A View from Blue Grotto

Monday, September 15, 2008

Houston, we have a problem

Who can forget those infamous words from the crew of Apollo 13 during its 1970 trip to the moon?

And though, now, those words ring hollow to describe the smallest of hurdles, they can still categorize the same magnitude of crisis.

Today Denise Tyrell, spokeswoman for Metrolink, resigned after making statements this weekend regarding the horrific commuter rail crash that has tallied up 26 deaths. Her statements indicated that the failure of a Metrolink engineer, by ignoring a red-light warning signal, caused the crash with the Union Pacific freight train.

Though her statement may be factual, Metrolink, has tried to rescind her comments as “premature,” saying they will wait for the NTSB to investigate.

Lots of companies prepare for and regretfully struggle through emergencies that threaten their public image as well as their bottom line. Think of Tylenol, DuPont, Lockheed Martin, Exxon. Just this year, we had a nationwide warning of possible salmonella contamination of tomatoes.

Twenty-six deaths is definitely a crisis.

How do you prepare for a situation that is so unexpected, so overwhelming, and so grave?

I came across a 2004 interview with Annette Veech, senior lecturer of business communications at the Olin School of Business at Washington University, who acknowledged that the nature of emergencies does not leave a company or organization a lot of time – time to analyze, synthesize, and prepare to deliver a response.

She offered three lessons to consider before a crisis occurs:
1. Expect the unexpected.
2. Own the problem and apologize.
3. Match the facts to spokespersons' words and the company's actions.

The first, expect the unexpected, seems a little trite. But the second and third points are legitimate and I believe can have the greatest impact on your outcomes. Both speak to a company’s authenticity. And both are a reflection of a company’s values and culture.

A company’s values are tested and revealed in times of crisis. What would your organization’s actions and statements reveal about your company? Is your leadership team empowered by your company’s values? Would your spokesperson be able to deliver a sincere, credible, and truthful message?

I was amazed when I first heard of Ms. Tyrell’s statements over the weekend. Refreshing, I thought. Admission moves you to the next step, restitution, and then to regaining trust.

Now, I fear, by trying to take back her statements, and calling for her resignation, Metrolink has simply delayed the inevitable – a suspicion of future statements and conclusions by the families of victims, the communities that rely on Metrolink for transit, and regulators.

Godspeed to the fall guy, or gal, in this case. The Wall Street Journal quoted Ms. Tyrell in an email: “The statement was and is accurate. It was the right thing to do regardless of how ticked off it made the NTSB."

Email me with examples of how you have prepared your leadership and staff to speak and act with the conviction of your company’s values in the face of a crisis.

To view the Washington University Olin School of Business article: http://news-info.wustl.edu/news/page/normal/4352.html

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Christmas comes early

It’s like Christmas at our house.

I love elections. I must admit it – I am a political junkie. Even more so than I am a history junkie. I was riveted to the television these past few weeks, watching every minute of both the Democratic and Republican conventions – the Republican convention being held right here in my home town of St. Paul. What I wasn’t able to watch live, I taped. I mean DVR’d.

I loved Michelle Obama’s speech. I was moved by Fox News commentator Juan Williams’ emotion as he spoke about watching an African American woman speak to the nation as a possible First Lady. I cried during the video introduction of Barack Obama, when he talked about the influence his grandparents had on him as a young man.

I cheered for Sarah Palin as she spoke about the delicate balancing act of mother, wife, elected official and hockey mom {Go Girl Power!}. I cried as she brought that beautiful new baby out on stage and held him, face out, for all of us to see, and to cheer for. I was awed as I shook Henry Kissinger’s hand as he inched along the concourse of the Xcel Center – people mobbing him to have their photo taken with him, to exchange a few words with him, some reaching out just to touch him.

All-in-all I cheered for, was awed by, and inspired by the real meaning of this election, of any election – the history of our country.

The milestones represented by this particular election year interest me most, and might surprise many. Hillary Clinton was not the first woman to run for President. But, she was the first First Lady to seek the top spot. And Sarah Palin was not the first woman to be nominated as Vice President.

Even with the furor over Barack Obama’s campaign, he was not the first African American to run for President. In fact, it was an African American woman, Shirley Chisholm, from the great state of New York to run for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972. Ms. Chisholm was also the first African American to be elected to Congress in 1968.

As I listen to the evening news and ongoing coverage of the election {and for those of you not nearly as excited as myself, as of Primary Tuesday there are only 56 days left} I catch snippets of some great American election trivia. For example, 2008 is the first election to see two sitting Senators face off. I did not know that. Today, I heard an Obama defender cite President Abraham Lincoln’s short experience of only two years in the Senate. I almost laughed out loud. Not at her choice of defense, but of the little-known, and probably never recited factoid about Lincoln. There is a mini-history lesson in every segment on CNN, MSNBC and FOX.

Love it or hate it, the election cycle is a great opportunity to learn, to remember, to appreciate, and to be proud.

Email me with your favorite factoid or American history question from Trivial Pursuit.

And don’t forget to vote on November 4.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.