Archive for Preparation, preparation, preparation

Apple and Steve Jobs get it right – again

Every business – yes, every business of whatever size – should have a crisis management plan. Part of that plan should be what happens if the boss (or the business innovator or, indeed, the holder of any post on which the future of the business depends) becomes ill or dies.  Death in service is not an issue to be considered only from an employee’s pension policy point of view. Nor is it just about keeping the organisation running for the short term – keeping the lights on, the door open, the phones working, the computers running, the orders coming in and the products and services flowing out – while a successor is found.

When an employee, in whatever role, has a massive impact on the success of the business, having a succession plan is essential. Who will lead the organisation through the turbulence and beyond – keeping staff committed, customers confident, suppliers confirming orders? Who, in the case of a business that is a market leader known for its groundbreaking products, will be responsible for driving innovation?

Mitigating for those extreme circumstances takes courage. Talking about someone’s death, particularly in their presence and when the risk looms, is a tough task. But it must not be shirked out of sensitivity or fear.

In the case of Apple and Steve Jobs, who died last Wednesday (5th October), the succession planning task was exceptionally difficult. Someone so focussed, so committed, so fixed on a business is very hard to replace. Steve Jobs was a one-off. There will, of course, be other one-offs – but their one-offness will be different and it might take years to find him or her. Another option, then, is to innovate ahead. That is why Steve Jobs left four years’ of new products waiting to be developed and launched. Apple was his life – so much so that he sanctioned an official biography so his children could know him and understand why he worked so intensely. It was natural for him to want to ensure Apple’s future.

Looking ahead – in so many dimensions – was what Steve Jobs did all the time. He clearly wanted to buy time for Apple by leaving it able to continue rolling out new products during the succession gap, to ensure its future for as long as he could. Replacing him will not be easy.

In the right tone

There is another smaller (for Apple) but fundamental (for many businesses) aspect that Apple got right. Businesses which face events that have an impact on others’ lives (such as deaths), or their own success, should be prepared for an instant change to their website. Airlines are well ahead of most businesses – with ready-to-launch dark sites to replace their usual websites. After all, if a plane crash results in multiple deaths, it is not appropriate for the home page to advertise holidays or display photos of people laughing with joy as they run through sunkissed surf.

What that dark site should contain depends on the business. In Apple’s case after Steve Jobs’ death, there were several options. What it has chosen could not be more effective or more appropriate. In Apple’s typical sleek, clear, sharply-focussed trademark way its home page is a simple tribute: a photograph of Steve Jobs, his name and his life span. There is no need for a detailed obituary. This home page says it all.

Apple tribute to Steve Jobs - no words needed

Apple has, yet again, shown exemplary crisis management planning and response. All businesses should take note.

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Gordon Ramsay’s reputation hit again

Poor old Gordon Ramsay. One of the chefs who featured in Kitchen Nightmares USA, Joe Cerniglia, has apparently committed suicide in New York. This is ghastly news in itself. Inevitably, it has given the media (which has it in for him at the best of times) the chance to remind us that Joe’s suicide is not the first to be linked to Gordon Ramsay. In 2007 Rachel Brown, who featured in Hell’s Kitchen 2006, killed herself in Dallas.

Gordon issued a statement immediately after Joe’s death was announced – as, indeed, he should have done. But getting the communications right immediately after a crisis is only the start. Being linked, however tangentially, with the suicide of one person, never mind two, has massive implications for the formats of his shows, the selection of participants, agreements with those participants – and his behaviour during those shows.

It also has implications for his business. With public opinion widely divided (it’s love him or loathe him, with the loathers being most vocal) how many more people will decide not to eat in his restaurants, stay in his hotels, buy his books, take part in his shows – or watch them? Will his detractors criticise him even more – and what will that do to his already tarnished reputation?

Gordon was lucky that, in America at least, a clinical psychologist said (on CBS news, broadcast throughout the USA) that, while the suicides of Joe and Rachel might have been triggered by the show, they were more likely to have been driven by underlying “major problems”. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.

Gordon must now prepare not just for further criticism from this latest crisis but also for other potential crises involving individuals, his shows, his books, restaurants, hotels … his overall business. Crisis management is all about reputation management. And the bigger your reputation (Gordon’s is international) and your personality (Gordon’s is far from small) the bigger the task. When your reputation is driven by your personality, it’s almost always going to be one step forward and two steps back. Which means spending a lot more time behind the scenes, prepping. Poor Gordon.

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BP just can’t help itself – the world agrees

Once you are on a downward spiral it’s impossible to turn round and go up. At least that’s how it is for poor, beleaguered BP.

Not only is its CEO, Tony Hayward, gaffe prone; so is its chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg. Self-deprecating humour that isn’t understood in the US, is one thing. To refer to people affected by the oil gushing into the Gulf as “small people” is another. Of course we know what C-HS was trying to say: he meant ordinary citizens. It just didn’t come out right. But, with memories that go jogging back to Imelda Marcos calling her subjects “little people”, C-HS’s comment was more than an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

Meanwhile, blowing my own trumpet a bit, I got a call out of the blue on Wednesday – from the BBC World Service “World, Have Your Say” programme. They had seen this blog and read that I felt sorry for Tony Hayward. Would I be prepared to go on Thursday’s programme and talk for about 20 minutes? No! was my instant response. And that was no way to manage my own mini-crisis. Fortunately (for me) they persuaded me (a little flattery helped, I’m sad to admit) and suddenly I had to put into practice everything I preach. Starting with preparation, preparation, preparation.

I have a persuasive anecdote which I use in crisis media management training courses so I’ll save that for then. This example isn’t second hand.

You can’t do enough. Prepping takes hours. I’d been up late thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to come across and was nowhere like ready. I spent the morning, thanks to a client changing our plans, honing points and fine-tuning back-up info to illustrate points. Thankfully, a colleague offered to cancel a meeting and, goodness, I needed that extra time. I chanted bits out loud, trying to set them in stone (or at least in grey matter). I typed notes in columns: points to make (far too many); what BP did wrong (a very long list); what BP did right (one thing); background info (yards). I edited. I added. I cut. I pasted back in. I researched some more. My palms became very sticky. I recited and recited as if I were going to appear on Broadway. I changed quickly (it was only radio but who might I bump into?) and I set off, collected by BBC taxi, intent on refining my three main points, my anecdotes, my extra bits – everything – on the way.

Stuck in no-moving traffic, a car next to ours had Radio 4 blaring a commentary on the cruel slaughtering of Tony Hayward by US journalists just before he faced the US Congress. Swotting notes became a lower priority; I listened to the latest – feeling even more sorry for this non-media-savvy guy.

I arrived just as the programme went on air – ie late. And I now have a second authoritative piece of advice to give. The first (irrelevant to me on radio) is: if you are appearing on a television programme and are offered make-up, accept. This is nothing to do with vanity; it is about recognising that the broadcaster knows its interviewees look better without shiny noses or peculiar complexions. And the second titbit is, if the programme asks if you’d like a taxi to pick you up, accept. Yes, in this era of austerity, publicly funded organisations need to cut back and I did feel guilty. But, as I found out, if you get stuck in traffic and arrive late, it helps if it’s not your fault. (And I took up the offer of a taxi home, too, and very glad I was as concentrating for an hour left me dazed and confused and I’m not sure I’d have made it to the tube.)

It was hard work but it was also a lot of fun. I was the only person in the studio; contributors spoke down the line from the US, India, Nigeria and the UK; opinion on the other side of the Atlantic is mostly poisonous – there is no hanging onto pride to bring a bit of balance; the newsreader slipped in and slipped out again like silk; I ran out of water and rather haughtily summoned some more – what a prima donna! – and I managed not only to keep my cool but also to say what I needed to say. More or less.

It feels a bit egotistical to say this but … you can catch the programme on BBC iPlayer for a week on one of these two links: or

How did I do?  My crisis to manage was to ensure, as far as I could, that I would be seen to do what I advise my clients to do. I stumbled over one question (I’d never castigate a client about that; it’s a human reaction); I said “um” a couple of times (but not, I think, to an irritating extent); and I missed a couple of chances to make other points (but this was a roving discussion where mixed views mattered). Did I prepare three main points? Yes. Did I put them across? Yes. Did I have anecdotes for each? Yes. Did I use them all? No but that’s typical. Did I vary my pace and my voice enough to engage the audience? That’s for you to decide. Let me know what you think – all comments welcome and I’d rather have brutal honesty than polite fudge.

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Another gaffe from the BP gaffer

Never ad lib. Not during a crisis. It’s a golden rule. Another is not to speak of personal feelings unless they relate to the people who have been affected by the disaster. If Tony Hayward’s comment “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” was in his script, he was either given bad advice, or he ignored good advice, or he spoke off the cuff. We may never know which – but my suspicion is that it was a spur of the moment comment. It missed the mark.

And he did it again. After making a very sensible statement in his first sentence: “It’s right that I should be the lightning rod because it allows everyone else to get on with their jobs.” he wrecked it by adding un-chosen words: “I’ve got a pretty thick Kevlar jacket and I’m so far unscathed. No one has actually physically harmed me. They’ve thrown a few words at me, but I’m a Brit. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

As anyone who has ever been involved in crisis management knows, exhaustion and pressure take their toll. Adrenaline kicks in but it only serves to keep you going; it does not help maintain rational thought. That’s why businesses have crisis management plans: prepared in calm times, away from unusual pressures, measured, tempered, rounded – and to be followed. Of course, even the best plan will need to be adapted but, if it is well-crafted, it will convey the tone that should be maintained, reminding those under pressure not just of what they should say but also how to say it. Mid-crisis is not the time to deviate wildly; if your plan is sound, all that’s needed is a little adaptation.

As for expressing your feelings, the feelings that matter are those you have for the people who have been affected. If yours is a genuine response, it will be etched on your face. Likewise, if you are being disingenuous it will show. Remember Putin appearing after the Polish air crash? There was no doubting the sincerity of his feelings or the gravity with which he was taking his role. He didn’t quip about being dragged away from his everyday life – or brag about being so thick-skinned that it wouldn’t touch him.

It is incredibly easy to drop your guard when you are under relentless pressure. It is also easy to get ratty, curmudgeonly, annoyed at yet another barbed comment or sniping question. The temptation to wrap up questions, interviews or press conferences with neat one-liners or self-deprecating jokes, will be huge. Don’t. At the risk of repeating myself, repeat yourself by sticking rigidly to your script.

I feel sorry for Tony Hayward. His performance at his conference call with analysts showed him to be absolutely on top of his brief as CEO. He is, like all of us, prone to being human and dropping his guard was his failure. Now his future looks bleak and his present even bleaker. He will feel overwhelmed, shattered, worried, displaced, under attack and, probably, rather alone. If ever there was a time for him to to learn his lines, this is it.

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An unprepared duchess gets it so very wrong

Having praised Fergie for her hands-up-I-did-it response when she’d been caught selling her ex-husband’s influence, I must now put her in the getting it wrong category. It is good crisis management to do as she did at the start. It is bad crisis management to follow it up with an unprepared meander through a self-obsessed stream of consciousness, if consciousness it was.

This is where preparation becomes the point. No one should ever submit themselves to a media interview unless they are as sure as it is possible to be that they will not end up in submission. And being sure only comes after diligent preparation including rehearsals. Hoping for a sympathetic response by exposing an inner vulnerability just doesn’t cut it – especially if your reputation is already shaky.

There may be times when business leaders have to put themselves in the spotlight – and sometimes they will need to do so very speedily. Being prepared means anticipating the worst well in advance so that when it happens you are ready. There is no point in relying on a quick run through answers to possible questions while you are in the back of a cab on the way to the studio. That is not preparation; it is risky recklessness.

If you have a crisis management plan, well done. But when did you last shake off the dust on it and check through it, making sure both that it is up to date and that you are up to speed? And if you haven’t got one … be prepared for the sort of counter-attack Fergie has had today – lambasted around the world in newspapers, on radio and television, on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and surely not in only one blog …

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Polish air crash: risking reputations

Today’s tragedy in Russia is unprecedented. Three things strike me. First, did the Polish government anticipate that such a crisis might occur, and prepare what to do and what to say in its aftermath? Secondly, how hard it must be for the families of ordinary passengers who were killed in the crash (in this case, the crew) when so much publicity and talk is about the deaths of government and military leaders. Thirdly, the situation is instantly complicated when there are rivalries or tensions between those involved: Poland and Russia.

Russia’s Putin appeared very swiftly, the impact of the tragedy etched on his face, taking control of the investigation. Good move. Meanwhile, the Russian flight control centre was swift to condemn the crew, by which they mean the pilots, for allegedly ignoring advice to divert and land elsewhere – presumably to place the blame firmly on Poland. Not a good move.

We in the UK must, I hope, have a crisis management plan in the event of major politicians and leaders being killed at the same time. There are several occasions a year when they are gathered together – or, at least, when significant groups of them are together. And, as most of them will be significant events – the state opening of parliament, the Mansion House speech, visits from foreign heads of state, royal weddings and funerals – security will be intense and massive, reducing the risk of a catastrophe. I hope there are rules about how many of them fly together, to minimise those risks – as with the monarch who never flies in the same plane as the heir to the throne, as with the US president and vice-president who are not allowed to fly together, and as with corporates where, typically, no more than two key leaders travel together precisely to ensure that the business can be run if those leaders were to be involved or killed in an accident.

I hope whatever plan we have takes into account the need to stress that the lives of ordinary people affected by any incident matter just as much – and to keep emphasising the point. The effect on and the grief of their family and friends must be recognised.

As for allegations about the pilots ignoring instructions, it is unusual for any facts about a crash to be known so soon afterwards. Typically, the black box needs to be analysed before facts emerge. If the comments are an attempt to shift blame … tut, tut, tut. And how might it make the pilots’ family and friends feel, perhaps unnecessarily? What might it do to the relationship between Russia and Poland if the black box reveals otherwise? And how will that affect Russia’s standing in the world? It’s far too early to assume that anything is fact.

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