Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines and, no joke, “PR Magazine Communicator of the Year,” had an awful week. Oscar is now on an “apology for the apology” tour after turning lemons into cyanide.
There are only 3 things, just 3, to remember about crisis management:
1. Acknowledge the issue
2. Top guy / gal takes responsibility
This wasn’t a difficult one. The script should have gone something (or exactly) like this:
“— We fucked up. I mean REALLY fucked up.
— I (Oscar / CEO / guy making 250x what flight attendants earn) take full responsibility.
— Within 48 hours we will produce a definitive plan for ensuring this never happens again.
Finally, see point 1 — we fucked up.”
Life, and happiness, aren’t about what happens to you but how you react to what happens to you. Similarly, the scale of a crisis isn’t a function of the mistake, but how you react to it. Jeff Bezos had an interesting take: big companies fail as they lose sight of opportunity, or doing the right thing, in the pursuit of adherence to policy (“United employees were adhering to procedure”).
People love to forgive, but only if you apologize or acknowledge the issue. Martha Stewart didn’t go to jail for insider trading, but obstruction of justice. She refused to acknowledge the issue or apologize, maintained her innocence, and obfuscated (lied to) investigators. At age 63 Ms. Stewart was incarcerated for five months at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. She still can’t visit the UK because of her conviction.
It appears Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, is an asshole, but he’s an asshole with smart PR people around him, and every time he throws up on himself he takes responsibility and attempts to overcorrect. Despite this, Uber has likely lost more value in 2017 than any firm in the world, but that’s another post.
Markets are a reflection of our emotions, and instinct drives emotions. Our instinct when faced with crisis is fight (“re-accommodating”) or flight (avoid / downplay the issue). Most marriages, in my view, don’t end because of an incident (bad behavior, financial stress, infidelity), but because of one or both parties’ misguided reaction — lying more, being defensive, or torturing the offender. Successful relationships, with the consumer or with loved ones, involve a simple algorithm when a crisis occurs:
— I fucked up,
— I’m sorry, and
— It won’t happen again.
This algorithm typically evokes another:
— Yes, you fucked up, and
— I forgive you.
Crying may have an evolutionary purpose, as it signals surrender (“please stop what you are doing to me”), elicits empathy from those around you, and can help parents locate their offspring. For babies, active crying may be a way of restoring equilibrium after overstimulation. One way to solve this is to mimic the womb with the 5 S’s method — Swaddle, Side-stomach position, Shush, Swing, Suck — developed by Dr. Harvey Karp. BTW. That. Shit. Is. Genius. I’d seriously consider having a third kid (if babies weren’t so awful) just for the chance to impress childless friends with the 5 S’s method.
Crying can also relieve the stress brought on by an onslaught of emotions that are difficult to process. Men aren’t supposed to cry, which likely is a function of the whole surrender thing.
The first time I remember crying, I mean really crying, was at age nine. My mom had left my dad and me (she came back two weeks later to get me). I was watching, on a Friday night at 8:30, pre-DVR, The Partridge Family with my dad. We were sitting on the couch in matching orange terry cloth robes, the height of opulence in 1970s middle-class America. My dad had received these luxury items as swag for playing in a golf tournament hosted by his firm, ITT. He snagged a size small for me, which was still eight sizes too big for a nine-year-old.
Embroidered on the chest of our Tang-colored slouchwear was a red flagstick above green cursive that read “Pebble Beach.” I didn’t know where Pebble Beach was, but I knew important people played golf there, which meant my dad was important. Having not registered the shit that had gone down two weeks previous suddenly crept up on me, and, draped in my Turkish cotton tent, I began to sob uncontrollably. I cried for a good 30 minutes. My dad seemed panicked and kept saying, “I’m so sorry, is there anything I can do?” I would respond “No, I’m just sad.” That was our first real conversation.
I lost the capacity to cry for about 10 years, between ages 34 and 44. Didn’t cry when I got divorced or when my mom died. Just forgot how, I think. I’m obsessed with business, am hugely stressed over it and wrap way too much of my identity and self-worth around professional success. But I’ve never cried because of business. And, trust me, there has been good reason several (hundred) times. However, since my mid-forties, something strange: I. Cry. All. The. Time.
Pretty sure it’s a good thing. Sorrowful crying is looking to the past with sadness, or to the future with dread. Crying as a result of happiness is a response to a moment as if it’s eternal; the person is frozen in a blissful, immortalized present.1 My tears lately (thankfully) have been the latter as I slow down and pursue moments. Moments with friends, moments trying to freeze time with my kids, and (mostly) feeling very in the moment watching movies and TV. At least a third of the episodes of Modern Family get me weepy, and something about being on a plane turns me into a chocolate mess. (Note: do not watch the movie Gleason on a plane.) I also choke up in class more often, in front of 120 kids in their late twenties. I used to feel embarrassed and tell myself I need to keep it together. But as we get older we become more like ourselves, and I’m getting more comfortable with raw emotions and the potential collateral damage. I’ve earned it.
As you get older, and begin to register the finite time we have, you want to freeze time, and have moments where you feel something. Depression isn’t feeling sad, but feeling nothing. Crying, especially in the company of, or thinking about loved ones, feels healthy and joyous. I well up just thinking about it.
Life is so rich,
1 Jack Katz, How Emotions Work. University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 182.