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.