There are two key things that you should not do in response to a crisis:
1. act incompetently
2. be evasive (blame others)
Sound familiar? Anyone?
On the flip side, there are four things you absolutely should do in response to a crisis situation - but these must be done within the first 24-48 hours. The four things are these:
1. be transparent/honest about the situation
2. take responsibility - i.e., "I'm on the job and I'm accountable"
3. act competently
4. be empathetic - i.e., "I care"
This advice comes via a friend attending a conference in the U.S. today where one of this past day's seminars happened to deal with crisis management, as led by an expert in the field. The discussion was crisis management in the corporate context. However, a propos of events of the day, the Bush response to Hurricane Katrina & events in New Orleans served as a current case study in what not to do as set out above.
Bush, having failed to do what he should within the first 48 hours of the crisis continues to fail to do any of the things enumerated above successfully. Apparently the wisdom in the field of crisis management is that if a company does not respond properly to a crisis within 48 hours, public opinion will crystallize against it. How this will play out with Bush is unknown compared to the typical corporate scandal - the partisan fault lines may be too deep to conform to the conventional wisdom of corporate risk management. The consensus view expressed did seem to be that it was highly unlikely that Bush would recover from his bungled crisis.
What the crisis expert was clear in saying though, was that even if a corporate leader is not sorry - or even if they have acted incompetently - the company can still be fixed. But in order to do so, people want to see the person in charge saying "I'm on the job, taking responsibility and I am sorry for any harm that has been caused."
So the question is, when will Bush and his team learn the basics of crisis management 101?
For a recent success, look no further than WalMart which - whatever you may think of it - immediately moved to guarantee jobs to any of its employees affected by the evacuation, had trucks lined up and ready to go in to the disaster areas and has donated a significant sum ($17 million) to the relief effort.
For the Bush team, it just may be too late.