Tragic Times Can Teach US
by Bob Ferchat and Tony Carlson

We have all spent more time in front of the TV this past fall than ever before, listening to and looking at the unfolding horror from New York, Washington and a field in western Pennsylvania.

It is an experience none of us would wish to repeat, but with the western world's axis having shifted, it seems clear that we must steel ourselves for a more dangerous future. For that reason, and many others, it is important that we learn, even from such an emotional and stressful event as this.

To focus just on the communications of the rescue and response process, it is difficult to find a misstep in the behaviour and actions of the leaders. In fact, they serve as a textbook model of crisis management.

Some key points:

1) Immediately upon learning of the event, President Bush did what he could to get to headquarters. In this case, he took several detours before returning to the White House, but this is understandable in light of the clear and credible threat to his person and his office that apparently was still in effect. If Bush can be faulted at all on this score, it is in waiting until the end of the week before visiting the epicenter of the disaster, lower Manhattan. In that, he gave a leg up to former president Bill Clinton, who spread his own considerable brand of comfort first.

2) In his first statements, cobbled together quickly from a air force base in Louisiana, Nebraska and then back at the Oval office, Bush communicated clearly and forcefully that he knew the seriousness of the situation. He also drove home key messages of comfort to the afflicted and resolve to bring the perpetrators to justice, touching the key issues for a country, and a world still reeling in shock from the audacious attack.

3) In every statement by every single person in the process, the human factor received clear top billing. The injured, the safety of those remaining, the dead and the families of the dead - those were the priorities. Repeatedly, people like Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani refused to be drawn into speculation about other issues such as the economic impact. They rightly repeated that such concerns would be worked on once they had done all possible to salve the human wounds.

4) The leadership communicated frequently, even when there was not a lot new to say. In each appearance, they repeated their resolve and determination to hunt down the guilty, but tempered their quiet anger with the admonition that they needed time to gather and analyze the facts. Regardless of the fact that they were saying all the right things, their mere presence was crucial. No one could miss the fact that these men and women were fully involved in the crisis.

5) The spokespersons showed great patience and dignity in the face of relentless media questioning. To a person, they resisted drawing premature conclusions or to be drawn into speculation or casual guessing. Instead, they used the exposure as an opportunity to reiterate their determination to gather and analyze the facts and reassure all that everything that could be done was being done.

6) While a stream of calm, professional people appeared on camera, the leaders were clearly using the fact-gathering period to rally a solid constituency, both within the U.S. and among the world's national and opinion leaders. This would be absolutely critical for the support the protracted response campaign will need.

7) As the leaders quickly worked through the immediate shock, they focused on the actual response to the terrorists. As their thinking evolved, they gradually gave us facts and images that would lead us to the same conclusion. The groundwork for the final decision was as carefully prepared as the decision itself.

It is also useful to note what they did not do. The leadership stayed visible; they did not withdraw at any time. They were never seen or heard to be doing anything other than dealing with the main issue. Everything else was cancelled or done in the background.

There were no blackout periods and never was "no comment" used. If they were unable or unwilling to answer a question, they said so and why. In most cases, it was because they were still gathering facts, or there were security concerns. Perfectly understandable, and acceptable. And no one felt information was being withheld unnecessarily.

Nor, despite the temptation presented by the enormity of the event, did the rhetoric go overboard. It was an unprecedented tragedy of monumental proportion. Yet the metaphors were spare, focused and understated. The leaders let the facts and their emotional . . . human . . . response do most of the talking.

Without for a moment suggesting a parallel between the U.S. terrorist attacks and stressful situations we deal with in business, we do from time to time face crises from natural disasters to layoffs. It would be a waste of an opportunity not to learn from this model of situation management.

In that context, consider these guidelines for crisis leadership:

1) Be visible in your command post, as soon as possible.

2) Be clear that lives, dignity and humanity are the first priority, always. Only when there is security for the people can you proceed. While no one expects absolutes, you must show that you have the human factors at the top of your priorities.

3) Acknowledge with as much detail as possible the seriousness of the situation in order to begin to build the political and moral support for important and sometimes difficult decisions.

4) Communicate frequently to every audience that has a stake in the events. Too often in the case of a business announcement the major communication is to financial analysts who have little or no stake at all in the events.

5) Don't speculate. Avoid leaping to oversimplified explanations of the underlying causes. Explain clearly, forcefully and frequently that a brief period of fact-gathering is needed before any definitive statements can be made or actions taken.

6) Eliminate all unrelated functions from the agenda. Focus on the crisis. And be seen to be so focused.

7) Use the fact-gathering period to gather a constituency for decisions. This is not necessarily consensus building. Rather, it is exposing the relevant facts that explain the final decision.

8) Lead the stakeholders through the facts so that they arrive at the same conclusion.

9) Be serious and fully involved on the human level. You cannot over-expose your concern for and response to the full range of needs people will have in a crisis.

10) Don't stop too soon. Stress is cumulative over as long as twelve months. The combination of a business readjustment, a change in job, and a change in financial state accumulate a stress higher than the death of a spouse. Communications plans and practices should be put in place for the long term.

People are people. Stress is stress. Adversity can create distrust, dissension and discord. Or, it can be an opportunity for credibility, cohesiveness and unity. Great leaders consciously choose.

Bob Ferchat -- former chief executive of companies such as Bell Mobility and Northern Telecom Canada -- and Tony Carlson are the principals of I-Magin-ation Inc., a Mississauga-based company focused on developing innovative content for the Internet. Their book series, Soft Focus - an analysis of why big companies miss technology opportunities that are staring them in the face - is available through their website at

Articles by Bob Ferchat and Tony Carlson | Many more articles on Executive Performance, Creative Leadership and Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Bob Ferchat and Tony Carlson. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading