of behaviors and attitudes that lead to catastrophic reputational trouble, during readiness training. These behaviors can be easily recognized and their impact predicted. If you are looking for trouble, here’s the way to quickly multitask your way into long-term difficulty.

1.     Silence:

The most toxic strategy possible. Makes you look like a perpetrator, whether true or not. There is no credible way to explain silence in the face of crisis. Silence is the most frequent top executive career-killer in crisis situations. Crisis causes so many counterproductive, aggressively negative and dumb unanswerable reactions. Ultimately, the collateral damage from silence accumulates to where it becomes the root cause of your problems rather than what’s actually going on, even if your response is otherwise technically done perfect.

2.     Stalling:

Speed beats smart every time. Failure to act immediately, even incorrectly, is impossible to explain or apologize for. Doing nothing, even for what appear to be good reasons, is never believably explainable. Stalling begins the moment all the big shots huddle in a room, close the door, and try to figure things out by themselves, while we wait outside.

3.     Denial:

Refuse to accept the fact that something bad has happened and that there may be victims or other direct effects that require prompt public acknowledgment.

4.     Victim Confusion:

Irritable reaction to reporters, angry neighbors, and victims’ families when they call asking for help, information, explanation, or apology. “Hey! We’re victims too.” “What about all those baseball jerseys we bought for the kids?” How many baseball jerseys equal the death of a child?

5.     Testosterosis:

Look for ways to hit back, rather than to deal with the problem.  Refuse to give in, refuse to respect those who may have a difference of opinion or a legitimate issue. Slap back first.

6.     Arrogance:

Reluctance to apologize, express concern or empathy, or to take appropriate responsibility because, “If we do that, we’ll be liable,” or, “We’ll look like sissies,” or, “We’ll set a precedent,” or, “There will be copycats.”

7.     Search for the Guilty:

Shift blame anywhere you can while digging into the organization, looking for traitors, turncoats, troublemakers, those who push back, and the unconvinceables.

8.     Fear of the Media:

As it becomes more clear that the problem is at least partly real, the media begin asking, “What did you know, and when did you know it?”, “What have you done, and when did you do it?”, and other humiliating, embarrassing, and damaging questions for which there are no really good, truthful answers anymore because you have stalled so long.

9.     Whining:

Head down, finger in your navel, shuffling around, whining, and complaining about how bad your luck is, about being a victim of the media, zealous do-gooders, wacko-activists, or people don’t know anything; about how people you don’t respect have power; and, that you “don’t get credit” for whatever good you’ve already contributed. The louder and longer the whining, the more guilty the leadership looks, especially to victims. And they usually are.

Execute one, some or all of these behaviors in any order and I guarantee trouble, serious reputation problems, and brand damage. By the time you recover – if you do – look for some career-defining moments including involuntary departure, and a new team may replace you and yours.

How do you know what to do if your company has never experienced this kind of problem with the dimensions of a crisis before?

All crises are really event patterns we can recognize if we are ready to. This should be part of your readiness process, identifying likely scenarios and literally working them through as exercises with management. This is actually a pretty enjoyable process for them because this is important and they all have a role to play, which they need to rehearse. By the same token, there is a pattern of behavior and decisions and action that if undertaken promptly, or at least as soon as possible, can begin to mitigate the kinds of problems that develop as a result of inaction, indecision, and imprecision in management and lack of readiness.

Remember, all crises ripen badly.

What do you believe are the most important ingredients of a successful response?

The two most powerful ingredients of crisis response are empathy and apology. To repeat myself, you can actually do a technically perfect response to a crisis, and many prepared companies do. But if you bungle the empathy factor, this is reputation damage that will live long, no matter how perfectly your response was executed. The key thinking here is to recognize that apology, which is shunned from the beginning, is really a leadership concept rather than just a legal concept. Yes, all apologies have legal consequences, but ultimately from a communication point of view, those consequences are predominantly positive. Bosses and lawyers are trying to avoid them.

I define apology as the atomic energy of empathy. Apologies stop bad things from starting and starting bad things to stop. I define empathy as positive, constructive actions and deeds that demonstrate civility, decency and integrity while speaking louder than words possibly can. The key concept here again is that empathy and apology are leadership concepts beyond just legal consequences. The fact is you’re going to be sued if there are victims. Hire more attorneys. But if you really want to get these things under control and put them away, learn how to be empathetic and caring as leaders and advisors of organizations.

How do you fix broken trust?

Real reputation repair depends fundamentally on rebuilding trust. This too is an essential process that can be learned and adopted as part of the response strategy. I refer to it in two ways, one is a process called seeking forgiveness, but the same process applies to rebuilding trust. It involves initiating very early in the process of responding nine crucial steps, which ultimately, in my experience all have to be undertaken eventually if the issues surrounding a crisis event to be fully rectified.

Step #1     Candor: Outward recognition, through promptly verbalized public acknowledgment, that a problem exists; that people or groups of people, the environment, or the public trust are affected; and that something will be promptly done to remediate the situation.

Step #2     Extreme Empathy/Apology: Verbalized or written statement of personal regret, remorse, and sorrow, acknowledging personal responsibility for having injured, insulted, failed or wronged another, humbly asking for forgiveness in exchange for more appropriate future behavior and to make amends in return.

Step #3     Explanation (no matter how silly, stupid, or embarrassing the problem-causing error was): Promptly and briefly explain why the problem occurred and the known underlying reasons or behaviors that led to the situation (even if we have only partial early information).

Step #4     Affirmation: Talk about what you’ve learned from the situation and specifically how it will influence your future behavior. Unconditionally commit to regularly report additional information until it is all out or until no public interest remains.

Step #5     Declaration: A public commitment and discussion of specific, positive steps to be taken to conclusively address the issues and resolve the situation.

Step #6     Contrition: The continuing verbalization of regret, empathy, sympathy, even embarrassment.  Take appropriate responsibility for having allowed the situation to occur in the first place, whether by omission, commission, negligence or stupidity.

Step #7     Consultation: Promptly ask for help and counsel from “victims,” government, the community of origin, independent observers, and even from your opponents.

Directly involve and request the participation of those most directly affected to help develop more permanent solutions, more acceptable behaviors, and to design principles and approaches that will preclude similar problems from re-occurring.

Step #8    Commitment: Publicly set your goals at zero. Zero errors, zero defects, zero dumb decisions, and zero problems. Publicly promise that, to the best of your ability, situations like this will be permanently prevented.

Step #9     Restitution: Find a way to quickly pay the price.  Make or require restitution. Go beyond community and victim expectations, and what would be required under normal circumstances to remediate the problem. Pay more now or much more later. 

But the big question is, how do you get enough attention early enough in crisis to get all these things understood, much less underway?

The Answer is relatively simple and in two parts. Part one: stop talking about crisis management, it’s a PR term that keeps making all public relations people look like chicken littles, screaming that the sky is falling. Instead, and we learned this in our experience in recovering from 9/11, the management term for what we’re talking about is readiness. When you frame handling adverse situations as readiness, it’s an entirely different conversation. The moment you mention crisis management, executives respond immediately, defensively, something like, “Well, we can’t prepare for everything. Why do we need to do something like this for something that will clearly never happen to us?” Talking about crisis management is always a negative, defensive, sometimes irritating discussion for leadership. The larger the organization, the larger and more powerful the leadership, the more omnipotent they tend to feel when it comes to negative events of any kind. When talking about readiness we can explore a menu of options to be ready for various circumstances, rather than constantly debating whether some likely adverse situation will ever happen or not.

Part two: avoid the deadly mistake of beginning preparation for crises without bringing the boss in from the very start. Believe me, when I tell you that if you skip this step you can be replaced. This is a crucial step in building the trust of those you hope to persuade and advise.  Very few situations that we currently call crises will redefine a leader’s career, much less create victims. More crises plans (perhaps most) never truly get off the ground because they were started without senior-level input, progressed without senior level guidance, including stopping that process. The typical management response to crisis: huddling in a room, sometimes for hours, is going to happen. Only the boss can shorten this process, especially if he’s in on the preparations.

When you study crisis response, and all of us have to, the real response has little to do with the news media, it has to do with executive behavior, response to career-defining moments, and creating the elements of failure described earlier. Focusing on readiness will be one of the key ways you become a trusted strategic advisor, well before emergencies occur.

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