In A Crisis, Values Matter

crisis
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.

The internet is replete with practical advice on communicating in a crisis including preparation drills, what-if scenarios, media training and do’s and don’ts that generally follow the crisis communicator’s handbook. While strategic planning and tactical preparation are critical to any response, by themselves they dangerously neglect the deep roots at the heart of the response – the fundamental core values of a company. What the company stands for in word and deed form the underpinnings of a crisis response and are on full display for all to judge.

Every crisis manifests information that provides a window into the character of a company. Transparency, integrity and decency will all shine through. Conversely, all the training and preparation money can buy cannot overcome a culture of arrogance, greed or indifference. The fact is, all crises come to an end. How companies come out the other side is largely dependent on their core values.

Consider the oft-cited United Airlines incident from last spring where, despite protests from fellow passengers, security personnel dragged a man kicking and screaming off his flight. His seat was paid for. He was neither unruly or disruptive, just a typical everyday passenger.

The widely circulated and ridiculed tone deaf nature of United’s initial response was itself troubling, but the circumstances underpinning United’s resolve to have this man and three other passengers removed from the flight, even by force, revealed something about the company’s values. From the company’s perspective, it was a priority to get four passengers off the plane and give those seats to four crew members so that they could get to their destination to staff another plane or else United would lose money on a subsequent flight. Even the most artful and empathetic response couldn’t mask what drove this crisis in the first place: That man was dragged off the plane because of company policy.

“Affecting culture takes effort, and it begins with leadership tackling reality.”

All the “friendly skies” promotion in the world could not mask the company’s hardened indifference. Customers were viewed as commodities. That kind of value proposition permeates every level of a company. With the greed-is-good culture overtaking the “friendly skies,” employees were just following policy.

Conversely, consider the value-based response of General Motors CEO Mary Barra to the ignition switch defect that resulted in 31 crashes and 13 deaths. Though barely two months into the job in 2014, she met this crisis head-on. She not only apologized and vowed to make things right and rebuild trust, she was transparent, sincere and followed-through.
Crises surface important insights into a company, but, how you manage it and how you recover, depends on how you respond, and how you respond begins with your values.

Affecting culture takes effort, and it begins with leadership tackling reality. Companies need to dig into their own culture and understand how a company’s values inform its policies, drives the behavior of its people and clarifies purpose. A company’s culture is always
a work in progress. It needs constant nurturing. A company that has strong values and honest relationships with its stakeholders and customers will be more effective and resilient in a crisis, not only because of the residual good will, but because there’s a clear sense of purpose.

A crisis can reveal inner truths about a company. Companies whose policies reflect a core set of values encompassing integrity, honesty, transparency and respect will be apparent in a crisis. As with the General Motors example cited above, it begins with leadership. Leaders must show the way and work diligently on a daily basis to shape the values that underpin a company’s culture and purpose.