Dave Bayless, Vice President
One year ago, I had an opportunity to talk to a group of marathon race directors and marathon medical directors from across the country about something that keeps many of them up at night: their readiness to effectively manage a crisis and communicate in the midst of unfolding crises.
The discussion wasn’t so much about the tactics of crisis communications as it was about leadership. I told the group of seasoned race planners and doctors that, more than anything, effective crisis communications is a function of effective leadership.
One year after that presentation, and just months following the Boston Marathon bombing, a premium has been placed on crisis leadership like never before.
Leaders who make the conscious decision to communicate effectively, assertively and forthrightly when the devil is at the doorstep have already won half the battle. Leaders who decide to “own” their organization’s message in the midst of crisis are well positioned to weather the storm with their reputations, integrity and, most importantly, their organizations fully intact.
The other side of that coin is not so upbeat. Those who fail to demonstrate leadership in a crisis often seal their own fate.
As is the norm during these kinds of presentations, I brought a series of video clips and case studies to demonstrate the good, the bad and the ugly of crisis communications. Unfortunately, the well in which to draw the bad and ugly is overflowing with examples.
The first case study had to do with a certain congressman from New York City who weaved a tale of his Twitter account having been “hacked” by unknown, nefarious pranksters hell-bent on ruining his reputation. We know how that story unfolded.
The congressman lied, obfuscated and misled the press and his constituents for several days before finally coming clean and “taking full responsibility” for his behavior. This should be Exhibit A in the politician’s handbook of what NOT to do when confronted with a crisis of character.
The congressman eventually resigned and vanished from the spotlight. He also took his rightful place along with Penn State University, Exxon and BP’s Tony Hayward on the Mount Rushmore of how not to lead in times of crisis.
The example elicited several nods among the group and a few lightbulbs went off. Crisis management is more than saying and doing the right thing. It’s about leading from the front and facing the challenge head on.
Now, just one year later, a sense of déjà vu surrounds the subject of the earlier case study. For marathon planners, however, things will never be the same.
The former congressman is now a candidate for mayor of our nation’s largest city. New allegations of impropriety have surfaced and it would appear that he has not learned much about leading in the face of crisis. He remains stubbornly in the race to become the leader of the world’s economic capital despite plummeting poll numbers and calls from Democratic leaders to step down.
Meanwhile, the horror that took place on Boston’s Boylston Street on April 15th has race planners looking at everything they do through a new lens.
Since that tragic day, I have thought often of those race organizers and the sleepless nights they now must be enduring as they plan their own events. On top of all the other concerns they have about the countless challenges staging a 26.2 mile race must present, their minds are now occupied by backpacks and pressure cookers.
The Boston Marathon bombing has redefined, at least for the time being, how people view such events. That redefinition challenges major event planners to communicate a message of confidence and safety to a weary public. Doing so effectively means leaders must strike a delicate balance between communicating readiness to handle the unexpected while also encouraging all to be willing, enthusiastic participants in what has always been, and will always be, a celebration of human accomplishment and endurance.