Before James Comey headed up the FBI, he served as general counsel of Lockheed Martin Corp. While at Lockheed, he spoke at the National Security Agency about how studying law is similar to the education intelligence analysts receive. He elaborated on what he called a “uniquely lawyerly ability … to transport ourselves to another time and place.
The ability to present facts to an imaginary future fact-finder, in an environment very different from the one in which we face current crises and decisions…we know that our actions, and those of the agencies we support, will be held up in a quiet, dignified, well-lit room, where they can be viewed with the perfect, and brutally unfair, vision of hindsight.”
I would argue that same skill set is present in the men and women who practice the specialized art and craft of crisis management and crisis communications. They, too, must be able to quickly perform a situation analysis (often within the fog of information overload), look for connections and quickly play out a variety of scenarios, also knowing they will be second-guessed if things go awry.
And just as important as lawyers giving red light/green light counsel, so must crisis management counsel be able to speak truth to power.
I’m certainly not comparing the life or death decisions that must be made in an instant when political or military commanders authorize a drone strike with recent PR nightmares at United Airlines, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo, among others.
Bad things do happen to good companies, people, agencies, nonprofits, schools and hospitals. But as Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” And when those things do happen, it’s important to have both lawyers and seasoned crisis managers in the room, each with the ability to say “yes” or “no” with conviction, backed up with the kind of experience that can’t be found in a book.
Why? Because C-suite leaders huddling in a boardroom over a hot crisis often get caught up in groupthink, reinforcing one another’s conviction that spinning, sticking their heads in the sand or prevarication will make the crisis go away. Lawyers, looking to protect further loss, frequently counsel silence as a response strategy.
And while internal communications staff may send up flares when leadership is heading down a dangerous reputational path, C-suiters often discount the counsel of subordinates. Seasoned crisis managers bring third-party objectivity to the table and have only one goal: push back stridently and whenever necessary to protect the client’s reputation in the Court of Public Opinion.
In his talk at the National Security Agency, Comey did say that “it takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say no when it matters most. It takes moral character. It takes an ability to see the future. It takes an appreciation of the damage that will flow from an unjustified yes (and) when it can be, to no when it must be.”
I couldn’t agree more. ●
Bruce Hennes is CEO at Hennes Communications.