Top-of-Mind Leader

Perhaps bad things won’t happen if you don’t think about them. Most
leaders, like most humans in their personal lives, avoid planning for disasters. Because it is usually a thankless task, we often don’t take action until after a crisis has hit us, someone we know, or someone who is like us or in a very public profession like ours.

But we do not have the fantasy of safety anymore. Ironically, now more than ever our citizens look to us for the safety they seek in their community and workplace.

More than many other kinds of people they trust their government professionals to do the right thing.

Responding quickly, fully, and truthfully is the only way to keep the faith of the people you serve, inside and outside your government agency.

In advance of an emergency or attack by critics, your agency needs a crisis response plan, and the opportunity to practice it. When bad news strikes, almost immediately, people can learn the “truth” – in several conflicting versions – compare their views, and see how those views stack up with those of “the general public.”

Like a tennis game on fast-forward, the ball of “information” and opinions bounces back and forth at warp speed. Some organizations might still be trying to choose a spokesperson while the ball has already made several trips both ways, right over their heads, and they aren’t yet participating in the game about their issue.

Bad news always travels faster than good news. What can you do to protect your or your organization’s reputation in the face of a future crisis – inaccurate, incomplete, or biased government or otherwise official or media announcement; or an attack from someone, especially a credible, powerful or well-known figure?

Here are some suggestions:

~No, I Do Not Beat My Wife!

If you are asked a negative, emotion-charged question, do not repeat it when you respond. Choose your own playing field and sound bite. Directly characterize the question from your perspective on the situation, then answer it. Be direct and specific with your facts, action you will take and your timetable for when you will be able to tell them more. Do not begin your remarks with lengthy qualifiers as it will appear that you are attempting to dodge the question. Provide the supportive information as you elaborate.

Do not attack or mock the reporter. Your genial, straightforward style can stand in stark contrast to others.

~ Open to Public View

Have an “open” face – that is, with eyebrows slightly raised, and cheeks and mouth were slightly softened, free of tightness.


Sound artificial? Consider what is at stake for you and for your government agency. Perceptions color reality. If you look upset, or evasive, even when you are telling the truth, people may doubt you and may not like you.

Ways to Face a Crisis Before it Happens

1. Picture the Situation and Put in the Practice Before You Need it.

You can’t anticipate every possible disaster, but you can presume the most likely possibilities, at least in broad-brushstroke scenarios. Identify the worst-case scenarios your company might face and the inside and outside experts that would be most credible spokespersons. What fact-finding and decision-making process and public position would your organization take? Who would be involved in approving that position? If your organization were in some way to blame or at fault, what process do you have to ensure that your agency responds with of integrity?

2. Get Your Facts or the Facts Will Get You.

How would the key decision-makers be placed in communication with each other quickly so they could be informed and make a joint decision? How fast would they would commit to making a decision?

Would all of them be involved in the decisions related to financial and political commitments involved in decision-making?

Who outside your government agency should be contacted first to be informed of the organization’s stance and action? Who inside? Who are your most powerful allies and critics, in general and on this kind of situation?

Who could counter each critic? Who, outside your organization, would be most likely to comment on the crisis first (which reporters, other experts, citizen critics other government officials, and so on)? What approach would each of these people take (positive, neutral, or negative) toward your agency’s situation and subsequent position? How knowledgeable and credible would they be? Who are your credible current and potential outside advocates in these situations? How can you deepen their knowledge, support, and able advocacy of your government unit, in advance of such situations?

3. Be Vividly Specific and Compelling.

In general, what is the most vividly specific and accurate characterization of your government agency you would give in any discussion? Is it of interest and understandable to those outside kind of work? Strip your language of jargon and abbreviations that are not widely understood.

~Verbal Snapshots Penetrate the Mind and Linger

Speak in word pictures. Whoever most vividly characterizes a situation usually determines how others see it in their mind’s eye, think about it, discuss it with others, and eventually decide about it.

4. Be Brief to Build Rapport.

Your brevity brings you other benefits. You are less likely to be misquoted. The interviewer stays engaged and feels more comfortable, because he feels in control as he guides the questions. You have more opportunities to complete your comments naturally with your short aside – the positive characterization you have created of your company, received feedback on, and practiced shortly after reading this article.

5. Make Unlikely Allies Before You Need Them.

Conduct a Stakeholder Analysis in which you and your associates in top management identify all of the key influencers who can alter people’s perceptions of your government group. These influencers might include leaders of civic or special interest groups, stock analysts, reporters (industry, business, consumer, and other beats), community leaders, government vendors and elected officials.

Then match each key influencer with a “key contact” in your government organization – ideally one who already has a relationship with that person that the influencer can maintain and nourish by providing genuine support for that person’s interests and for those they share, unrelated to your agency.

8. Be the First to Say You’re Wrong When You Are.

Say you are sorry. Say it soon. Prove you mean it. Say it in person, if at all possible. Say it first to the person or persons most damaged, no matter how much you’d rather avoid that uncomfortable situation. Otherwise, the situation will metaphorically stick to your feet like tar paper, forever pulling people’s attention toward it and away from any subsequent good actions you take. You’ve made the taint potentially indelible, the stink longer-lasting.

~ Potential Future Statesmen / Heroes Out of Ashes.

More than any other kind of situation, there can be no ambiguity about the steps you must take if you want your government agency to have future effectiveness. For those rare instances when you or your organization is in the wrong or has caused damage to others, the sooner and more heartfelt your apology, the more sincerely and positively you will be perceived and the more quickly the forgiveness can begin, especially if your apology is directly coupled with your explicit and adequate plan to rectify the matter.

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